How to tell if a child’s sexual behaviour is age appropriate

Do you know how to recognise worrying sexual behaviour in children and young people? Whether you’re a parent, carer or other protective adult, our traffic light tool will help you to understand whether a child’s sexual behaviour is age appropriate. By understanding what’s healthy and expected behaviour, you will be better equipped to identify and address behaviour that could be harmful.

We all know that children pass through different stages of development as they grow. Each child is an individual and will develop in their own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child’s age and developmental stage.

If you’re a professional working with children, please visit Brook for materials that are designed for and by professionals.

To download our traffic light tool leaflets, to order printed copies, or to find Welsh versions, visit our Parents Protect website.

Using the traffic light tool to understand a child’s sexual behaviour

We have used a traffic light framework to help you in identifying if a child’s sexual behaviour is green, amber or red.

Traffic light glowing green, amber and red

Green

These are natural and expected behaviours. This doesn’t mean that you would want these behaviours to continue, but they do provide an opportunity to talk, teach, and explain what’s appropriate.

Amber

These can be of concern and have the potential to be outside safe and healthy behaviours if they persist. They require a response from a protective adult, extra support and close monitoring.

Red

These are outside healthy and safe behaviours. These behaviours can signal a need for immediate protection and support from a childcare professional, e.g. health visitor, GP or social worker.

You can always call the confidential Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900, use our live chat or send us a secure message for anonymous advice and support.

Sexual behaviour in children under 5

For children in this age bracket, healthy and developmentally expected sexual exploration and play is part of an information gathering process. This is where your child is attempting to gather information about themselves and the world. Whilst most sexual behaviour displayed by pre-school children is age-expected, some behaviours between children can be cause for concern.

Green category behaviour in children under 5

  • Attempting to touch or curiosity about other children’s genitals
  • Attempting to touch or curiosity about breasts, bottoms or genitals of adults
  • Role play games e.g. mummies and daddies, doctors and nurses
  • Interest in body parts and what they do
  • Touches/ rubs own genitals when nappy is being changed, when going to sleep, when tense, excited or afraid
  • Explores differences between males and females, boys and girls
  • Asks about the genitals, breasts, babies
  • Has erections
  • Likes to be naked
  • Interested in watching people doing bathroom functions
  • Interested in having / bathing a baby
  • Puts something in the genitals or rectum for curiosity or exploration

Amber category behaviour in children under 5

  • Continues to touch/rub genitals in public after being told many times not to do so
  • Continuous questions about genital differences after all questions have been answered
  • Touches the genitals, breasts of adults not in the family and asks to be touched
  • Interest in watching bathroom functions does not wane
  • Puts something in genitals or rectum of self or other frequently or after being told ‘no’
  • Rubbing up against other children with clothes off or on
  • Pulling other children’s pants down / skirts up / trousers down against their will

Red category behaviour in children under 5

  • Touches/rubs self in public or in private to the exclusion of normal childhood activities
  • Plays male or female roles in an angry, sad or aggressive manner
  • Expresses fear and/or disgust of own or opposite gender
  • Sneakily touches adults’ private parts
  • Uses coercion or force in role play games with other children
  • Persists in putting something in own or another child’s genitals or rectum, even if painful
  • Simulated or real intercourse without clothes or engages in oral sex
  • Doing any of the above in secret

Responding to sexual behaviour in children under 5

Below we have provided some examples of scenarios that fall under the green, amber and red categories of behaviour, along with suggestions of how to respond to these behaviours. These have been provided as a guide, and it is important to remember that even if a behaviour falls under the green category, this doesn’t mean that the behaviour should be encouraged.

Each behaviour offers an opportunity to talk with children about keeping themselves and others safe, and to let them know that you are someone who will listen.

Remember that it is important to respond calmly.

Traffic light

Green category scenario in children under 5

A 3 year old boy and a 3 year old girl are found playing in the wendy house in the garden, and are showing each other their underwear.

Responding to this scenario

Explain that there are parts of the body that are private. Distract them by removing them from the situation and suggesting an alternative activity.

Amber category scenario in children under 5

A 4 year old boy and a 4 year old girl are found lying on the bedroom floor together, with the boy lying on top of the girl. They are clothed and the girl says they were playing ‘mummies and daddies’. This is the first time either have been found to be engaging in behaviour like this.

Responding to this scenario

Describe the unwanted behaviour clearly. Explain to the children that this behaviour is not OK. Distract them by removing them from the situation and suggesting an alternative activity.

Red category scenario in children under 5

A 4 year old boy regularly tries to coerce other children to touch his genitals whilst playing, demanding in an aggressive way that they touch his private parts. He is also frequently found rubbing his own genitals to the point at which it is painful for him.

Responding to this scenario

Describe his behaviour clearly to him. Point out that his behaviour is not acceptable and is impacting on others. Prohibit the behaviour. Consider seeking advice and support from a childcare professional, e.g. GP, health visitor or social worker. Call the Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900 for advice and guidance.

Sexual behaviour in children aged 5-11

Children in this age group continue to seek information and understanding about themselves and the world around them through play. They are often interested in pregnancy, birth, gender and differences between gender, which can form part of healthy and developmentally expected sexual exploration.

As children grow through their early years and develop into later childhood, they continue to pass through different stages of development. We know that children remain individual and unique throughout their whole childhood and there is a wide range of generally accepted and expected behaviours within this age group.

Green category behaviour in children aged 5-11

  • Increased sense of privacy about their body
  • Body touching and holding own genitals
  • Masturbation, usually with awareness of privacy
  • Curiosity about other children’s genitals involving looking at and/ or touching the bodies of familiar children
  • Curiosity about sexuality e.g. questions about babies, gender, relationships, sexual activity
  • Telling stories or asking questions using swear words, ‘toilet’ words or names for private parts
  • Use of mobile phones and Internet in relationships with known peers

Amber category behaviour in children aged 5-11

  • Self masturbation in preference to other activities, whether in private or in public or with peers, and/or causing self injury
  • Explicit talk, art or play of sexual nature
  • Persistent questions about sexuality despite being answered
  • Persistent nudity and/or exposing private parts in presence of others
  • Persistently watching or following others to look at or touch them
  • Pulling other children’s pants down or skirts up against their will
  • Persistently mimicking sexual flirting behaviour too advanced for age, with other children or adults
  • Touching genitals/private parts of animals
  • Covert/secret use of mobile phone and Internet with known and unknown people which may include giving out identifying details
  • Attempts to do any of the above in secret

Red category behaviour in children aged 5-11

  • Compulsive masturbation to the point of self harm or seeking an audience
  • Disclosure of sexual abuse
  • Persistent bullying involving sexual aggression
  • Simulation of, or participation in, sexual activities, including sexual behaviour with younger or less able children, e.g. oral sex, sexual intercourse
  • Accessing the rooms of sleeping children to touch or engage in sexual activity
  • Presence of a sexually transmitted infection
  • Any sexual activity with animals
  • Use of mobile phones and Internet for sending or receiving sexual images

Responding to sexual behaviour in children aged 5-11

Green category scenario

A 9 year old boy who, whilst reading, puts his hand in and out of his underpants when there are other people present in the room.

Responding to this scenario

Describe the unwanted behaviour clearly. Explain that there is a time and a place for touching private parts of the body. Distract him by removing him from the situation.

Amber category scenario

During outside playtime, a 9 year old boy asks two girls aged 5 and 6 years old if they would ‘sex’ with him and show their ‘boobs’ to him.

Responding to this scenario

Describe their behaviour clearly. Remind the children what is appropriate behaviour and that some parts of the body are to remain private. Explain to the children that the boy’s behaviour is not OK and discuss how the girls could respond. Distract by removing them from the situation.

Red category scenario

An 8 year old girl prevents a 5 year girl from leaving her bedroom, pulls down her knickers and also shows her private parts to her. The younger girl is frightened. The 8 year old has been heard using sexual language.

Responding to this scenario

Describe her behaviour clearly. Point out that her behaviour is not acceptable and is impacting on others. Prohibit the behaviour. Consider seeking advice and support from a childcare professional, e.g. GP, health visitor or social worker. Call the Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900 for advice and guidance.

Remember that each child develops at their own pace and not every child will show the behaviours described above. If you have any worries or questions about a child you know, talk to someone about it.

Your health visitor, GP or child’s teacher may be able to help, or you can call the anonymous and confidential Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900, use our live chat service, or send us an anonymous message.

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