Sexual development is a part of human development. It includes changes to your child's body physically as well as in their sexual knowledge and behaviors. A child's sexual knowledge and behavior is influenced by their age, what they observe, and what they are taught.
Caregivers can become concerned when a young child engages in sexual behavior. You may be wondering, "Is this normal?" Some sexual behavior is developmentally appropriate, while other behavior is problematic. For example preschoolers may touch their genitals in public or private, may show their genitals to others, and may want to be naked. These behaviors are developmentally appropriate (normal). As children get older, they become more modest and aware of societal mores. In general, age-appropriate sexual behavior:
Occurs between children who know each other well and play together regularly
Occurs between children of the same age and physical size
Is spontaneous and unplanned
Is voluntary, meaning all the children involved agreed and none are uncomfortable or upset
Age-appropriate sexual behaviors in young children are transient and often only require adult guidance and redirection. Learn more here.
Problematic sexual behaviors, on the otherhand:
Involve acts beyond a child's developmental stage and simulate adult sexual acts
Involve threats, force, or coercion
Involve children of widely different ages or children of differing physical size or abilities
Occur frequently and cannot be redirected (intrusive and disruptive)
Cause harm or potential harm (physical or emotional) to a child
No single factor causes problematic sexual behavior (PSB) in children. While some of these children have been sexually abused, others were not. Other factors include: witnessing a lot of violence; being physically abused; experiencing other kinds of traumatic events; observing specific sexual acts performed (in person or online/TV); and having problems making friends their own age so play with much younger children who they act out with when they become sexually curious. Learn more here. It is important for families to obtain support and treatment when you discover that your child has a PSB.
The Juvenile Courts in Massachusetts do not have jurisdicition over a child until they are 12 years old. This means when the Middlesex CAC receives a referral regarding sexualized behaviors in children under 12 (age appropriate or PSB), the team's involvement is focused on providing critical services for these children and their families. Specifically, the Middlesex CAC provides Pediatric SANE services and can assist with referrals for specialized mental health services. The team's involvement does not include criminal investigation or prosecution of the child(ren) involved.