IS YOUR PRESCHOOLER’S SEX PLAY IS NORMAL
Throughout my 28 years of practice I have seen a considerable number of children who engaged in sexual play with other children. Parents bring their children into my office anxious about the possibility that their child was perpetrating sexual abuse or was a victim of abuse.
In this time of heightened awareness of sexual abuse, parents are often concerned and anxious when they catch their child playing sex games with other children. Not only can certain sex play be emotionally damaging to children, there is always a threat of legal repercussions from other parents who may misconstrue the child’s play and react to it as a bona fide demonstration of sexual abuse.
Children are sexual beings. Sexuality begins in infancy and continues throughout the child’s life until they reach adult sexuality. Infants receive physical pleasure from the warmth of a mother’s body as she nurses or bottle-feeds her baby. Warm baths, the comfort of soft blankets and the pleasure in being held are manifestations of infant sexuality.
As children enter into the toddler stage, they begin to explore their genitals and become aware of the differences between boys and girls. Preschool children will begin to engage in sexual exploration of themselves and other children. They learn to associate sexual pleasure with genital exploration and their curiosity about sex is mounting. These explorations are totally normal and are a part of their sexual development.
So how do parents determine if their child’s sex play is normal? When should parents worry and when should they seek professional help? Let’s begin with a description of healthy sexual behavior in preschool and kindergarten children.
Normal Sex Play in preschool and kindergarten children include the following:
- Sexual exploration should take place with children in the same age group. Even a two-year difference at this stage of development can be troublesome.
- Sex play in children is brief. Children will engage in sex play however, it does not dominate their play. Children will explore each other’s genitals and then will resume other play. There is not a focused and repeated concentration on sex play.
- Children explore sexuality in age related ways. They should not have information about adult sexuality and therefore, their sex play will reflect only a basic level of curiosity such as exposing genitals and touching each other’s genitals.
- At three to four years of age, the buttocks are often a focus of interest especially for boys. Farting jokes, butt jokes, and “poopy” jokes are common. At this age, many boys associate their genitals with the act of elimination and therefore the buttocks become an object of fascination.
- Normal sex play in children takes on fun playful tone. There is often giggling and laughing associated with the play. Children do not feel intimidated, forced, coerced or anxious about the play. However, most children at this age are aware that they are not supposed to play “these games” and therefore the sex play does have a secretive nature.
- Sex play is cooperative between the children.
- Normal sex play can be easily re-directed.
Abnormal sex play has the following qualities:
- Unequal distribution of power creates situations where children can experience sexual abuse even with children their own age. Sex play between children should be cooperative. If there is any coercion, force, threats, or intimidation occurring than this is problematic. Even though sex play normally occurs with children the same age, certain children with special needs may be more vulnerable to the influence of other children.
- If the age difference is greater than two years. Remember that sex play with children occurs with same age children.
- If the sex play demonstrates knowledge of sexuality that goes beyond the child’s developmental understanding of sex. Oral sex, insertions of objects into the vagina or anus, and mimicking intercourse are clear indications that the sex play is abusive.
- If the child does not stop the sex play even though parents have redirected the child.
- If sex play encompasses a significant amount of the children’s play.
- Does the sex play take on a tone of intimidation, fear, anxiety or anger? Remember that normal sex play in children is just that—play. So if your child shows undue anxiety, shame, secrecy or anger when engaging in the play or shortly after, this is an indication that the sex play is problematic.
- Is your child’s behavior changing? Are there signs of stress, anxiety, nightmares, bed-wetting, regression, or troubling misbehavior? If your child has engaged in problematic sexual play, he or she may demonstrate signs of stress through sudden changes in behavior.
How should parents react to their child when they see them engaging in sex play?
A parents’ reactions to their child’s sex play is probably one of the most important factors in determining how the child will feel about his or her sexual curiosity. The child’s reactions to getting caught at sex play will be a direct reflection of how the parent responds. If there is a display of disgust, anger, or fear on the parent’s part, the child will pick up on these feelings and internalize them. Feelings of shame and guilt will haunt the child far longer if the parent displays strong negative emotions. Too often, I have seen children who engaged in normal sexual play but have become traumatized by their parents’ reactions.
It is important for the parent to remain as neutral as possible during this time. Punishing the child, sending the other children home, and admonishing the child in front of his or her friends will only exacerbate the child’s sense of shame. The most effective method of dealing with your child’s sex play is to redirect the children to other forms of play.
The next step is to inform the parent’s of the other children involved. It is important that all the parents know what has transpired. It is not up to one parent to figure out how other parents will react. There is however, a responsibility is to inform all parents. Let the parents of the other children know that you have handled the situation by redirecting the children and watching them closely the rest of the time, but it is not your responsibility to talk to the other children about sex play.
When you and your child return home, sit down with your child and in a non-threatening manner explain to your child the following:
- His or her interest in body parts is totally normal and all children are interested in bodies.
- Reinforce the notion that we do not share our body parts with others and review rules for good and bad touch.
- If your child is interested in body parts, you can go to the library or bookstore and get books that will help your child learn about the body in a safe and supportive atmosphere.
- Place the books in a place where your child has easy access and let the child know that whenever he or she is curious about the body you can read the books together. The child may want to look at the book by himself and that is also encouraged.
It is vital that we talk to our children in a supportive and understanding manner when discussing sexual issues. These types of experiences will pave the way for your child to develop a healthy attitude toward his or her body and sexuality.
Tags: abnormal sexual play, child sex play, sexual abuse