About sexual development and behaviour at 4-6 years
Sexual development starts at birth. It includes physical changes like puberty, the attitudes and beliefs children develop about sex and sexuality, and their sexual behaviour.
Sexual behaviour varies depending on children’s development, social relationships, cultural background, and personal and family experiences. But it’s common for children to be curious about bodies, gender roles and sexual concepts as they develop.
For children aged 4-6 years, sexual curiosity might include:
- exploring their own bodies, which might include masturbating
- asking questions about gender, sexuality, babies and where they come from, and other sexual concepts
- playing games that involve being naked or using gender-based roles, like doctors and nurses
- looking at or touching the genitals of familiar children or adults in a curious way in the bath or toilet
- talking and making jokes about toileting, body functions and body parts.
Your child might behave in these ways because it feels good. They might also do it because they’re:
- learning about touch and social rules
- wondering about the differences among bodies
- working out how bodies work
- trying to understand families and relationships
- testing limits to see what words are OK to use.
Open and honest talk about sex, bodies and relationships lays the groundwork for future talks about sexual development, respectful relationships and sexuality. It’s never too early to start talking.
Responding to sexual behaviour in children aged 4-6 years
You can use sexual behaviour as an opportunity to help your child learn. The key is listening, talking and answering questions openly, honestly and in a way your child can understand.
At this age, you can talk about public and private body parts, differences among bodies and words for parts of the body. For example, ‘I noticed that you’re curious about bodies. Maybe we can find a book about bodies to read together’.
When talking with your child, it’s a good idea to use the proper words for body parts – for example, vagina, vulva, breasts, penis, testicles and so on. This helps your child learn about their body. It also gives them language they can use to ask questions or tell you about concerns.
If you want your child to stop sexual behaviour, calmly distract your child or find another activity for them to do. For example, if your child is playing ‘You show me yours, I’ll show you mine’, you could say, ‘Put your clothes on and come to the kitchen for a snack’.
Afterwards, you could talk to your child about what behaviour is OK in your home and what behaviour is OK in front of other children, other parents or teachers. For example, you could explain that although it’s OK for your child to play without their clothes on at home, it’s not OK when other people can see them.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children aged 4-6 years
Sometimes sexual behaviour in children aged 4-6 years isn’t what’s expected for their developmental stage or isn’t socially or culturally appropriate.
And sometimes sexual behaviour in children at this age is harmful to themselves or others. Harmful sexual behaviour can range from concerning to serious and extreme.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children aged 4-6 years might include masturbating:
- persistently, even when someone has tried to get them to do something else
- in public
- in ways that interfere with other activities
- in ways that injure their genitals.
It might also include:
- using sexually explicit language
- playing games with sexual themes or simulating sexually explicit acts when playing or interacting with others – for example, open mouth kissing
- persistently trying to touch the genitals of other children, adults or animals
- forcing other children to take part in sexual behaviour like oral sex or penetration with objects
- trying to put an object into their own or someone else’s anus or vagina
- watching pornography or showing pornography to other children.
Children aged 4-6 years might behave in sexually harmful ways for many reasons. For example, it might happen because they:
- have been exposed to pornography or adult sexual activity and are re-enacting what they’ve seen
- are experiencing child sexual abuse or other forms of child abuse
- find it hard to manage their emotions.
Children who have learning difficulties and disorders or difficulties with impulse control, social skills or rules can also be more vulnerable to engaging in harmful sexual behaviour.
Getting help for harmful sexual behaviour in children 4-6 years
If you’ve noticed your child engaging in harmful sexual behaviour and they keep doing it even when you ask them to stop, it’s a good idea to seek support and professional help.
A GP or child and family health nurse is a good place to start. You could also speak with your child’s teacher or other school staff. They can refer you to an experienced health professional who can help you understand what’s happening and how you can help your child.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children can be distressing. You can get support by contacting helplines and specialist services.