Preschooler sexual behaviour: what’s typical?

Sexual behaviour in your preschooler might be a bit confronting, especially the first time you see it. It might help to know that touching, looking at and talking about bodies is a mostly typical and healthy part of your child’s development.

Open and honest talk about sex and bodies will help you guide your child’s behaviour now. It also lays the groundwork for future talks about sexual development, respectful relationships and sexuality. It’s never too early to start talking.

Typical preschool sexual behaviour: what it looks like

Your preschooler might:

  • touch his genitals or masturbate
  • kiss and hold hands with other children
  • show his genitals to other children of the same age and look at theirs – ‘Show me yours and I’ll show you mine’
  • play mummies and daddies, or doctors and nurses
  • copy behaviour he has seen – for example, pinching a bottom
  • use slang to talk about toileting and sexual activities.

What typical preschooler sexual behaviour means

The behaviour described above is typical for preschoolers. Your child might behave in these ways because:

  • it feels good
  • she’s learning about touch and social rules
  • she’s curious about the differences between boys’ and girls’ bodies
  • she’s working out how bodies work
  • she’s trying to understand families and relationships
  • she’s testing limits to see what words are OK to use.

Some sexual behaviour and sex play isn’t typical and might even be a sign of something more serious. Read more about problematic sexual behaviour.

How to respond to typical sexual behaviour in preschoolers

How you react is important, but your response depends on your values. Some parents are OK with this type of behaviour, and others aren’t.

The most important thing is to stay calm, no matter how you plan to respond.

You can use sexual behaviour as an opportunity to help your preschooler learn. Talk with your child and answer his questions openly and honestly, but also at a level he can understand. For example, you could talk about public and private body parts, how girls and boys are different or ways of talking about bodies. You could say, ‘I noticed that you’re curious about boys’ bodies and girls’ bodies. Maybe we can find a book about bodies that we can 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 her body and tell you clearly about any questions or concerns she has.

If you want your child to stop the sexual behaviour, calmly distract your child or find another activity. 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’.

You could talk to your child later 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 you’re OK with your child playing without clothes on at home, it’s not OK when other people can see him.