About sexual development and behaviour at 7-9 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 become more curious about bodies, relationships and sexual concepts as they develop.
For children aged 7-9 years, sexual curiosity and experimentation might include:
- touching their genitals or masturbating in private
- being curious about the genitals of other same-age children, including looking at and touching them
- being curious about gender, sexuality, babies and where they come from
- talking and making jokes about toileting, body functions and body parts
- talking about having boyfriends or girlfriends and kissing or holding hands with another child of a similar age.
Your child might behave in these ways because it feels good. They might also do it because they’re:
- wondering about the differences among bodies
- working out how bodies work
- trying to understand relationships
- adjusting to the environment and rules of primary school.
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 7-9 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 could ask your child if they have any questions about bodies and relationships. Then you could talk with your child about what behaviour is OK in different situations. For example, you could say that behaving respectfully means not touching other people’s genitals and not using sexual language that makes other people feel uncomfortable.
You and your child could also read books together about bodies, relationships, puberty and personal safety.
If you want your child to stop sexual behaviour, calmly suggest another activity. For example, if your child is playing ‘You show me yours, I’ll show you mine’, you could say, ‘Come to the kitchen both of you. You can have a snack and then we’ll play a different game’.
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, 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 in public or communal spaces.
Harmful sexual behaviour in children aged 7-9 years
Sometimes sexual behaviour in children aged 7-9 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 7-9 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 sexual acts – 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 frequently or showing pornography to other children
- taking photos of their own or other children’s genitals and sharing the photos with others.
Children aged 7-9 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
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 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.