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It’s helpful to have some guidelines about what is healthy and normal and what might be of concern when it comes to sexualised behaviour in tamariki.

Babies are born to learn and explore. Just as they find and play with their hands and feet, they’ll find and play with their genitals. As they get older they’ll enjoy being naked and become interested in others’ bodies.

If treated calmly, the child should be easily distracted or redirected and perhaps given a reminder that this is not behaviour that people like to see in public, and it is something people do in private.

There are several useful links listed below that cover the matter of sexualised behaviour in young children. Descriptions are given of what behaviours are considered normal exploration for preschool children and what behaviours indicate there could be a problem.

Normal behaviours

  • Touching genital area or masturbating in public or in private.
  • Looking at or touching the genital area of children the same age or new siblings.
  • Showing their genitals to their peers — ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’.
  • Showing an interest in seeing adults naked.

These behaviours are transient and few, and children are able to be distracted.

Possible problem behaviours

  • Touching the genitals of non-peers.
  • Imitating adult sexual movements.
  • Behaviour that is disruptive to others.
  • Behaviours where distraction is more difficult.

Concerning behaviours needing intervention

  • Aggressive sexual behaviour.
  • Any use of force or coercion.
  • Causing distress or physical pain to others or harm to themselves.
  • Simulating adult sexual acts.
  • Behaviour occurs frequently and children are not able to be/resist being redirected or distracted.
  • Sexual behaviours where children are of a wide age range.

Promoting healthy sexuality in tamariki 3 to 5 years

  • Teach tamariki appropriate words to use when talking about body parts. Many families have ‘family names’ for genitals. It’s important that tamariki also know the proper names for genital areas. We don’t have special names for the rest of our body parts, and it’s helpful when we need to talk about genitals to someone outside the whānau, such as the doctor.
  • Help tamariki to understand what touching is okay and what is not. A simple way to explain this is that it’s not okay for others to touch any part of our bodies covered by our swimming togs. If anyone tries to do this, tamariki need to say ‘No!’ and tell a trusted adult straight away.
  • Be aware of what tamariki see on screen, both at home and in other whare. They may not tell you if they’ve seen anything inappropriate, especially if they have a sense it was not okay.
  • Respect a child’s views about who they want to kiss or cuddle and be kissed and cuddled by. Tamariki need to know they can say no to unwelcome touching.
  • Think about whānau attitudes to nakedness — what is acceptable at home and what is appropriate in other places. Parents can put guidelines in place that are in line with their values.
  • Expect questions and be ready to answer them briefly and in a straightforward way, as you would for any other question a curious tamaiti comes up with.

Where to get help if it’s needed

Whānau can ask a health professional they trust if they have concerns about their child’s sexual behaviour. If te tamaiti shows any behaviours in the ‘concerning’ category, or experiences these behaviours, whānau should seek help straight away to prevent harm to their child and any other children involved.

Other resources

What is normal and concerning sexualised behaviour | Talk, Play and Stay Safe OK(external link)

Sexual behaviour in children and young people | KidsHealth(external link)

Kids exploring each other's bodies — What's normal? | Kidspot Australia(external link)

This Australian parenting website includes lists of normal, concerning and very concerning behaviours that need professional help, for different-aged children:

Problematic and harmful sexual behaviour in children and teenagers | Raising Children Australia(external link)

When to be concerned about childhood sexual behaviour | Raising Children Australia(external link)

This site includes what’s normal behaviour and what constitutes possible problem behaviour in children from age 3 to 5. It includes useful tips for parents to teach their young child about body safety:

Sexual Behaviors in Young Children: What’s Normal, What’s Not? | Healthychildren.org(external link)

Talking to Your Young Child About Sex | Healthychildren.org(external link)