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There is so much worry about child abuse today, that many people are afraid to give their children the loving care they need, for fear of being accused of abuse. A certain amount of sexual play is common in preschool children, and it is easy to confuse a child’s normal sexual behaviour with signs of possible sexual abuse.

What is normal sexual play and behaviour in young children?

When to be concerned?

What should you do if you believe a child has been abused?

What should you do if you are concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour?

Getting help

What is normal sexual play and behaviour in young children?

There is so much worry about child abuse today, that many people are afraid to give their children the loving care they need, for fear of being accused of abuse. A certain amount of sexual play is common in preschool children, and it is easy to confuse a child’s normal sexual behaviour with signs of possible sexual abuse.

Most well-adjusted children will customarily pass through several stages of sexual interest and play.

Pre-school children age 0 to 4 years

Small babies may discover that touching their genitals can feel good, and can be comforting. As far as they are concerned, it is rather like sucking their thumb or rubbing their nose - they won’t attach any other meaning to these actions. Baby boys may have erect penises when nappies are removed.

Many two-year-olds will show an interest in the way boys and girls urinate, and in the physical differences between the sexes.

Three-year-olds may talk about the differences between boys and girls, and are usually still interested in urinating. Girls may try to urinate standing up.

By four, children are becoming more conscious of their genitals, buttocks and naval, and may play games of “show”, and “doctor”. Their interest moves to toilets and the language involved with elimination – ‘poohs’, ‘wees’, ‘pooh-face’. Still interested in the bodies of others, four-year-olds may demand privacy for themselves.

Young children, approximate age 5 to 9 years

Five-and six-year-olds become more modest but undertake mutual investigation of each other’s bodies. At this age, they are conscious of social taboos and are more likely to experiment in private. They may giggle about words related to bodily functions, but still, ask questions about sexual differences.

Pre-adolescent children, approximate age 10 to 12 years

Between ten and twelve years of age, children show interest in others' private body parts and in the changes occurring in puberty. They are aware of the need for privacy. At this age, they may ask questions about relationships and sexual behaviour and may look at sexual pictures including internet images.

Adolescent children, approximate age 13 to 16 year

At this age, adolescents show an interest in relationships, sexual behaviour and may ask questions about body parts. They also may use sexual language and talk about sexual acts with peers. Adolescents will likely look at sexual pictures including internet images and may experiment sexually with adolescents of a similar age.

Exploring, touching and playing ‘sexual’ games are a normal part of growing up when children are playing with others of their own age and development. The general rule of thumb is that children are within a 4-year development span of each other and have a similar level of cognitive ability. Such mutually agreed play does not mean that children have been abused, although occasionally the child may worry about getting into trouble for playing ‘rude’ games, and tell you that someone else made them play these games.

Most children from around two years onwards will play with their own genitals in a way that parents often consider masturbation. While occasional guidance and distraction may be needed to help children understand what behaviour is acceptable, they should not be left feeling bad or guilty. Adults’ strong reactions to normal sexual play are likely to be more damaging than the actions themselves.

When to be concerned

When children are involved in sexual play with older or more powerful children or have been coerced to by an older child to join in play that makes them uncomfortable, adult intervention is needed.

Although there are often other logical explanations for what you observe, you should be concerned about a child who:

  • Has a genital injury or infections, or a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Has knowledge of sexual issues and behaviour outside what could be expected for the child’s age.
  • Shows compulsive or explicit sexual play with other children, or who masturbates excessively. A certain level of play is quite normal, but when it becomes compulsive, adults should seek advice.
  • Shows fear of certain situations or people - going home, going to the baby sitters.
  • Tells of being touched in a way that makes them uncomfortable or scared.
  • Tells of seeing ‘rude’ pictures or of someone taking ‘rude’ pictures of them.
  • Excessive masturbation in public.
  • Sexual interest directed toward much younger children.
  • Has a noticeable change in behaviour, or starts to act out of character. This is an extremely important indicator, but do not forget that there are many incidents in a child’s life that could worry them and lead them to act strangely. A child with a marked change in behaviour may benefit from talking to a professional who can help sort out the cause.
  • Regresses or withdraws.

Remember that many of the above can have non-abusive causes, and while we need to be alert, we must also, “never assume”.

What should you do if you believe a child has been abused?

Five simple rules will help you do the very best for children.

  1. If a child tells you that they have been abused, believe the child, tell them you are glad they told you, and explain that you will be getting some help.  Never question a child about what happened. There are experts who are trained to do that and who can ensure that the child doesn’t have to repeat the story.
  2. If you have suspicions or a ‘gut’ feeling, act on your concerns. Don’t wait for someone else to act.
  3. Never act alone. Talk your concerns through with someone experienced.
  4. Keep notes of your concerns or what you have seen or heard. Try and recall the exact words a child used, or the date of, and the changes you noticed in a child’s behaviour.
  5. Do not make promises to a child or family that you may not be able to keep. You personally, may not have any control for example, over who else gets told. You can promise that you will do your very best to help.

Intervening to help a child at risk is emotionally draining and difficult. It can bring back feelings, or trigger personal memories, and make us worry whether we are doing the right thing. It is most important that adults can seek help and support for themselves.

What should you do if you are concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour?

If you are concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour, especially towards other children, it is important that you get professional help.

Getting help

If you are concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour, it is important to get help immediately.

Child, Youth & Family

You can discuss your concerns with a social worker from Child, Youth and Family. They have the expertise to advise you on the next step to take. You have the right to be listened to and have your questions answered. You can talk anonymously at first, and give the details later. You can contact CYF on 0508 326459 (0508 FAMILY)

Safe Network

SAFE provides specialist community-based treatment services for those with adults with harmful sexual behaviour, and children with problematic sexual behaviours. Safe Network has offices in Auckland, Whangarei and Hamilton. Their contact details can be found here.

Stop

STOP provides community-based assessment and treatment services for adolescents and adults who have sexually abused/sexually offended and for children who have engaged in concerning sexual behaviour. Stop has offices in Christchurch, Nelson and Dunedin. Their contact details can be found here.

Child Abuse Prevention Parent Helpline

The Child Abuse Prevention Parent Helpline is the only nationwide parenting helpline in NZ that is available seven days a week.  They have no time limit on calls and their friendly telephone support workers are able to offer not only immediate help but also information, referral, and on-going support to those affected by child abuse, concerned about the welfare of a child or needing family or parenting support. Call 0800 568 856.

Child Matters are happy to provide further information about help available. You can contact us on 07 838 3370 or info@childmatters.org.nz

There are only two statutory agencies that have the power to investigate and act on reports of sexual abuse of children. They are Child Youth and Family, and the Police. Child Youth and Family are required by law to follow up any concerns, while the Police will investigate whether or not t a crime has been committed.

If you fear for the safety of a child, please seek help. You are protected by law if you refer in good faith and find there is no proven abuse.

It is not only the child who needs help. The other family members will need information, emotional and practical support.