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Is Your Child’s Sexual Behavior Normal?

Learn to read your child's signs and catch "red flags."

Few stages are as important for the proper development of a child as the sexual stages. Because children are experiencing something profoundly new and unexpected (even if it is actually radically old and predictable), they lack the experiential vocabulary required to communicate it.

It is our job as parents to be in tune with these amorphous emotions and nascent desires. Learning to distinguish between "normal" and "alarming" childhood sexual behavior is key to ensuring healthy sexual development. If deviant or violent sexual behavior goes unnoticed or untreated in these early stages, there can be grave consequences.

The recent sexual assault and brutal murder of 7-year-old Jorelys Rivera serve as a painful but apt example of such consequences. The grisly saga came to a violent close when Rivera's killer, 20-year-old Ryan Brunn, hung himself in his jail cell. In the wake of this maelstrom, the families of both victim and perpetrator are left picking up the pieces of their shattered lives, while the public at large continues to ask: How could this tragedy have been averted?

Stories like these can be terrifying for parents. We all fear the possibility that one of our children could end up a victim of sexual crime. However, parents rarely consider the possibility that one of their children could end up the perpetrator of those same crimes. Until Ryan Brunn pled guilty, his family couldn't believe that he had committed the crime. "[He is] kind-hearted. ... He's great with kids ... The whole thing doesn't seem possible. It's not his nature. He's not a violent person," the family members said.

The good news is that if, as a parent, you‘ve ever considered this nightmarish possibility, you are not alone and you are certainly not crazy. We all want the best for our children but the nightly news is a consistent reminder that life doesn't always go as planned.

The best thing parents can do to help ensure the proper development of their children is to remain informed and attentive. You need to monitor your child's development, understand the signs you are seeing, and evaluate whether or not these signs are within a normal range.

As is the case with any psychological process, there's a spectrum of sexual development in children. In the middle of the spectrum lies the standard deviation: some children's sexuality develops more rapidly, while others' more slowly. Likewise, there are certain patterns of behavior that fall within that normal deviation. For instance, children and adolescents oftentimes play "doctor." As long as they are of comparable age and development, each displaying the same curiosities and insecurities, such exploration is acceptable, even desirable.

Also, the vast majority of children, from a young age, derive enjoyment from genital manipulation. While you can hardly call such activity "masturbation," parents need not be alarmed if and when a child's nebulous enjoyment begins to assume the more concrete form of sexual pleasure. As long as children are nurtured through this time and taught to cherish their sexuality without flaunting or exposing it indiscriminately, it can be a healthy experience for the child.

Outside of this normal behavior, however, there are certain red flags for which parents and caretakers should be on the lookout. Sexually problematic behavior in children and adolescents is a telltale sign of improper or unbalanced development, which has the potential to grow into much bigger sexual problems as well as aggression, bullying, and violent tendencies.

Here are some classic red flags:

Children below the age of 12 should never be exposed to pornography. Even so, Playboy-type media is one thing; hardcore, deviant, or fetishistic websites are another. As with the developmental spectrum, there are forms of pornography that simply lie outside of healthy maturation and normal fantasy constructs.

• Inappropriate or unwanted sexual contact with other children
As stated above, while some physical exploration should be expected, it should always be with the caveat that the contact occurs between consensual peers. Granted, consensus can be difficult to define or establish at younger ages, but sexual bullying, harassment, or assault are never okay. Children must be taught to respect the physical boundaries of others—only then can they be expected to internalize their own physical boundaries.

• Repetitive public exposure
An occasionally naked 5-year-old is one thing; a perpetually naked 10-year-old is another. Children should be taught to respect their own privacy and to keep their bodies to and for themselves. If they make a mistake, help them to see why it was a mistake, and to understand how to avoid making the same kinds of mistakes in the future.

If you have dealt with any of these issues and, after repeatedly talking with your children and attempting to correct the behavior, you find that they persist, you should seek professional help. It is in both your and your child's best interests to curb these patterns before they become exaggerated and solidify into long-term character deficiencies. Remember, seeing a professional isn't an admission of parental guilt, nor a scarlet mark of inadequacy. It is a simple statement: I want what is best for my child, and I will do whatever I can to help them achieve lasting success.

More from Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.
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