What's Play, What's Not

Adults are by no means the sole perpetrators of child sexual abuse. One estimate suggests that 30 to 50 percent of all abusers are under age 18. Children are normally curious and do play together, so parents may at times have difficulty knowing when to start being concerned.

STOP IT NOW! advises parents to:

Look for signs of potential coercion, particularly in the areas of size, age, power, ability and status. Child sexual abuse is the forced, tricked or coerced sexual behavior between a child and an older person (whether adult or child).

When observing your child with a peer, is one child much larger, older, stronger or more able? Is a child being victimized by threats, bribes or bullying tactics? It’s possible that one area of coercion here may be sexual abuse.

But remember, sexuality is a part of every human being regardless of age. Here are some signs of healthy sexuality in growing children, also provided by STOP IT NOW!:

Preschool (Birth to 5 years) Common: Sexual language relating to differences in body parts; bathroom talk, pregnancy and birth. Masturbation at home and in public. Showing and looking at body parts.

Uncommon: Discussion of sexual acts. Contact experiences with other children.

School Age (6 to 12 years) Common: Questions about menstruation, pregnancy, sexual behavior. “Experimenting” with same-age children, including kissing, fondling, exhibitionism and role-playing. Masturbation at home or other private places.

Uncommon: Use of sexual words and discussing sexual acts.

Adolescence (13 to 16 years) Common: Questions about decision-making, social relationships and sexual customs. Masturbation in private. Experimenting between adolescents of same age, including open-mouth kissing, fondling and body-rubbing. Also, voyeuristic behaviors. Sexual intercourse occurs in approximately one-third of this group.

– Kathleen Reagan

See also:

How to Prevent or Recognize and Confront Child Sexual Abuse

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse

What’s Play, What’s Not


From United Parenting Publications, August 2002