Responding to a Five-Year-Old Boy’s Sexual Play

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Reader’s Question

My five-year-old son has had four incidents now where he and a male friend have been involved in some form of sexual play. The incidents have always taken place at my house under my watchful eye and consist of my son requesting the other boy to show his penis, and asking the boy to touch his in return. The incidents have involved his best friends. He has never had issues in school or with other children, and his teachers consider him a model student. When asked to discuss it, he becomes recalcitrant, angry and refuses to listen.

At the same time, his father and I are on the verge of divorce. Is it possible that the child has never had any sexual abuse, but is acting out when I am around due to his concern over his parents’ marital problems? What kind of help should I be providing? He has received weekly therapy sessions with a therapist and the incidents seemed to stop, but now a new one occurred at a play date this past weekend.

Psychologist’s Reply

Although it usually upsets adults, the fact is that children are sexual beings. They may not have the understanding about sexual interactions that adults do, but they know that certain touches feel good. Children also tend to be very curious and do not know when something is inappropriate.

As is true with other biological processes, some children tend to be more curious or more sexual than others. One child may instigate sexual play at the age of three years old, while another may not show interest until puberty. It is these individual differences in sexuality that make determining sexual abuse more difficult than it already is. Whenever a child exhibits a high level of sexual play, the first thing to do is explore whether he or she has been sexually abused. If the best guess is no, then the next step is deciding how to manage the sexual impulses appropriately.

There is nothing wrong with children being curious about their bodies. The problem is when the sexual exploration involves others. For example, the parents of your son’s friends may not want their sons touching another boy or having another boy touch them. Thus, if you haven’t already done so, a discussion with your son about privacy and appropriate play is in order. He needs to know that no one but his parents and his physician should be touching his genitalia and that if someone else does, he should tell a trusted adult immediately. Your son also must understand that the same rule applies to his friends. Thus, he cannot touch them in certain areas until they are older and can give consent.

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Because adults get so uncomfortable around the topic of childhood sexuality, many conversations between parents and children do not go well. The children may feel shamed or believe that they’ve been ‘bad’ while parents tend to focus on what should not be done versus what should. This may be what’s happening with your son whenever you’ve tried to talk with him. To circumvent such problems, it might be helpful to plan and even rehearse any kind of conversation around sexuality. Hopefully such a discussion ideally will be straightforward and provide information about what activities are acceptable as well as those that are not. You may also want to give your son an appropriate way to express his sexual feelings (like masturbation). The more comfortable you are in talking with him about such things, the more likely he will listen and come to you with questions.

While it could be the case that your son is acting out, it could just as easily be his natural curiosity. Your son’s counselor should be able to help you determine which it is. Reading some well-researched books on childhood sexuality may also be of assistance.

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