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The Expected and the Dysfunctional: Dealing With Child-to-Child Sexual Behavior
By Francis Wardle, Ph.D.

We are all aware of issues surrounding sexual abuse of children: state requirements regarding suspected abuse and potential legal problems, bad PR, and the poor staff morale that result from accusations of abuse (Brodin, 1996). Articles, workshops, and inservice training cover these topics. But what about approaches to support the healthy sexual development of children, and to train staff to be able to determine the difference between developmentally expected behaviors and problematic behaviors?

A symposium was convened in Denver, Colorado, to explore these issues and provide guidance to early childhood professionals. Participants in the symposium included teachers, administrators, lawyers, protective services staff, curriculum writers, academic experts, child abuse specialists, and child care and school administrators (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995). The symposium tackled the vast array of conflicting issues, policies, opinions, and perspectives that child-to-child sexual behavior involves. Some of the problems and issues include the following (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995):


  • Many early childhood professionals are not formally taught about children’s sexual development.

  • Each teacher of young children brings his or her own values regarding children’s sexual behavior.

  • Children who attend early childhood programs are exposed to more and more adult sexual experience through TV and videos.

  • Child care centers serve children from an increasing variety of backgrounds. Consequently, children at these centers are exposed to behaviors different from those taught at home.

  • Parents have various approaches to teaching their children about sex. These values are based on parents’ own childhood experiences and values.

  • Our society communicates mixed messages about sex—from sexually enticing TV programs to historically puritan attitudes toward the subject.

  • The recognition that appropriate sexual curiosity and exploration in young children are a natural developmental phenomenon is relatively new. Thus, there is little agreement as to what is developmentally appropriate behavior and what is not.

  • Supporting appropriate sexual development in young children in child care settings necessitates an agreement on the role of the family and the institution. Often this agreement does not exist.

  • The role of protective services is often confusing to both parents and providers.

  • The possibility of legal problems complicates issues of communication and openness.

  • Possible abuse at home requires a balance of communication among the child care program, parents, and protective services.

  • There is little scientific research to help guide practices and policies. Research in this area is difficult to perform.

  • We have almost no information available relating to cultural differences regarding appropriateness of children’s sexual behaviors.

  • The subject is so influenced with assumptions about what is "right and wrong," "good and bad," that it is difficult for many people to be objective and helpful.

  • Responses to children’s problematic sexual behavior differ among parents, teachers, and social workers.

  • The relationship between the development of healthy sexual behavior and other areas of development is not understood.

The central issue around supporting healthy sexual development in young children, while responding appropriately to sexual behavior between children that may either constitute abuse, or be the result of abuse, is to know which behaviors are appropriate, and which are not (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995). Many aspects of child-to-child sexual behavior influence this knowledge, including age of children involved and overall context of the activity (Johnson, 1993). What makes this task even more difficult is that professionals who work with children do not agree on what constitutes appropriate sexual behavior at specific ages. Research by Haugaard shows that professional opinions on appropriate sexual behaviors between children differed according to the professional’s education and position (1995).

Clearly this poses a problem for those who address this issue. If we do not have agreement within the field, how can we communicate to parents and to the public? More research, discussion, and input need to occur before we have a consensus in this important aspect of the subject. But this dilemma illustrates one of the major findings of the symposium, a lack of objective information on every area covered (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995). For this reason participants stressed that "despite our concerns, areas of divergence, and lack of information, we still believe the critical nature of this topic demands that we move cautiously forward, sensitive to the issues, limitations, and concerns articulated by symposium participants" (p. 30).

Focus on Sexual Abuse
One of the large problems around supporting the healthy sexual development of young children is that we have traditionally focused on sexual abuse in children and developed programs specifically designed to address sexual abuse (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995). This is because of a rash of high-profile media coverage, the use of sexual abuse accusation in custody cases, a perceived preoccupation with sexual abuse by protective service professionals, and our society’s contradictory messages regarding sex and sexuality. Complicating this problem is the widely held opinion by many professionals that sexual activity on the part of a child may be a very strong indicator of sexual abuse.

Developmental Nature of Sexuality
Early childhood educators and psychologists have recognized the developmental nature of growth for years. We have frameworks for the development of cognitive, social/emotional, moral, and physical development, from early childhood to adulthood (Erikson, 1968; Gesell, 1933; Kohlberg, 1984; Lickona, 1983; Piaget, 1952). Mature adult development in each of these areas starts in early childhood and develops throughout childhood with support and nurturing.

Part of our concept of mature adulthood is healthy sexual behavior. For this to occur, sexual development must be appropriately supported during its development in childhood. Yet we have almost no information about healthy sexual development in children. We do not know what stages children must progress through or how families, communities, and early childhood programs can support this healthy development.

Research on Sexual Development in Children
There is very little data about children’s sexual development. There are a variety of reasons for the lack of data, including the difficult nature of the subject, the difficulty of conducting research, and the confounding conflict between developmentally expected sexual activity and activity that might be abuse or the result of abuse. One way to conduct ethically acceptable research on sexual development in young children is to conduct the research on consenting adults.

Haugaard (1995) and Haugaard and Tilley (1988) performed such research. They examined the views of various professionals regarding appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior of children, and solicited responses from college students about their childhood sexual activity. Results showed that the age of children is a critical factor in determining whether a behavior is acceptable or not. For example, 88 percent of professionals studied felt undressing together is acceptable for four-year-olds, while only 15 percent felt the same for 12-year-olds. Further, the type of profession a person belonged to affected his or her response. For example, 64 percent of 4-H leaders felt it was within acceptable behavior for four-year-olds to show each other their genitals while 93 percent of therapists felt it was acceptable. Finally, the research from college students recalling memories of childhood sexual activity indicated 42 percent reported a sexual encounter with another child before age 13—mostly hugging, kissing, and fondling between friends.

These results are instructive. Age is a critical factor in considering whether a behavior is acceptable. As behaviors come to resemble adult sexual behaviors, they are seen as less acceptable. Child-to-child sexual behavior appears to be quite common, and professionals view sexual behavior of children differently depending on their training and occupation. Haugaard suggests, "These studies point out that we need to think very carefully about what sexual encounter involves. Adults may unconsciously impose their view of sexual behavior onto children’s behavior" (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995, p. 9).

When Is Child-to-Child Sexual Behavior Harmful?
While it is clear that sexual exploratory behavior in young children is generally developmentally expected, there can be harmful sexual behavior between children. What factors determine this? Does it make a difference if the activity is between friends? What if there is a large age difference? What if one child is clearly the instigator? The same sexual behavior can be viewed differently, depending on these and other contextual factors (Johnson, 1993).

Categorizing sexual behavior is a problematic task, because of varying parental and community values, and lack of a solid foundation of data. It is especially difficult because sexual behavior under age six is so variable and because young children have not learned what is and is not socially acceptable. Caution must also be taken because labeling a young child’s behavior as deviant can have a long-term negative effect.

The symposium developed a three-category system: developmentally expected behaviors, behaviors suggesting dysfunctional development, and a middle category that included behavior that, at first, fits in neither of these groupings.

Category I: Developmentally Expected Behaviors
Developmentally expected behaviors, when they occur infrequently, are unlikely to raise concerns. They may, however, be inappropriate in a preschool setting, and the program may want to discourage them. Developmentally expected behaviors include the following:

  • Repeating sexual or bathroom language the child has heard.

  • Solitary masturbation.

  • Curiosity/exploratory behaviors including exploring one’s genitals, undressing, showing off one’s undressed body, inspecting bodies of other children (e.g., playing doctor), and touching oneself or another child with one’s hands.

  • Kissing and hugging that are affectionate or role playing. This does not include French kissing.

  • Interest in bodily functions and reproduction.

Category III: Behaviors Suggesting Dysfunctional Development
Behaviors in this category, by their single occurrence, raise significant concerns about the development of the child. They may indicate the child has been the victim of abuse or is currently being abused. The behaviors are likely to be harmful to children who participate in them, and disturbing to children who observe them. Behaviors in this category include the following:

  • Compliance in accepting intrusive and/or painful activity by another child.

  • Engaging in self-inflicted painful sexual activity.

  • Engaging in oral/genital contact with another child.

  • Engaging in simulated/attempted/completed intercourse while undressed.

  • Penetration of a girl’s vagina with an object or finger.

  • Forced penetration of any orifice in a child. (The forced nature of the behavior is the critical issue.)

Behaviors between children are interactional in nature. In assessing the behavior, the role of both children and the nature of their interaction need to be considered. Concern for all children involved must be shown. Careful collection and evaluation of information should occur.

Category II: Behavior That Does Not Fit Into Category I or III
Behaviors where there is not enough information are placed in this category. Prevalence, whether developmentally appropriate, use of force, and general context are not known. More information should be collected to place the behavior in either of the other categories.

Context of Behavior
The context in which a behavior occurs may place the behavior in another (usually more severe) category. Here are some contextual factors that will affect the judgment of the behavior.

  • A child’s particular sexual behavior becomes repetitive, despite attempts by adults to restrain it.

  • The child is preoccupied with a particular type of sexual behavior.

  • If one sexual behavior stops, it is taken over by another sexual behavior.

  • The child is so preoccupied with sexual behavior that it interferes with the child’s other activities.

  • The child tries to involve other children in the sexual activity repeatedly.

Aggression is common at certain ages and is part of a child’s social and physical development. However, sexual behaviors that occur with aggression inappropriate for a child’s age are more serious than those that involve no aggression.

Reporting and Responding to Child-to-Child Sexual Behavior
When child-to-child sexual behavior suggests the suspicion of abuse, it must be reported. But issues around reporting, communicating with parents, investigations by protective services, and staff communication are some of the most difficult issues facing early childhood professionals. Responsibilities of providers, rights of parents, roles of regulatory agencies, and potential liability often conflict with each other. However, the responsibility of the child care organization is to provide a healthful, safe environment for children, and to work very closely with parents.

All centers must have a policy addressing requirements to report to protective services. This policy might include something like, "We have to make a report to the appropriate agency under these circumstances but we cannot notify parents about every incident because of Social Services involvement. At times it may take _____ hours to notify parents" (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, p. 20). Parents should be informed of the center’s policy before they enroll their children.

A progression of activities should be followed when an incident of problematic child sexual behavior occurs. It is recommended that this process be conducted by a team comprising of the caregiver and director, and in large organizations, a Human Resources representative. These steps will enable a program to gather sufficient evidence to determine if a suspicion of abuse exists. A very large percentage of allegations of sexual abuse in child care settings are unsubstantiated (Besharov, 1991; Elkenrode, 1988; Finkelhor, Williams, & Burns, 1988). Finkelhor et al. found that 79 percent of sexual abuse allegations in child care programs and homes are unfounded.

After a problematic event has occurred:


  • Children should be separated.

  • Each child should be questioned objectively and calmly by a staff person, beginning with general questions, and becoming more specific.

  • Based on these initial steps, either no further action is taken (but active monitoring is provided) or further information is gathered.

  • Collect more information. What was going on? What was the context? Where did the incident occur? What is the child’s normal range of behavior in the center and outside the center? What is the ongoing behavior of the child’s parents and other adults, including the overall home climate? Was coercion involved? What was the child’s motivation?

  • Based on this information, either the child’s behavior continues to be carefully monitored or a report must be made. If more than one child is involved in the incident, both should be reported.

The difficult question, however, is when does child-to-child sexual behavior constitute a suspicion of abuse? Any behavior that falls into category III constitutes suspicion. Behavior in category II should be further investigated and moved into either category I or category III. Once a decision is made to make a report, the program must provide for the health and safety of all children by increasing supervision, possibly isolating the child, or even suspending the child, with recommendations to the child’s parents for appropriate intervention (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995, p. 19).

Parents of all children—children directly involved and other children in the program—must be informed. There is considerable disagreement regarding how this should be done. Factors involved include the following:

  • The center has a responsibility to all parents.

  • If the center does not tell parents in a timely manner, they will hear it from other parents, resulting in gossip, accusations, and possibly ugly behavior (Borden, 1996).

  • If the center tells the parents of the child who is suspected to be a victim of sexual abuse, the parents may withdraw the child or feel defensive, even if they did not perpetrate the abuse.

  • The state agency may take too long to contact the parents, resulting in further abuse.

  • Even after the center has reported suspicion of abuse, it is still liable for the health and safety of all children in its care.

While there is no simple solution to this dilemma, it is recommended that the center work closely with the regulatory agency. Ultimately, the state agency must follow its policy and the child care agency must follow its policy.

Once a report of suspected abuse is filed, the center still has a child with specific needs (Good, 1996). Social Services must be involved, and a plan to meet the needs of the child—and all children in the center—must be developed. This plan should be developed, coordinated, and implemented by a team of mental health specialists and educators, with parents intimately involved.

Few early childhood professionals are trained in issues involving children’s sexual behaviors. All people who work with young children should receive this kind of training. It should be integrated into existing courses and curricula, and not taught as a separate subject.

The overall goal of this training should be to enable providers to support and nurture children’s healthy sexual development. Specific content of this training should do the following (Wardle & Moore-Kneas, 1995):

  • Help children understand our society’s mixed messages about sex and sexual behavior.

  • Help adults understand that their responses to child-to-child sexual behavior are greatly influenced by their own background.

  • Teach specific stages of children’s sexual development and what constitutes developmentally expected sexual behavior.

  • Teach ways parents can respond positively to appropriate sexual behavior.

  • Teach participants the specific reporting requirements of their state.

  • Teach the policy of the child care program in responding to problematic child-to-child sexual behavior.

  • Teach specific responses to children’s appropriate behavior and problematic behavior.

  • Teach child care providers how to work with parents.

  • In addition to receiving this training through traditional professional development methods, organizations including Head Start, NAEYC, and the National Child Care Association should offer training that provides existing staff with a level of knowledge. Teachers, directors, social workers, mental health professionals, and regulatory agency staff all need this training.

A central component of this effort is to teach parents about developmentally expected behavior and problematic behavior, and how to respond to both. Parents also need to be included in the development of center-wide policies, training, and the overall approach the center takes toward children’s healthy sexual development.

From our understanding of theories and research on development, we know a child’s progression toward healthy adult sexual behavior starts in early childhood and progresses through developmental stages. It is also clear that this development needs appropriate support at home and in early childhood programs. All early childhood professionals need to know about healthy child-to-child sexual behavior, along with appropriate responses including reporting problematic behavior. This needs to be provided through ongoing training and training integrated into early childhood preparation courses. And, finally, we need to conduct more scholarly research regarding appropriate and problematic children’s sexual behavior.

Francis Wardle, Ph.D., is director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children in Denver and and an adjunct professor at the University of Phoenix (Colorado).

For a copy of "Child-to-Child Sexual Behavior in Child Care Settings" call 303-526-3338 or write to Children’s World Learning Centers, 573 Park Point Drive, Golden, Colorado 80401.


Besharov, D.J. (1991). Child abuse and neglect reporting and investigation: Policy guidelines for decision-making. Child and Youth Services, 15(2), 35-50.

Borden, J.A. (1996). The aftermath of nonsubstantiated child abuse allegations in child care centers. Child Youth Care Forum, 25 (2), 73-87.

Elendorde, J., Munsch, J., Powers, J., and Doris, J. (1988). The nature and substantiation of official sexual abuse reports. Child Abuse and Neglect, 12, 311-319.

Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Finkelhor, D., Williams, L.M., and Burns, N. (1988). Nursery crimes: Sexual abuse in day care. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Gesell, A. (1933). Maturation and patterning of behavior. In C. Murchison (Ed.) A Handbook of Child Psychology. Worchester, MA: Clark University Press.

Good, L.A. (1996). When a child has been sexually abused: Several resources for parents and early childhood professionals. Young Children, 51(5), 84-85.

Haugaard, J.J., and Tilley, C. (1988). Characteristics predicting children’s responses to sexual encounters with other children. Child Abuse and Neglect, 12, 209-218.

Haugaard, J.J. (1995). Sexual behavior between children: Professional opinions and undergraduates’ recollections. Child Abuse and Neglect.

Johnson, T.C. (1993). Assessment of sexual behavior problems in preschool-aged children and latency-aged children. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 7(3).

Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development. Vol. 2: The psychology of moral development. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Lickona, T. (1983). Raising good children. New York: Bantam Books.

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International Universities Press. (Original work published in 1936.)

Wardle, F., & Moore-Kneas, K. (1995) (Eds.). Child-to-child sexual behavior in child care settings. Final report of the symposium (Denver, Colorado). (ERIC–Document Reproduction Service, No. ED 381 258).

Further Reading

Blau, M. (1992, June-July), Healthy sexuality begins at home. Child, 40-116.

Brick, P., Davis, N., Fishel, M., Lupo, T., MacVicar, A., & Marshall, J. (1989). Bodies, birth and babies: Sexuality education in early childhood programs. Hackensack, NJ: The Center for Family Life Education, Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey.

Brick, P., Montfort, S., & Blume, N. (1993). Healthy foundations: Developing policies and programs regarding children’s learning about sexuality. Hackensack, NJ: Center for Family Life Education, Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey.

Diamant, A., (1994, May). Where do babies come from? Sesame Street Parents Magazine, 26-28.

Finkelhor, D., Williams, L.M., Burns, N., & Kalinowski (1988). Sexual abuse in day care: A national study. University of New Hampshire, Family Research Laboratory.

Fishel, E. (1992, September). Raising sexually healthy children. Parents, 110-115.

Friedrich, W.N., Grambsch, Broughton, D., Kuper, J., & Beilke, R. (1991). Normative sexual behavior in children. Pediatrics, 88 (3), 456-464.

Gil, E., & Johnson, T.C. (1993). Sexualized children: Assessment and treatment of sexualized children and children who molest. Rockville, MD: Launch Press.

Johnson, T.C. (1989). Behavior related to sex and sexuality in preschool children. Pasadena, CA: Author.

Johnson, T.C. (1991, Fall). Children who molest children: Identification and treatment approaches for children who molest other children. The APSAC Advisor, 23, 9-11.

Johnson T.C. (1991). Understanding the sexual behaviors of young children. SIECUS Report, 19 (6), 8 -15.

Krivacska, J.J. (1992). Child sexual abuse prevention programs: The need for childhood sexuality education. SIECUS Report, 19 (6), 1-7.