Sexual behaviour is part of normal development that starts at birth and is ongoing throughout a person’s life.  For children and young people, it is normal to explore their bodies and express sexual behaviours in a variety of ways that relate to their stage of development.  These behaviours aren’t always about sex and can include talk, touch, questions, conversations and interests that relate to sexuality and relationships. 

Sexual behaviours play a role for young people:

  • Trying to understand puberty
  • Developing independence
  • Exploring rules about sexual touch and talk
  • Exploring their sexual identity and gender roles
  • Interest in friendships and relationships
  • Experiencing feelings of sexual attraction
Sometimes however young people can exhibit behaviours that are not appropriate and are potentially harmful to themselves or others. 

So why does this happen?

There is no one reason for why young people exhibit sexualised behaviours but there are some dominant risk factors that stand out:

  • Being witness to, or being directly exposed to family violence
  • Chronic, long term neglect
  • Inappropriately witnessing sexual activity
  • Being a victim of sexual abuse
  • Having a disability

These experiences make young people more vulnerable to such behaviours and exploitation. For some young people, particularly those who have experienced sexual abuse, they may engage in sexualised behaviours to:  

  • Self-soothe or comfort themselves
  • Get a response from people when they feel difficult emotions
  • Demonstrate what happened to them
  • Act out learnt behaviours they don’t understand
  • Act out a power dynamic

In other instances, similar young people may be more vulnerable as a result of experiencing pre-mature puberty because of their experiences.  Sometimes sexual abuse experiences can mean that young people go through the physical and hormonal changes of puberty earlier.  This means that they may be exhibiting behaviours associated with increased sex drive earlier.  Additionally, other people will attribute them as being older and more mature than they are because of their earlier physical development, often attracting unwanted sexual comments and making them more vulnerable. 

There is no one reason why young people exhibit sexualised behaviours...

So what is Normal?

Knowing what to worry about and what not to worry about can be difficult.  It is really common for carers to struggle to understand the sexual behaviours and feelings of young people. The sensitivity and taboo of the topic makes it more challenging.  Understanding what sexual behaviours are a ‘normal’ part of development and what behaviours should raise concern or alarm can help carers of young people respond appropriately.

A very basic way to assess behaviours is to consider:

  • Frequency and persistency
  • Age appropriateness
  • Inequality in age and development/consent
  • Risk to health and safety
Examples of sexualised behaviours
  Normal Concerning Harmful


Mastubation in private

Exhibitionism amongst same age peers within context of play, e.g. occasional flashing

Persistent nudity or exposing genitals

Engaging in sexual activities with an unknown peer, e.g. deep kissing, mutual masturbation

Preoccupation with pornography

Involvement in sexual activity for the purpose of another, e.g. sexual exploitation


Sexual activity with partner of similar age and developmental ability

Viewing materials for sexual arousal

Intentional spying on others while they are engaged in sexual activity or nudity

Violation of others personal space

Degredation / humiliation of self or others with sexual themes

Forcing or manipulating others into sexual activity e.g. using physical power or drugs

Check out this great guide to better understand sexual behaviours in children that are normal, concerning and harmful.

Be aware that young people in out of home care who have experienced abuse may exhibit these behaviours or have conversations about sexuality at an earlier age to other young people their age. It is important not respond to this by shaming or making them feel guilty. Instead, talk to them about it so you can understand the behaviour and respond appropriately.

So what do I do?

As potentially one of few positive supports in this young person’s life, you are in a great position to respond to often very sensitive topics.

Three really useful questions to consider:

  • What’s the behaviour (identify)
  • What’s the behaviour communicating (understand)
  • What’s needed to support the young person (respond)


Be aware, take notice of what is going on. When is this behaviour happening? Is it just at home or is it taking place in other environments as well? What appears to be going on for the young person before they behave this way?

Talking to the young person about the way they are behaving will give you the chance to understand their feelings and what they are trying to communicate


Understanding why a young person might be exhibiting problematic sexual behaviours can be helpful, remembering that behaviour is usually a way for young people to communicate what they need or want as they may not have the language or ability to do so. 

A lot of the times they don’t understand themselves why they are doing these things. Remember that young people engaging in these behaviours will often experience anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, disgust, rage and self-blame about what they are doing. The more help they get to explore this the better than can make the connection between their feelings and behaviour. This will mean they can then explore better ways to express their feelings.


Your response will ultimately depend on what the behaviour is. This could range from just letting them know it safe to talk about sex and sexuality, being clear about boundaries and personal space, seeking support from professionals or contacting child protection.

Click here to find out more about responding to sexualised behaviours.

Further Resources