Youth Services Law

Childhood Play and Mandated Reporting

Children playing outside

One question that I often hear from child care centers is how to respond to sexual play between children. As usual, the question is “it depends.” Some types of sexual play are normal and developmentally appropriate, and warrant nothing more than redirection and teaching about social norms. Other types can be signals of sexual abuse and require more formal intervention. We don’t want to miss signals of abuse, but neither do we want to overreact to normal child development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) created a chart for distinguishing normal sexual play from signs of problems among young children. The AAP also published a 1998 seminal mental health study regarding normative sexual behavior in children.

According to those sources, children playing with their body parts and showing their private areas to each other are normal behaviors. Even playing with each other, when the children are close in age and the play is voluntary, is not unusual or problematic. Less common behaviors, such as rubbing their bodies against other people, can be a signal of anxiety or disruption in the family. These actions warrant close attention and some questions, but not an automatic report to authorities.

Coercive behavior, however, always is a red flag, as is compulsive behavior (i.e., when children continually return to the behavior after being redirected). Sexual play between children 4 or more years apart in age and detailed sexual acting-out are extremely problematic. Behaviors at that end of the spectrum almost always require a report to child protective services. Children exhibiting these actions likely have experienced some sort of abuse and/or may victimize other children. Protecting them and their peers requires a report to authorities who, we hope, can marshal mental health and other helpful resources.

Common behaviors, on the other hand, need a measured in-house response. First, don’t overreact. Simply redirect the child and, when appropriate, explain why the behavior is not socially appropriate. If redirection does not work, then you need to assess whether the behavior is more problematic.

One common and difficult situation is when the center does not see the behavior, but learns of it when a child tells a parent. It can be difficult to tell a parent that a particular behavior is normal, but sometimes we have the job of educating parents as well as children. The AAP website discussed above can help, as can the following articles from Stop It Now, Psych Central, and Kids Health.

Most sexual behavior in children is simply their getting acquainted with their bodies. Most of the time, our first job is to keep the adults around them from overreacting and projecting adult hang-ups onto the situation. Then we can teach children socially appropriate behavior without any shame or trauma.

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