By the time youth reach mid to late adolescence physical puberty is likely to be well underway. Sexual thoughts and feelings may be more intense at this stage.
Prepubescent kids who display “sexual” behaviors might just be curious about their own bodies and those of others. But, if the behavior becomes habitual it can be a problem.
What is normal?
Sexual feelings, attractions and fantasies affect virtually all children from around puberty onward. It is normal for them to begin to express these desires physically at different ages depending on their individual biological development, hormone levels and cultural factors including moral and religious views, upbringing and self-esteem.
The age at which people become sexually active varies greatly from person to person, as does the intensity of these experiences. Usually, this is related to a number of social and family factors, such as the educational level, work, income and family relationships of their parents; their own family history, including divorce; and other social and life events.
In mid to late adolescence, sexual behavior may involve sexual experimentation with opposite or same gender peers. This activity often takes the form of masturbation and may be motivated by curiosity, opportunity or sexual orientation. In addition, many adolescents will engage in a range of sexual behaviors within dating or romantic relationships and with family members. Casual sex among late adolescents and young adults, often referred to as “hooking up,” is also increasing in frequency.
The most recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that 3.6% to 7.6% of male high school students who participated in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System and National Survey of Family Growth reported having sex for the first time before they turned 13. This is alarming, but it is not necessarily caused by television. It could, however, be a sign that there has been a shift in programming or that children are watching more sexually explicit material.
What is abnormal?
During this time, some children may be involved in sexual behavior that is inappropriate and even dangerous. In some cases, this can lead to pregnancy or other serious health problems for the teen and/or others.
It is important to note that the definition of normal changes by culture and societal values. It is up to parents to pass on their values and set boundaries for their child. Many teen sexual behaviors during this period of exploration are related to curiosity, experimentation and the desire to explore the physical pleasures associated with sex. It is also important to note that brain development continues throughout adolescence and there is significant social-emotional growth that can be relevant to healthy and pro-social behaviors.
While it is common for children of this age to have sexual thoughts, feelings and behaviors, most of this activity is consensual. It is not uncommon for adolescents to become sexually active at an early age and this is often considered abnormal based on the research. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention cites that only about 1% of 12 or 13 year olds have had sex, and of those who have, most have said it was not voluntary.
What is the difference between normal and abnormal?
Pre-teens are in a stage of sexual development that includes physical changes like puberty and attitudes about sex and sexual behaviour. It is common for them to be curious about these topics and, if they are exhibiting harmful behaviour, it’s important to seek professional advice.
As youth move into adolescence they can become more interested in exploring their sexual desires with same age peers. This can include non-abusive experimentation such as oral sex and touching. However, they may also engage in more explicit and dangerous sexual behaviors such as masturbation and sexual intercourse with same or opposite gender partners. Some of these behaviors can lead to the onset of sexual debut at an early age or during middle adolescence (defined as sex at 13-15 years).
While there are different cultural and societal beliefs around when children should have their first sex, it’s important for parents to communicate that, whatever a child’s desire is, it’s not “normal” to engage in harmful sexual behaviour. Harmful sexual behaviour can include taking photos of themselves naked or with their genitals exposed, engaging in sexual acts without consent or hurting themselves or others. It’s also important to make sure that young people are aware of the risks involved with sexting and social media. This enables them to make informed choices and protect themselves against abuse.
What should I do if I find out my teen is sexually active?
It is important for parents to stay calm if they discover their teens are sexually active. They should not get into a combative argument with their kids because this could turn them off to sex altogether, says Kaliopi E. Melistas, a child and adolescent psychologist with the Henry Ford Health behavioral health integrated program pediatric office in West Bloomfield.
Instead, they should sit down with their teen and discuss the issue. They should also make sure they are educating their teen about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy risks. They should also talk about emotional attatchment, which is often a problem when teens become sexually active.
It may be easier for you to discuss this subject if you have established a trusting relationship with your teen, and if you have regularly discussed issues like personal hygiene and body image. If you find it difficult to talk with your teen, consider talking with a mentor or other trusted adult who can help you navigate this delicate topic.
If you notice your teen is not acting normally, such as dressing in an inappropriate way or neglecting schoolwork for the sake of spending time with their partner, this could be a sign that they are putting their health and relationships at risk by being sexually active. It may be time to consider a residential treatment center that offers behavioral therapy for out-of-control teens.