How do I handle my 11 year-old son's behavior with his friend?
Dear Stop It Now,
My 11 yr-old son was caught with his friend, who is also 11 with their clothes off and touching each other's private parts. How do I handle this? How do I know if it's just exploration or something more?
Dear Concerned Parent,
Understanding children’s behaviors is often confusing and can leave loving caregivers worried or even stumped about what to do next. I’m so glad you’ve reached out to us to make sure that your handling this incident appropriately; you sound like a very caring parent.
Age Appropriate vs Concerning Sexual Play
First, it may help to go over what age-appropriate sexual behavior looks like. Typically it’s between kids who are close in age (within 3yrs), size, development and social standing – and between kids who are regular playmates too. This means that children who play together in other ways, may also play a sexual game as well. Often it may be looking, touching or showing behaviors and may also come out of natural curiosity during play. If discovered, kids may feel slightly embarrassed but there should be no intense emotions afterwards (crying, shame, etc.). If there is any force, coercion, manipulation, bribes or tricks used, or if the behavior involved mature adult acts, this would be a red flag.
So, it’s possible that you may have walked in on age-appropriate play (but please review what I wrote and the age-appropriate tip sheet above to make the final determination). But, even age appropriate play deserves a conversation – and needs to be addressed in terms of safety rules.
Talking to Your Child
First, in terms of talking to your son. He should know that it’s totally normal and healthy for him to be curious about his (and his friends') bodies. However, one of your safety rules (described a few paragraphs down) is that we always play with clothes on, and that private parts are kept private. There are other ways he can satisfy his curiosity safely, such as looking at an age-appropriate book or website – and you may want to make sure he has the resources to do so. Also open yourself up to him if he is curious about anything. Even if you don’t know how to answer him in an age-appropriate way, say that’s a great question, I have to do some research/talk to Parenting Partner and get back to you – and then follow up. That’s a great way to continue to build your trust together. I’ve included some helpful resources below.
- Healthy Sexual Development
- Amaze: Amaze is an educational resource tool for both children and teens about their bodies. It helps parents get this important dialogue started with fun and informational videos that youth can watch on their own time.
- Consent for Kids Video: Child-friendly video that teaches children about consent and what that means for their own and other people's bodies.
- Puberty and Growing Up (Kids Health): Information for kids on their own and their peers’ bodies, what to expect, and how to handle difficult situations as they grow.
- It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris: Book about puberty, growing up, sex and sexual health for kids 10 and up.
Involving the Other Parent
And, of course it would be important that the other parent is aware of what happened as well so that they too have the opportunity to speak with their son, open themselves up for questions, and monitor him for any ongoing concerns. Though this conversation may not be easy, it is necessary. You can be real and state that you feel awkward bringing this up, but because you care about both your son and theirs, you need to discuss something important. Then, let this other child’s parents know what happened, and what follow up has been done since. Share what you told your son, and what you’ll be doing from here on out like "I'm going to be talking about sexual health more, and I’m going to be keeping doors open when they play. I’ve also worked on a safety plan – maybe you want to join me on the rules about body safety we’ll have at our house – so we can both be on the same page about expectations for our kids."
Safety Planning articulates the guidelines you want your son to respect, and shows him how he should expect to be treated by others as well – and asks other caregiving adults to model and respect these too. This gives your son the knowledge he needs to understand what’s okay, and better recognize when something’s not okay, and who to talk to if anyone ever breaks a rule with him. And, this makes it easier to discuss any broken rule in the future (by a child or adult) without singling anyone out.
Some families have rules like: Adults and children always play with our clothes on, with doors open, and we keep our hands to ourselves. The places we cover with a bathing suit are private. Unless you need help in the bathroom from your parents, or if you are at the doctor’s office getting a physical exam, no one should touch or see your genitals but you. If anyone is ever asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable or scared, it is important to speak up to a trusted adult. Surprises are okay because it’s a happy thing we tell someone about later, but we don’t keep secrets. And whatever else this feels right for your family. I’ve included some additional resources below.
- Why Healthy Sexuality Education is an Important Part of a Safety Plan
- Ten Things To Remember When You Talk To Kids About Sexuality
When to Involve Outside Supports
If after you’ve had this talk with him you notice any changes in his behavior or mood like these Warning Signs in Children of Possible Sexual Abuse or these Signs A Child Is At-Risk to Harm Another Child, if he has trouble with other non-sexual boundaries or is hyper-focused on sex or sexualized behaviors, this would be a good time to involve his pediatrician and a counselor in what’s going on.
We hope this information is helpful and please don't hesitate to contact us back with any further questions or concerns.
Stop It Now!
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Last edited on: May 14th, 2019