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Development of Children's Sexual and Romantic Interest

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

For most children, the early portion of middle childhood is a time of relative sexual dormancy and disinterest. Typically, children are primarily focused on school, activities and the development and maintenance of peer and family relationships, and less interested in sexual activity at this time. However, parents should not be alarmed if their children engage in sexualized forms of play with peers such as comparing body parts or playing doctor. Neither is it unusual for children to explore their bodies, masturbate, and/or ask questions concerning sexual intercourse and reproduction. For more information about these topics (which can be embarrassing and uncomfortable for parents to address) please consult our Middle Childhood Parenting center.

two hearts linkedStarting at about the middle of the middle childhood period or later, children will begin to explore girl/boy friendships with peaked, romantic interest, and some children will develop "crushes" on peers. Some children may even announce that they now have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. While such early talk about dating and relationships may alarm parents, it is a developmentally normal event, and nothing to become particularly concerned about.

At this age, children become interested in exploring how romantic relationships differ from friendship relationships. However, they still have relatively immature thinking and social skills which prohibit serious or involved relationships from actually forming. As a result, children may report having a rather volatile "love life", saying that they like someone on one day only to report hating that same person the next. Most romantic crushes occurring in this period will be short term in duration and rather chaste in terms of behavior, being comprised of little more than one child sitting with someone special on the school bus or saying "hello" to them in the hallway at school. Just the same, parents are wise to supervise children's interactions and enforce appropriate boundaries so as to make sure that these social exchanges remain age-appropriate.