Responding to Sexual Behavior in Young Children

Even in today’s sexually open society, parents struggle with the idea that their children are sexual beings. So, like it or not, parents need to know about the progression of normal sexual development and learn to respond, rather than react, to this normal part of growing up.
From an early age, boys and girls derive pleasure from touching their genitals. Some children do this more often than others. This activity is a problem only if it is excessive or interferes with engagement in other activities. Parental beliefs and values may influence feelings about masturbation. However, it is never advisable for parents to scold, punish or overreact to masturbation at any age. This behavior calls for redirection and discussion about limits regarding privacy.
Starting in preschool children may become curious about Mommy’s and Daddy’s bodies. Some families are quite free with nudity, and children may ask questions about anatomy. Answer honestly but without too much detail, or the child will get lost. Sometimes children try to touch their parents, and while this is not abnormal, it requires firm limits. Parents should use their gut instincts and comfort level to decide about limiting nudity and bathing with their child, especially if the child seems a bit too agitated or giddy in these situations. The same goes for siblings bathing together.
Shhh! It’s a secret!
Sexual behavior between children should be handled carefully. Playing doctor or “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours” is far from unusual and not abnormal or worrisome between young children. Don’t be surprised if this activity is cloaked in secret because the kids usually know it is forbidden territory. However, this activity requires firm limits because it involves another child. If both children are quite young, punishment is not advised. Teach children that they may not touch or be touched in the places their bathing suits cover.
If parents overreact to normal sexual curiosity, they may eliminate themselves as a source of information about sexual matters. Parents should take sexual contact between an older child and a younger one seriously because it may involve coercion, which is never OK. This situation requires firm limits, along with education about consent and respect for personal boundaries. Sex play that occurs between a much older child and a younger one is not acceptable and may require referral to a counselor. In some cases, a call to Child Protective Services may be necessary.
Kids are learning about sex earlier
Due to the pervasiveness of sexual images in society, it is almost impossible to shield children from what was once “for adults only.” Most children have access to computers and other technology, which means pornography is just a click away – if not at your home then at a friend’s. Consequently, children’s interests in sexual matters and their arousal may occur earlier than in the past. Keep in mind that some children have been exposed too early to sexual images and may talk to your child about things that might be confusing.
It isn’t necessary to wait until a child is in middle school to begin talking about sexual matters. Sex education that is consistent with a child’s age and stage of development, along with very close supervision, is in order. Babette Cole and Robie H. Harris have written wonderful books that parents can read with their children about sexual development. A children’s encyclopedia of anatomy also is helpful. By the way, the sex education talk your parents had with you will need to be updated and expanded for your middle school or high school child. Assume that youngsters know a whole lot more about sex than you did at their age. Sexual interest and behavior is a normal part of childhood. Stay aware, connected and approachable to your child about sexuality at all ages.
Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.
For more articles by Pat Blackwell, Ph. D, click here.

Newsletter Signup

Your Weekly guide to New Orleans family fun. NOLA Family has a newsletter for every parent. Sign Up