Parents like to watch children grow. They like to see children walk and talk. They like to see them learn to read and write. Parents like to see children make friends. But many parents don’t like to think of children as sexual beings. They don’t like to think that their children are growing sexually.
Many parents don’t know how to talk to their children about sexuality. This could be because their parents never talked to them about it. This has been a problem for a long time. Many parents want to do better than their parents did, but it is hard.
It can be hard for parents to talk to their children about these things. It is hard because of what they think about when they hear the words “sex” or “sexuality.” But these words mean much more than the act of having sex.
All humans are sexual. Sexuality includes many things. It is related to people’s physical bodies. Sex helps explain what makes someone male or female. Sex is also related to relationships. It is part of how people learn to treat each other.
Studies show that…
It is important for parents to accept that children are sexual beings.
- Parents cannot help their children with their sexuality if they do not think they are sexual.
- Children start creating their ideas of themselves in childhood. Those ideas include who they are as sexual beings.
- Many ideas of who they are come from other people. Those ideas come from how other people respond to children. Those people include their parents.
Parents give messages about sex and sexuality to their children in different ways.
- Parents can teach by how they touch children. They can use gentle touch. They can touch with respect.
- Parents can teach using words. They can teach children by using correct words. They can teach children to use correct words in respectful ways.
- Parents can teach by what they do. Parents can show children how to be loving. They can show children how to respect others.
Parents are very important teachers about sex and sexuality.
- Parents start teaching about sex when children are first born.
- Schools teach some information about sex. But some schools give very little information. And schools do not start until children are older.
- Friends teach some information about sex. But friends are not always good teachers. Some of their information is not correct.
- Doctors teach some information about sex. But doctors do not have much time with each child.
- Books and the internet teach some information about sex. Some of that information is good. Some of that information is bad.
- Parents can fill in the gaps. They can help children learn to sort out good information.
Parents can start dealing with sexuality by learning how children develop.
What is happening as children develop?
Birth to 18 Months
- Children learn about their bodies.
- They learn if the body is good or bad. Parents can teach babies that their body is good.
- The diaper might be dirty sometimes. But the body is not bad or dirty. Show how the body can be cleaned. Be gentle. Treat the whole body with love and respect.
- Some children figure out that their private parts feel good. They might rub their genitals. They might rub their genitals against something. This is normal. You can start to tell them about private and public behavior. But they won’t understand yet.
- Children start to learn about being a girl or a boy.
- People treat boys and girls differently. That is part of most cultures.
- Some children start to think that they feel more like a girl or a boy. Most often their feelings match their bodies. Sometimes feelings and bodies do not match.
- Most children already have same-sex or different-sex feelings when they are very young.
- They will not show their feelings yet. But studies show it is already decided. They are born with that feeling or orientation.
18 Months to 3 Years
- Children are learning the names of body parts. Help them name all the body parts.
- Use correct names for all body parts, including private parts. “This is your knee. This is your penis. This is your vulva.” Children can talk with doctors when they know the correct names. They also can have the words to tell someone if there is abuse.
- Using the right names shows respect for the body. People don’t make up silly names for the ear or the foot. They should not use silly names for private parts, either.
- Children are learning to use the toilet.
- Children at this age are learning to control their bodies. Questions about sex and sexual development might come up in the bathroom. That is because their private parts are uncovered. They might see the bodies of other children or adults.
- Children might want to see how the other sex uses the toilet. They are trying out new things and copying what they see. So, they might want to try to go to the bathroom like the other sex. But some children will become shy. This might be a time to start talking about privacy.
3 to 5 Years
- Children start to ask many questions.
- They want to know where babies come from. Make sure you understand what questions they are asking. Answer one question at a time. Consider checking a children’s book out of the library. Or look for sources online. Young children just want the basics. Do not flood them with information.
- They ask what different words mean. Again, make sure you understand the question. Answer one question at a time. Consider using books or other sources to find answers. Let the child tell you when you have said enough. Or watch them. They will let you know when they are done.
- They might “play doctor”.
- Some children might take off their clothes and look at each other. They might be curious. They might want to see what other children look like. Be calm. Tell them they should not touch anyone else’s private parts. Give them something else to do. Tell them they need to have their clothes on to do that other activity. Keep them busy.
- Children like to copy other people who are like them.
- Most children this age are sure they are either girls or boys. They want to be with other girls or boys. They might want to stay away from the other sex or gender. They are learning to put things in groups. That includes sorting girls from boys.
- Most children want to do “girl things” or “boy things”. They want to dress and act the way they think girls and boys should act. This helps them to figure out who they are. Some parents might want to push them to be more flexible.
5 to 6 Years
- These children can be very “girly girls” and “he-man” boys.
- They are not very flexible at this age. It can be hard to show them that all girls do not need to be one thing. They might believe that all boys need to be the same. They do not listen to other’s ideas.
- Children at this age might like to touch themselves.
- They might have learned that touching themselves feels good. That is normal. That will not hurt anything. But children this age can learn about privacy. They can learn that they should be alone when they touch themselves. They can learn to go to their rooms. They can learn to wash their hands after they touch themselves.
6 to 9 Years
- These children can learn the basic facts about sex, pregnancy, and birth.
- They might start to understand “what” and “how” but not “why”. They might know what happens during sex, but not why people would want to do it. They might think their parents had sex once for each child in the family.
- They are interested in what is normal. They want to be normal. They do not quite understand things like twins or special problems in birth.
- Being a girl or boy is getting more flexible.
- These children are starting to see more gender role choices. They can understand that girl and boy roles are not always the same. But they still want to be like their friends.
- Sex is a reason for jokes.
- Children at this age like to laugh about sex. They also like bathroom humor. They will not tell the jokes to adults very often. But they probably tell jokes to each other. They giggle about sex. They can learn that these jokes sometimes make people feel bad. They can learn about respecting people’s feelings.
- They should learn about different kinds of families and relationships.
- They should that mothers or fathers can raise children alone. They should know that children can have two mothers or two fathers. And they should know that is OK.
- Some girls develop and go through puberty at this age. But most will not yet. Girls who mature this early might need extra support. They might feel like they don’t belong with their friends. They also might need to know how to react when people think they are older than they are.
- Puberty is when the child’s body becomes ready for sexual adulthood. This happens between 8 and 13 for most girls and 10 and 15 for most boys.
- It takes about 3 or 4 years to go through puberty. Those can be some painful and confusing years. The young people are not children. They are not adults. They are in the middle.
- It is hard when young people grow at different rates. Girls are taller than boys. Some boys have to shave. Some girls have large breasts. Boys and girls will have these changes at many different times.
- It is important for teens to understand the process of puberty. They need to understand their changing bodies.
- Teens want to fit in. They want to be like their friends. But they are changing — and not always at the same rate as their friends. They are afraid that every change sticks out.
- Teaching love and respect will help teens and delay sexual behaviors.
- Some parents worry about the dangers of the teenage years. So, they try to control everything teens do. They try to keep teens away from sexual media. They try to keep them away from relationships. They try to keep them from growing up as long as they can. But that approach does not keep teens from trying sexual media or relationships.
- Other parents let teens grow up. They teach them about love and respect. They teach teens to love themselves. They teach them how to love others. Then they let them make their own decisions. Those teens tend to wait longer to have sexual relationships and use sexual media.
- It seems to be better to give teens skills and trust them. Let them make their own decisions. They will wait until they are older to get involved in sexual behaviors.
- Teens have sexual feelings
- Masturbation can help teens be safe. They will not get pregnant or get diseases. It is a safe sex practice when they touch themselves and use good health practices.
- Some teens do not masturbate. Studies show that some teens make different choices. Masturbation is not for all teens.
- Teens wonder about same-sex feelings.
- Some teens worry about those same-sex feelings. Teens should understand they were born that way or not. They can’t “catch it.”
- Teens with same sex attraction need support. They might be rejected by others. They might be bullied. Adults should help them feel good about themselves. Adults can help them learn how to respond to bullies.
- There are support groups for LGBTQ teens. See the link below under Additional Resources.
15 to 18 Years
- Puberty is usually over.
- Boys might still be growing. Girls are probably done. But many things are still changing.
- Feelings are changing every day. It is hard to control feelings at this age.
- Teens are almost adults. But their brains are still growing. And they not called adults until they are 18 or 21 or 25. They still need adults to help them.
- Older teens want to fit in with their friends. But now they want to be a little different from others.
- They want to be their own people. They want to figure out who they will be. They might try to be different kinds of people.
- They need room to try different things. They need to know their parents will love them as they try different things.
- They need to learn limits.
- They have adult bodies now. They can make big mistakes with sex. They can get pregnant or make someone else pregnant. They can get diseases or give people diseases.
- They need to learn how to respect themselves and others. They can hurt their own or other people’s emotions or bodies. Parents can help teens learn the limits. Parents can show limits with their own behavior.
- They want to try different gender roles.
- Teens want to learn what women and men can be. They are flexible at this age. They are learning new roles for women and men. They might be more flexible than their parents. They might teach new ideas to their parents.
These are general ideas for what happens as children grow. Each child will be different. Think about your children. How do these ideas fit your children? How are they helpful for you? How can these ideas help you to get started with thinking about your children’s sexual development?
Next steps for parents…
Parents might need to think about their own sexuality.
- Parents should learn that their children are sexual beings.
- First, they need to remember that parents are also sexual beings.
- Parents might need to learn about their own sexual development.
Parents should think about touch, words, and actions.
- They should be gentle, kind, and respectful. They can do that every time they touch their children.
- They can learn correct words for body parts. Maybe their parents did not use correct words. Parents can learn to use correct words for all body parts. They can practice using those words.
- They can think about the actions they use in front of the children. Children copy their parents. Parents can be sure they show their children loving, kind, and respectful actions. Then the children can copy those actions.
Goals for parents…
- Think about your children.
- What are their ages? Look at the lists above. What is their sexual development stage?
- What are their needs at this age?
- What are your children doing? Does the list above sound like your children?
- How can you help your children with healthy sexual development?
- What resources might be helpful to you? How can you find what you need? Think about information, people, and groups.
Don’t be afraid! You can help your children have healthy sexual development!
Sexuality Resource Center for Parents. (2019). Sexual development from 0-18 years old. Retrieved from: http://www.srcp.org/for_all_parents/development.html.
This is a page with more resources for parents from the American Sexual Heath Association: http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/parents/resource-for-parents/
This is a link about sexuality education for pediatricians. It is more complicated. Some parents might want to look at this. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/2/e20161348
Here is a link to other sources for LGBTQ Support and Social Groups USA: https://lgbtqteens.com/
Kaestle, C., & Allen, K. (2011). The role of masturbation in healthy sexual development: perceptions of young adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(5), 983-994
Overbeek, G., Bongardt, D., & Baams, L. Buffer or brake? (2018). The role of sexuality-specific parenting in adolescents’ sexualized media consumption and sexual development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(7), 1427-1439.
Pearson, J. (2018). High school context, heterosexual scripts, and young women’s sexual development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(7), 1469-1485.