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Help! Is this Normal? : Healthy Sexual Development in Children

“So hypothetically…” is a statement from caregivers that I have heard a lot of as an advocate for children who experience abuse. This statement is typically followed by an example of a child engaging in some kind of sexual behavior and caregivers wondering if that “hypothetical” were true, should they be concerned? From three-year-old’s engaging in self soothing behaviors to ten-year-old’s googling “boobs”, children exhibit sexual behaviors that are “normal” or completely developmentally appropriate. Sexual development in children isn’t something discussed in everyday conversations about parenting and raising children, but it is important to know and understand. Parents and caregivers should understand the difference between concerning and non-concerning behaviors so that they are prepared to respond appropriately and address problematic sexual behaviors while helping children develop healthy boundaries and respect for not only their own body, but the bodies of others.

Just like other forms of human development, sexual development begins at birth as both male and female babies are born with a complete reproductive system that will eventually become fully functional through puberty. However, sexual development is not only the physical changes of the body but also a person’s developing knowledge, values and beliefs, and the behaviors that they show as a result of these. A child’s sexual development is influenced by their age, what behaviors they observe from those around them, and what the child is taught about beliefs and values around sexuality and personal boundaries. It’s also important to consider other messaging around sexuality and boundaries children are receiving from media, the internet, social media, movies and TV shows, and the intimate and romantic relationships between adults in their lives. The rest of this post will outline various developmentally appropriate behaviors, how caregivers can respond to those behaviors, and what caregivers can do to support healthy sexual development as children continue to grow.

Infancy: In babies and young toddlers, it is common for children to lack inhibitions around their body and private parts. Children may touch, explore, rub, or show their private parts or attempt to touch or see other people’s private parts. It is also common for young toddlers to have curiosity in their body and how it functions and how other people’s bodies function. Caregivers can respond to young children by teaching the child the correct names for their genitals including; penis, testicles, anus, breasts, vulva, and vagina and the differences in private parts between male and female bodies. Caregivers can also provide simple answers to questions about the child’s body and bodily functions, remembering the importance of keeping a calm, neutral, and non-judgmental tone. Caregivers can also support healthy sexual development by explaining when touches on the private parts are safe versus unsafe. Children should only get touches on their private parts from trusted adults if it is to keep their body clean, healthy, or safe. Caregivers can introduce these lessons during diaper changes, bath time, potty training, etc. by saying, “I am helping you (change your diaper, wipe after pottying, clean in the tub, etc.) to keep your body clean and healthy. That is why this is a safe touch. If anyone touches your private parts and they are not a safe grown up cleaning your privates, it’s important to tell me so I can keep you safe.” Caregivers can then continue by listing who safe adults are in their life. (Miss Kelly, Bumpa, Mommy, etc.)

Early Childhood: As the toddler age progresses into early childhood, behaviors seen in infancy will likely continue. Children will continue to touch their genitals either out of curiosity and exploration or as a method of self-soothing behavior, as well as continue to be curious of other people’s bodies. Children may engage in playful exploration together by looking at each other’s private parts or playing games like house or doctor that involves looking at or touching private parts. Children engaging in sexual play is common and developmentally appropriate and should be redirected by adults in a way that is not shameful or judgmental. Caregivers can intervene in developmentally appropriate behaviors by explaining a basic understanding of privacy and expectations for boundaries around private parts. Caregivers could say, “Our (penis, vulva) are also called our private parts because they are parts of the body that we keep personal to ourselves. It is important not to ask to look at other people’s privates because theirs are personal to them. Do you have questions about those parts of the body?” Caregivers can also support healthy sexual development by teaching basic information on reproductive system, introduce the difference in safe touches versus unsafe touches, and teach the child about personal boundaries. Let children know that their bodies are their own and that they can say no to touches that they do not want on their body- even from adults.

Elementary Age: As early childhood age progresses into elementary, behaviors seen in early childhood may continue. In the years leading up to puberty, caregivers can expect to see continued curiosity and questions about bodies and how they function. Sexual play may continue as children explore sexuality and activities can occur between same and opposite sex friends. Caregivers should continuously reiterate rules about safe and unsafe touches and the importance of not only adult’s respecting children’s bodies but also children respecting other children’s bodies. If a caregiver is aware of a child not respecting their friend’s boundaries, they could intervene with a teachable moment by saying, “I heard (friend) say “Stop!”. Please stop what you’re doing until you ask (friend) if they want to keep playing.” Children may also engage in gender exploration by behaving in more “gendered” manners like exploring clothing and hair styles, different kinds of toys, exploring different names or pronouns that they more identify with, and how they interact with others socially. Caregivers can support healthy sexual development at this age by redirecting children who engage in developmentally appropriate sexual behaviors in public or with others in a non-shaming or judgmental way. Caregivers can teach children about the human reproductive system and how their body will start to go through puberty as they age and continue to instill messaging about consent and the personal right to say no to touches. Caregivers can also support children in their gender and sexuality exploration by supporting a child’s personal style decisions or allowing them to choose clothes that they feel comfortable wearing. Caregivers can also teach children about different sexual orientations and how families don’t always have one mom and one dad. Lastly, caregivers should also help children identify how sexual abuse can happen online. This conversation could be introduced by saying, “When you are on your games and apps on the internet, the people aren’t there in person but it’s important to remember that they are real people… Do you think sexual abuse could happen on (favorite/most frequent app/site)?… Sexual abuse is when someone looks at, talks about, or touches our privates in a way that’s not keeping us healthy or safe. Touching might not be able to happen, but how could talking about or looking at happen?”

Early Adolescence: As children continue to progress towards puberty, an increased wanting for privacy and independence will develop. Children may become interested in personal relationships and talk about boyfriends or girlfriends, or begin exploring sexual content through media, peers, or both. By early adolescence, touching or rubbing genitals can continue but should be happening in private.

Caregivers can respond to their child engaging in self-soothing/masturbation behaviors by saying, “As you’re getting older your body changes in different ways. Part of that is you might feel more interested in touching your (penis/vagina) and I want you to know that’s normal and it is called masturbation. This is a part of going through puberty. What is important to know is that this is something that you do in private and never with other people. Is this something you’ve heard other kids talk about before?” Asking a child about what they already know about a topic, or what they might have heard from friends, is a helpful way to address any misconceptions or inaccurate information that the child may have learned or heard from others or in media. Caregivers can support healthy sexual development in early adolescence by helping children understand what to expect when their body goes through puberty, the risks associated with sexual activities (pregnancy, STDs/STIs, obtaining consent), and discuss dynamics of healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships.

Adolescence/Teenage Years: In adolescence and teenage years, children will experience many changes in sexual development from the physical growth of primary and secondary sex characteristics to sex hormones affecting thoughts in their brains, as well as changes in their social environments as peers become more influential in shaping cultural norms and expectations. It is common and healthy for adolescents to engage in sexual interactions like masturbation, kissing, touching, or dating peers. It is critical that adults in adolescents’ lives create a home environment that is non-judgmental or shaming of questions or curiosities around sexual development so that open communication around sexuality and risks of sexual activity can occur. Adolescents possess the ability to think and reason for themselves, hold their own personal values, and make decisions around how they learn about or experience sexual interactions. Caregivers can create opportunities for conversations with their teens about sexual development through teachable moments in media. If watching a movie, TV show, or viewing another form of media, caregivers could introduce this conversation by saying, “Sometimes TV or movies might make it seem like if someone says they like someone that they must give them love/kissing/sex, but it’s important to remember TV shows and movies are not real. Have you ever had worries about feeling like you have to do something to get someone to like you?” It is not uncommon for teens or adolescents to feel some shame or embarrassment in having these conversations with caregivers, especially if sexual development has not previously been discussed with the child prior to puberty and adolescents. What is critical is that children are able to identify and access adults that they feel safe with. Caregivers could help their teens in this by saying, “I understand that you might not always want to talk to me about these things, and that’s okay. What matters to me is just that you talk to an adult you trust. Who are your people you could do that with?” Caregivers can help support healthy sexual development in adolescents and teens by helping them learn and identify dynamics of healthy versus unhealthy relationships, whether in friendships with peers or romantic partners. Caregivers can also help their teenagers learn about the risks of sexual activity- including sexting, pornography, contraception use, and navigating how to ensure consent.

No matter what stage of development your child is in, it is important to remember that navigating these conversations should be non-judgmental, non-shaming, and done in a way that does not deter your child from engaging in conversations around sexuality or sexual behavior in the future. Children engage in sexual behaviors regardless of the home they grow up in. The best thing that will help them as they move forward in life is the response they receive from their caregivers. If you have any questions regarding appropriate or problematic sexual behaviors in any age group, give First Witness a call at 218-727-8353 anytime 8:30-4:30, Monday – Friday, and ask to talk with an advocate!