Children begin to learn about sexuality from the first days of their lives by watching and listening to both adults and children around them, and from their own exploration. Sexuality is a normal part of growing up.
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By understanding that sexuality is a natural part of human growth and development, and providing supportive environments that encourage children to feel good about themselves and to ask questions, parents, childcare providers, and teachers can help children develop healthy sexuality.
Sexuality includes the whole person: anatomy and physiology the – physical features and chemistry that make us female or male; sex roles-the way we act as boys, girls, women and men; sexual feelings-the normal physical drives which are affected by our emotional desire for intimacy which we may have toward the opposite sex, same sex, or both; other feelings and needs-love, warmth, belonging, self-respect; and sexual expression—the physical or emotional ways in which people communicate their attraction or affection for others; sexual values-our beliefs about sex, sexuality and relationships, which are influenced by our culture.
Many factors may influence differences in children’s natural and healthy sexual development, such as, individual differences, age, family values and attitudes, and ethnic and cultural issues. Generally, “normal” sexual exploration play of children occurs within the context of children exploring their own bodies and the bodies of others by playing games such as “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” and “playing doctor”; engaging in mutual exploration with brothers, sisters, or friends of a similar age; and voluntarily participating in “peeking” at or touching others.
When children are exploring in these ways, they are usually “lighthearted” and “giggly” and are often embarrassed if found out by an adult. Children engaging in normal “sexual play” are usually easily distracted from the behavior.
Infants and Toddlers
Children this age are beginning to learn about their sexuality by observing the people who care for them-what they do and how they act. Babies feel secure and begin to develop healthy feelings about themselves when they are held, touched, fed, diapered and spoken to in a pleasant, loving, and caring way. It is normal for babies and toddlers to explore their bodies. They are quick to learn that touching their genitals feels good. Responding calmly when children touch their genitals communicates a positive message that the body sensation they are feeling is natural. Naming all parts of their body as children discover them (“That is your nose, that is your leg, that is your vulva/penis, that is your ear”.), also sends a positive message about sexuality. Being allowed to feel comfortable with their bodies and feelings helps lay the foundation for children to feel secure in later talking to parents about sexuality.
(Three to Four Years)
Preschool age children are naturally very curious about their own bodies. They often seem to enjoy being naked, and frequently grab and rub their genitals just to experience the physical sensation. They often rub their genitals with their hands, a toy animal or blanket to sooth themselves or while falling asleep.
Children this age are also very curious about the bodies of other children. They are interested in the differences between girls and boys, learning the names of different body parts, and often experiment with “bathroom” humor. Children at this age may “play doctor,” or “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” as an opportunity to “peek” at the genitals of other children.
Many preschool age children are very curious about the bodies of adults too. They often look at, cuddle next to, grab and touch different parts of adults’ bodies. Children begin to ask questions like “Where do babies come from?” Playing “mommy and daddy” is a common activity in which children explore family life, and may pretend to “give birth to” a baby. At this stage of sexual development is helpful to create an environment where children feel encouraged to ask questions about their bodies, health and sexuality. Answering children’s questions in a matter-of-fact, accurate, simple way that they can understand, communicates a positive message to children that they, and their questions, are respected and valued. This helps children to feel secure, and supported in continuing to talk later with adults about sexuality.
(Five to Eight Years)
Early elementary age children continue to be curious about their own bodies and the bodies of others. Exploration continues through “sex play”, while there often seems to be an increasing need for privacy while changing clothes, bathing, and using the bathroom. Children this age become more sensitive to sex differences, showing a strong interest in male/female roles, often stereotyped. They seem to prefer to interact with same sex friends, sometimes engaging in mutual curious exploration through “sex play.”
At this age, children continue to be interested in “where babies come from”, asking more in-depth questions about conception, pregnancy, birth, and the caring for babies. They probably have heard about sex and may also have heard about AIDS, and may have fears or questions. They frequently talk about sexuality with friends, seek out pictures and information about sexuality from magazines, tease others, and try out “sex words” by making up songs, poems, jokes, or writing letters. Providing simple and accurate information that won’t be misinterpreted helps children this age feel secure in asking further questions about sexuality.
Pre to Early Adolescents
(Nine to Twelve Years)
The pre-adolescent age child may be entering puberty. Many children this age feel awkward and wonder “Am I normal?” as they experience emotional ups and downs, some related to body development and image. They may become more modest and want more privacy. Same sex friends continue to be important. Peer influence is strong. Preteens begin to explore the mysteries of the adult world by using sexual language, and enjoying romantic and sexual fantasies. Sexual feelings are strong; children this age are trying to understand where the feelings come from and what to do with those feelings. Sexual attractions become stronger, with romantic crushes and relationships beginning to develop. Preteens may experiment with kissing, petting, masturbating to orgasm, and even intercourse. They continue to be very interested in the details of reproduction, and in other aspects of sexuality. Because children this age are ready for and need more accurate information, it is a good time to bring up topics about sexuality including the emotional aspects of sexual relationships, safety, risk of pregnancy and other related needs and concerns. Talking about sexuality not only provides information, but also keeps the door of communication open.
(Thirteen to Eighteen Years)
Adolescents continue to experience many physical bodily changes and emotional feelings during this time of growth. The use of sexual language, and enjoying romantic and sexual fantasies continues. Many teens experiment with identity, including sexual orientation, as they reflect on the question “Who am I”? Sexual attraction becomes stronger; flirting and romantic, “falling in love” relationships develop. Adolescents may masturbate to orgasm, and may experiment with and experience intercourse.
Providing a supportive and safe environment for adolescents to talk about sexuality, modeling sexually healthy attitudes, such as value, respect, acceptance, and trust will help young adults of this age feel secure in themselves, in asking questions about sexuality, and in making responsible decisions in sexual relationships.
For more information about sexual development talk with your pediatrician or call Planned Parenthood or other health care providers.
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