CHILD SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT
Sexuality begins at birth. Children reach physical and emotional milestones as they grow – such as learning to walk and talk. They also reach important milestones in how they feel and learn about their bodies, how they experience relationships with family members and friends, and how they become aware of and identify their gender. Children also develop thoughts and feelings and values and beliefs about sexuality. These examples of child sexual development are natural and innate. Parents and caregivers can play an important role in supporting their children through these vital developmental milestones.
INFANTS & TODDLERS
Infants experience close emotional attachments to their parents and/or caregivers. This is an important first experience of relationships and physical intimacy. Modeling positive affectionate behaviour may shape future experiences and expectations of relationships.
It is common for infants and toddlers to experience erections, and to explore their bodies by touching their genitals – in much the same way that children explore all other parts of their bodies, such as fingers and toes. This is perfectly natural, and responding positively (instead of responding with anger or shame) can teach children that it is normal to feel curious about their body.
Very young children start to develop a sense of being male or female, or their gender identity. By age 2 or 3, kids understand the difference between genders, and might begin to identify themselves with one or more genders. At this age, children will also begin to understand gender roles, or cultural rules about how people of different genders interact and behave. Children receive these messages from both inside and outside the home. Parents and caregivers can consider the ways that messages about gender and gender roles can be very limiting for children, as we know that gender exists outside of a binary, and also outside of a spectrum.
Pre-school aged children are naturally curious, and will continue to explore their bodies through touch. This is natural, and not a cause for concern. However, pre-school aged children are old enough to begin to understand privacy. Children this age can learn that some things, like touching private parts, are not meant to be done in public. They are also old enough to understand their rights about their bodies, as well. For example, parents and caregivers can explain that no one has a right to touch their private parts – not even family members or friends (except in cases of reasonable caretaker hygiene, and health care providers during relevant medical appointments). Parents and caregivers can help support their children in setting boundaries for themselves, like deciding not to hug or kiss family members goodbye.
It is also common for children of this age to be curious about other bodies. They may be interested in looking at other bodies. It is important to reinforce the fact that everyone is entitled to privacy – including friends and family members. At this age, children may also be curious about things like where babies come from and why other bodies may have different body parts. Parents and caregivers can answer honestly with facts.
SERC MB offers many wonderful books through our free lending libraries that may help to satisfy children’s curiosity about body parts, and help answer questions like “where do babies come from?”
Children at this are continue to be interested in body parts and body functions. They may be curious about what other bodies look like, as well. Children may have more questions about sex and sexuality, and may begin to develop a sense of humour about sex. In addition, media and peers begin to play a much bigger role in shaping children’s understanding of sexuality. Parents and caregivers can help offer positive support around the messages that children might be receiving about bodies, gender roles, relationships, consent, and sexuality.
Puberty may begin during the elementary school years, and parents and caregivers can help support children through this by offering information and resources about things like body changes, menstruation, wet dreams, etc. and by answering questions about puberty changes openly and honestly. Parents and caregivers can also model acceptance and comfort about bodies and physical changes during these important transitions. SERC MB has many puberty resources available for youth and for parents to learn more information, and increase comfort around discussions about sexual health.
Adolescents may focus most of their energies on establishing independence, and determining their sense of self. Teens may be interested in dating, intimacy, and relationships. They may look to parents or caregivers, or other trusted adults for support and information about things like healthy relationships, consent, safer sex, and decision-making. They may need increased information about sex, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy. SERC MB has a variety of resources available to help parents and caregivers understand adolescent sexual development, including the need to establish independence. As well, SERC MB can offer tools to help families communicate openly and honestly about adolescent sexuality.
In addition to resources and books, SERC MB offers support to parents/caregivers who would like to learn more about supporting their children through sexual development milestones. Contact us to find out more information about our services for parents and caregivers.
Adapted from www.kidshealth.org