Sexuality in Children and Teens

Acceptance, understanding, mutual respect and commitment are the foundation of healthy sexuality. Sexuality is more about personal openness and love and less about pleasure and the binary politics of gender and sex. It is about conscious giving and receiving and not about social and societal expectations and dogma. It is about the support of relationships rather than what is right or wrong. The teaching of love, connection and communication allows children and teens to develop the resilience to expect and accept joy and disappointment while searching for one’s own sexuality and happiness.

Although the content and context of sexuality portrayed in the media are a strong influence on your child, the sexuality modeled in your feelings, thoughts, words and actions are the most important influence in what your child learns, believes and practices. Parents who teach a child fear, anger, shame and guilt are not supporting a life filled with happiness and conscious giving and receiving. The setting of reasonable exploration limits encourages young children to learn the limits of healthy sexuality in terms of nudity, sexual play and self-exploration. Healthy limits teach young children what is a healthy “touch” and who is allowed to safely touch the body of another.

Sexuality topics and interests differ by age. Allow your child’s age and developmental level to guide you in your teaching of sexuality. Look for teachable moments where your child is ready to learn about sexuality. Listen to your child’s questions and find out what he or she knows before answering a question. Allow your child’s questions to guide the discussion and be ready for “testing” questions your child will ask attempting to cause friction and stretch boundaries.

An interest in touching and exploring genitals and other “private” body parts on one self and another is normal in toddlers and young preschoolers. This provides you the opportunity to teach the proper names of body parts and to discuss personal and physical boundaries and the importance of exploration limits.  In this way limit setting becomes a family matter that is addressed early in life with non-judgmental understanding.

In older preschoolers, learning about sexuality progresses from exploration to questioning. Common questions include: “How did I get in your tummy?” “Where was I before I was in your tummy?” “How did I get out of your tummy?” “Where do babies come from?” and “Why do girls not have a penis?” Being prepared to respond to physical exploration and these common questions are the first steps in the teaching sexuality to your child.

As children enter school age sexuality questions progress to bodily changes and the function of body parts. During early school age children make the connection between making babies and the relationship between two people. Common questions include: “What is an erection?” “What is a period?” “When can a girl have a baby?” “How do two people have sexual intercourse?” and “What does it mean to be homosexual?” These questions must be answered with language and information that matches the developmental level and maturity of the child asking the question.

In middle school questions about love, romance and gender are common. By late school age the body and emotional changes that accompany puberty become the primary driving force for questions. The risks of risk-taking sexual behaviors, STDs and pregnancy become the focus of questions during these bridging developmental years.

During teen years the portrayal and content of sexuality in society and the media are the driving forces for questions and concerns. Teens spend more than seven hours a day on electronic devices and social media and much of this time is unsupervised and unregulated. Parents must provide media counseling to address media and peer influences on sexual behavior. Specific support and discussions must be provided concerning gender issues, respect, equality, safety and security. Talk with your teen about the pervasive sexual content in advertising, the entertainment industry and in social media. Issues such as contraception, pregnancy, STDs and sexual responsibility must be addressed in an open, non-confrontational and non-judgmental fashion. Events in the daily life of every family and teen provide the windows of opportunity to discuss these and other issues.

Knowledge, love, patience and understanding will enable you to teach your child conscious giving and receiving and the attainment of a healthy relationship with self and others. In this way healthy sexuality can become the greatest gift you can give your child.