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HEALTHY SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT

All parents have questions about growing up and healthy development for their child. The information on this page is also helpful for service providers working with parenting youth, such as Jade (see Jade’s story below). Parenting youth often need support, not just when their children are babies, but as they grow. Service providers are well positioned to provide this support.

Parents want to guide their children to become responsible and happy adults. This involves having discussions surrounding sexuality at an early age. Sexuality is not just sexual intercourse or activity.

Sexuality includes:

  • Gender roles, identities and sexual orientation.
  • Body image.
  • Relationships with others.
  • How we grow and change over the years.
  • Our bodies and how we reproduce.
  • Personality, communication, expression, and values.

Sexuality is not static; it changes as an individual grows and moves though different life stages. Children develop their sense of gender identity as they observe others around them and begin to learn about relationships and boundaries. As they grow and enter puberty their sexual development plays an important role as they move into adulthood.

 

Adults all express and experience their sexuality differently through their relationships. Parenthood brings changes and challenges of helping children become healthy and happy with their sexuality.

JADE’S STORY…

 

I don’t know whether to be mad at my daughter or mad at the day care. It’s hard to hear that your four year old has asked to look at her friend’s penis, but isn’t that normal curiosity? The day care said that the behaviour was inappropriate and gave her a really hard time. I’m sure they think I’m not a good parent, being a teen mom, but I try really hard. Makes me wonder how I can talk with her about sex and if not having her dad or another man around in her life is an even bigger problem.

AGES AND STAGES OF SEXUAL DEVELOPMENT IN CHILDREN

Most children go through the stages of sexual development in a similar pattern. Concerns about a child or youth’s physical development or sexual behaviour should be discussed with a healthcare provider such as a doctor or public health nurse.

Ages Birth to 2 Years:

 

  • Children learn about love and trust through touching and holding. They become very responsive to physical touch and pick up nonverbal/verbal messages that begin to shape the child’s understanding of their own sexuality.
  • Explores their own body parts.
  • Growing awareness of bodily functions (e.g., toileting) and the messages from parents and others about these functions.
  • As speech and communication is learned, children can develop language to use correct names for body parts, including their genitals. See below for What Children Need To Know.
  • Children can experience genital pleasure.

Ages 3 to 4 Years:

 

  • Gender identity develops (e.g., child begins to identify a sense of being male, female, both are neither).
  • Body exploration with peers is common (e.g., playing doctor).
  • Children may touch their own genitals for pleasure.


 

TIP:

 


Typical sexual development for young children can include curiosity about the body with peers. To help young children develop healthy boundaries it is important to talk with them about safety and privacy (e.g., your body is private and so is everyone else’s).

Ages 5 to 7 Years:

 

  • Children are establishing a foundation of their gender identity shown by how they look, the name they use and the roles they explore through play.
  • Body exploration is common. Aware of sex differences and reproduction (e.g., if family member is pregnant may want to know where babies come from.)
  • The media as well as family members influence their understanding of gender.


 

TIP:

 


For advice on how to manage sexuality in the media, see the pamphlet Sexuality and the Media: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers.


 

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Children may masturbate (touch the genitals for pleasure) because it feels good or for stress relief. This type of touch is normal – some children do masturbate and some do not. A positive message about knowing your body can be combined with a message about safety. It is fine to touch in this way but it is something that should be done in private. Help children to identify a private place that is safe for them.

Ages 8 to 12 Years:

 

      • Begin to experience the physical changes of puberty including growth of  secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., pubic hair, breast development, menstruation).
      • Peer group has increased influence on child’s self-image.
      • Chief attachments are still to members of their own gender.
      • Child may masturbate.
      • Children begin to separate from parents wanting more independence.
      • The feelings a preteen has about their physical changes may be positive or negative. Negative feelings may include guilt, confusion and embarrassment.
      • Responsibility around the home increases.

Ages 13 and Older:

 

  • Production of sex hormones leads to continued physical and emotional changes.
  • May become interested in a dating relationship. Teens are navigating friendships and dating as a way to discover what they want and need in adult relationships.
  • Greater interest in sexuality experiencing sexual thoughts and feelings. Teens experience sexual fantasies as a way of preparing for and understanding their sexual roles.
  • May masturbate.
  • May have sexual attraction or experience with someone of any sex or gender as sexual orientation is explored.

WHAT CHILDREN AND YOUTH NEED TO KNOW

For children and youth to develop healthy relationships and boundaries, they need to know the following:

 

  • Proper names of body parts (penis, testicles, anus, scrotum, vulva, labia, vagina, clitoris, uterus, ovaries). This is a critical step to respecting the body, normalizing sexual health and building self-care skills.
  • Where babies come from (e.g., a sperm cell joins with an ovum/egg through sexual intercourse).
  • A baby grows in the uterus and is born through the vagina.
  • Practical knowledge (e.g., Where are your private parts?). This knowledge is needed as soon as possible because this is a protective factor.
  • Personal boundaries (e.g., “My body is mine and my body is private. I do not ask to look at others’ private parts and I do not show mine to others”).
  • Not to pick up condoms.
  • Family and cultural beliefs and values about sexuality (e.g., what age to start dating, and the rationale for this).
  • Basics about menstrual periods, erections and wet dreams (nocturnal emissions) as normal and healthy processes.
  • Continued support building and maintaining personal boundaries, such as when to share information.
  • Introduction of how their bodies develop and change during puberty.
  • How peers, media and culture impacts self-image and sexuality.
  • Safety rules about using the internet, such as social media sites.
  • Information about birth control and sexually transmitted infections (STI) and how to access sexual health services.
  • How to recognize dating relationship problems and end unhealthy relationships safely.


 

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Research shows that children and teens value what adults have to say about sexuality. Parents sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about sexuality with their children because of myths that suggest the more children know about sexuality the more they will experiment.

 

Research has shown that when parents talk openly with their children and teens about sexuality, it leads to less risky behaviour, less conformity to what they think others are doing, and helps them to view their parents as good sources of information.

TIPS FOR TALKING ABOUT SEXUALITY WITH CHILDREN AND YOUTH

Here are some practical tips for talking about sexuality with children and youth:

 

  • Provide correct information. Telling a story or making up information to protect children is not helpful and can mean that adults will have more explaining to do later!
  • Answer questions honestly. Tell children what they want to know, using words they can understand.
  • Along with facts, talk about feelings and relationships.
  • Use teachable moments (e.g., TV shows, music or Youtube videos as a way to start talking).
  • Help children learn from both good and bad experiences.


 

TIP:

 


Parents should speak to children and teens about sexuality regularly. It is important to be practical, concrete and honest. Parents can look for answers to tough questions together with their children either on the internet or at the library. Keeping things simple and using some humour helps children feel that their parents are really interested and can help maintain strong relationships. Even if children and teens say that they do not want to talk about sexuality, parents should not feel discouraged. It is important to stay connected to children and teens, to be an approachable and “askable” parent.

RESOURCES & REFERENCES

RESOURCES

 

For more tips, advice and information about how to talk to children and teens about sexuality please see the following parent packages:
For Parents of Children: Birth to 12 Years
For Parents of Teens: 13-18 Years
Sexuality & Developmental Disability: A Guide for Parents

 

REFERENCES

 

Alberta Health Services & teachingsexualhealth.ca (n.d.). Talking to Your Children About Sexual Health: For Parents of Children Birth to 12 Years. Calgary: Author.

 

Alberta Health Services & teachingsexualhealth.ca (n.d.). Talking to Your Teen About Sexual Health: For Parents of Teens 13 to 18 Years. Calgary: Author.