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Learning About Healthy Sexuality and Your Child

What is healthy sexuality during childhood?

Healthy sexuality is not the same for a young child as it is for a teen or an adult. During childhood, sexuality is your child's physical and sensual experience of their own body. And it's curiosity. It's learning about the human body.

As your child grows older, healthy sexuality also means knowing basic social manners and safety rules. These don't come naturally. Your child has to be taught about private parts of the body, when and where it's okay to be without clothes, and what kind of touching is and isn't okay.

What can you expect as your child grows?

Long before babies know words, they know the language of touch. For most babies, physical affection starts with being touched and held by their parents. Early on, babies start touching and getting to know their own bodies.

Young children are curious about their own bodies. It's natural for a young child to touch their genitals and notice that it feels good.

Young children are also curious about other people's bodies. When children see naked babies, children, or adults, they wonder why all bodies are not the same. And it's common for children to want to explore and touch one another.

As children grow, they have sexual feelings of some kind. These feelings are a normal part of growth and development. Children also have questions based on what they've felt, seen, and heard. They learn from other children and adults and from what they see in print and onscreen.

What is your role?

As a parent, you can decide how to support your child's sexual development. Sometimes, it's clear how to guide your child. At other times, it takes some careful thought.

Early in your child's life, set a relaxed tone about the human body and your child's sexuality. This makes it easier for your child to ask you questions. When your child is curious about sexual topics and feelings, show that you are willing to listen. Give answers that are honest and simple. And keep your conversations ongoing. This way you can give information at the right times for your child.

Your child needs to learn social and safety rules about sexuality and the body. Your guidance helps your child know how to behave with others. It also helps protect your child from harm.

Teach your child that:

  • The parts of the body have names. Teach the proper names for genitals, such as penis and vagina. This is easy to do during diaper changes, potty time, or bath time.
  • Some parts of the body, such as the genitals, are private. People cover these areas for privacy.
  • It's not okay to touch someone else's private areas. And it's not okay for another person to touch your child's private areas.
  • You want to know if someone touches a private part of your child's body.
  • It's not okay for a person to touch their own genitals in public.

Children's books about the body and sexuality can be great teaching tools. Reading them together can open up chances for good talks with your child. Ask a children's librarian or your child's doctor about books written for your child's age.

When your child surprises you

Young children who spend time around teens or adults (or media meant for that audience) sometimes hear and see sexual things that they don't understand. This can lead them to ask sexual questions that sound "older." Or they may act out things, like sexy dancing, without knowing what it means to older people.

If your child talks or acts in an adult way, they need guidance from you. Ask what your child thinks it means and start from there.

  • If your child simply needs to learn what something means, teach it in simple terms that fit your child's age.
  • If your child seems to have sexual knowledge that is far more mature than you expect, calmly ask how your child learned about it. Look for signs that your child is feeling troubled. If you're worried that your child may have been harmed sexually, help your child feel safe. And talk to your child's doctor.

Young children tend to follow a common path of sexual development. But each child is also unique. Your child may have thoughts and feelings that you might not expect.

If your child says or does something that surprises you, that seems to be naturally sexual, think before you react. Ask yourself, "How can I give my child loving guidance? How can I help my child grow up without shame or anger, with a healthy sense of sexuality?"

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