Parents are frequently disturbed about signs of sexuality in their young children, and may approach therapists asking if their young children are too mature or overly sexual. Questions about sexuality are complex to answer, because they depend on the environment of the individual child and are determined by a number of specific factors. A parents’ greatest nightmare is that inappropriate maturity and knowledge is a sign of abuse. The only way to know with any certainty is to approach a professional, who can assist you with an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. However, this article should go a long way to answering your questions.
Emotional attachments in a child’s early years
As parents, we often consider our young child’s sexual development to be a long way off. And consequently parents are often ignorant of normal sexual development. Normal sexual development begins in a child’s very first years. Infants, toddlers, pre-schoolers and young school-aged child develop an emotional and physical foundation for sexuality in many subtle ways as they grow. Just as they reach important physical and emotional milestones, like learning to walk or recognise their mother and father, young children hit important milestones in how they recognise, experience, and feel about their bodies and how they form attachments to others. The attachments established in these early years help determine how they will bond and behave in intimate relationships in adulthood.
Babies’ earliest emotional attachments are formed with their parents through physical contact that expresses their love. Being held and touched, kissed and hugged, snuggled and tickled allows babies to experience comforting, positive physical sensations associated with being loved. The unique type of physical intimacy and emotional attachment between parent and infant can be the early foundation of more mature forms of physical intimacy and love that develop later as part of mature sexuality.
Curiosity is normal
Many parents express concern because their children touch their genitals during nappy changes or their baby boys have frequent arousals. They can rest reassured that these behaviours are perfectly normal physiological responses even the youngest children naturally explore their bodies. And many children, especially toddlers, enjoy being naked.
How you react, your voice, the words you use, your facial expressions are your child’s first lessons in sexuality. By not responding with anger, surprise, or disapproving words, you teach your child that this curiosity about his or her body is a normal part of life.
Understand gender identity and explain privacy to your child
By age two or three, a child starts to develop a sense of being a male or female. This awareness is called gender identity. Children at this age start to understand the difference between boys and girls, and can identify themselves as one or the other. Some people think gender identity is biologically determined and some say it’s a product of a child’s environment. Most likely, it’s a combination of both.
By preschool, most children have developed a strong sense of being a boy or girl, and continue to explore their bodies even more purposefully. It’s not a good idea to scold them when they touch themselves, this will only prompt a sense of guilt and shame. Parents may, however, want to explain that even though it feels good, touching should be done in private. Pre-schoolers are old enough to understand that some things are not meant to be public. They’re also old enough to understand that no one, not even family members or other people they trust, should ever touch them in a way that feels uncomfortable.
Your attitude will be observed by your child
The second way in which your child will learn inappropriate sexual behaviour is through modelling. Your young child will receive sexual cues from the environment; children at school will repeat things they have seen inadvertently at home. Your child may see snippets of X-rated movies, advertisements or music videos which are screened unedited during prime time television, and finally your pre-schooler will continue to learn important sexual attitudes from you - from how you react to people of the opposite sex to how you feel about nudity. While your child’s sexuality is developing appropriately s/he will appear happy and well adjusted. If he or she appears ashamed or embarrassed about their body, you may have cause for concern.
Protect them from inappropriate knowledge
Another potential source of misinformation is the internet, particularly if there are older children in contact with the younger child. Children, especially during adolescence, are naturally curious about sexuality and often turn to the internet to find information of this nature. While searching for information, they can be exposed to very graphic and potentially harmful material. Adolescents want to learn about sexuality and relationships, but do not have the experience to compare with some of the graphic material they come across. The result, as research has demonstrated, is that the material can end up being a teaching tool, as the viewing of it can potentially shape and influence a child’s development of values and their belief of what a healthy sexual relationship is.
Probably the greatest cause of concern for any parent is that the source of inappropriate knowledge may be as a result of sexual abuse of some kind. Child sexual abuse is defined as any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviours. Non-touching behaviours can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography. Abusers often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence.
Signs of sexual abuse
There are many cases in which sexual abuse is asymptomatic, particularly where grooming has taken place. Grooming is where abusers employ persuasive and manipulative tactics to keep the child engaged. The adult may prepare the child for the abuse over a long period of time treat him/her as particularly “special”. These tactics may include buying gifts or arranging special activities, which can further confuse the victim. Sexual abuse may be asymptomatic where children have been coerced into silence. But, parents should be vigilant when
- The child displays an inappropriate knowledge of sex
- The child’s behaviour changes (suddenly becomes moody, aggressive or withdrawn)
- There is physical evidence – blood in the underwear
- The child avoids a family member or friend
- The child’s self-esteem is low
- The child misses school
- The child starts bed-wetting
- Adult displays grooming behaviour towards child
- Child acts out sexually with toys
- If there is physical evidence which may include complaints about pain, discharge or bleeding in the private areas, parents should seek medical attention immediately.
Pray for your child’s protection
In summation, a parent’s perception of inappropriate sexual knowledge may be grouped into three categories: lack of knowledge of developmentally appropriate sexual behaviour, a child’s modelling of behaviour they have observed on television, the internet or in adults around them and finally the possibility of molestation or abuse.
If you continue to feel concerned in any way please contact a professional. You can call us at ICP on 011 827 7611.
Estelle Zietkiewicz is a Counselling Psychologist and part time lecturer at the ICP. For counselling or enquiries about studies in Christian Psychology call 011 827 7611.