A child goes through many different physical changes while growing up and shows several sexual behaviors; here are some tips on how to respond to such behaviors.
My 5-year old boy came back from school a few weeks ago with an “exciting” story. One of his classmates took off his pants in recess time and was showing his private parts to his friends; and everybody was laughing about it. When the news broke on the parent’s WhatsApp group, it was total panic! Mothers were furious, ashamed and angry with the school, teachers, and administration.
Let’s put it into perspective. In Lebanon most of the people are brought up with a poor sexual education, in fact, saying the word “sex”, “vagina” or “penis” is considered an insult or an indiscretion. There is no education about what is appropriate sexual behavior, no open discussions about physical changes, thus a simple private part shown in school could easily create an alarming incident even in the top ranked schools in Lebanon.
As children get older, they experience changes and feelings, which are new and unexpected, and they lack the experiential vocabulary to communicate it, especially when they are very young. The best thing parents can do to answer these concerns, is to give support and a lot of love. To do that, you need to remain informed and attentive. You can monitor your child’s development, understand the signs and evaluate whether or not these signs are within a normal range. If “abnormal” or “violent” sexual behavior goes unnoticed or unattended, especially in the early stages, there can be serious consequences on the child’s future sexual behavior, the way they regard themselves and their body, and the choices they makes in life with regards to partners and friends, etc.
Normal Preschool sexual behavior (ages 0-5)
The following sexual behaviors are normal:
- Children are curious about their bodies, and may want to touch or see other people’s bodies.
- Children show their genitals to others.
- Children like playing “doctor & nurses” games.
- Children are fascinated with bodily functions and with the related language (in the toilet-training phase).
- Children may want to observe others nude or in the bathroom, or they may want to be seen nude.
- Children find that touching or rubbing their genitals produces pleasurable sensations and touch themselves randomly.
How to respond to normal sexual behavior
The way you respond to this normal sexual behavior is very important, If you're too disapproving or send the message that sex shouldn't be spoken about then your children may be less likely to come to you with any questions or worries they might have in the future. Of course, this is not easy for parents, especially when your child’s behavior is shocking or morally wrong to you. But try to keep calm!
Here are some suggestions:
- Upon learning that a child is involved in sexual behavior at school – stay calm, seek more information, assess whether it is age appropriate.
- When you see your child masturbating – stay calm and let him know that it is ok if he touches himself however he should do it in private, in his room or bathroom.
- When discovering children involved in sexual play– stay calm, do not punish them, they haven’t done anything wrong! Just change their activity and divert their attention.
- When the time is right, sit down and have a quiet talk with your child, explain what is private and what cannot be done in public, what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
An open education about sexual behavior is what parents should consider through these suggested responses. However, offering no proper boundaries or talking too much about sexual behavior may encourage the child to repeat this behavior and often cause sexual overstimulation.
Do not make fun of your child, as this will profoundly affect his development and the way he regards sex and partners and relationships in the future.
Do not engage in responses that could generate guilt or feelings of shame.
Do not say it is dirty and filthy. You don’t want your child to think that they are dirty.
Do not say if you touch it, it will fall off, or I will cut it off! Please do not say that!
Sometimes children display or engage in sexual behavior as a result of having been sexually abused by an adult, or by an adolescent in the case of preschoolers. Learning how to handle these situations and knowing when and where to seek outside help will allow you to respond to your child in a healthy way.
You should be concerned when there is:
- A wide discrepancy in the age of the children involved.
- An indication that a child was forced, threatened or intimidated into participating in the sexual behavior.
- An escalating pattern of sexual behaviors.
- An indication that the child was tricked, lied to, or fooled into becoming involved in sexual behavior.
- The child introduces objects in the vagina or rectum of other children.
- The child asks to look or is interested in checking sexual images.
Luckily, with my own child, who was excited about his friend showing his private part, I was able to reach out to him and have an age appropriate conversation about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. In addition I was able to work with the class teacher to take this incident as a positive opportunity to talk about proper behavior in class, and also share several useful articles with parents. With the right information, and informed attitudes, parents can turn these occurrences into learning opportunities, helping their children to feel good about themselves and adapt with their changing bodies as they grow old.