One of the things that makes parents the most nervous is talking to kids about their bodies—especially their private areas and other aspects of sexuality. When do we do it? When is it too soon to bring up the topic? What if your child brings it up before you are ready to talk about it? As parents, we want to make sure our children have enough information to stay safe. They should also be able to tell someone if they are being harmed. We also want to know when to be concerned about our children’s behaviors. So how do we approach this difficult topic?
When to bring up the topic of their body
Talking to kids about private parts can begin as soon as they learn about their other body parts. Once your child can label their eye, nose, and ears, start telling them the names of their vagina, penis, buttocks, etc. While using other words for private parts might seem funny or cute, encourage children to use the correct anatomic names. Nicknames can cause confusion if a child discloses sexual abuse. Nicknames also might give the idea that there is something bad about the proper name.
Discussing the private areas of the body
You can talk to your preschool-aged child about which parts are private (parts covered by a bathing suit) and about boundaries for those parts. For example, you can say, “It’s not ok for someone to ask you to touch their private parts with any part of your body, including your mouth.” You can also talk to your preschooler about the differences between comfortable and uncomfortable touch. You can say, “Sometimes the touch might feel uncomfortable, even if you like the person. If it’s uncomfortable, it’s ok to say no.”
Avoid using “good” and “bad” touch terminology. This can cause confusion in young children because something can still be sexual abuse, even when the touch can feel good. If your child associates certain touches with being bad, they may be afraid to tell someone for fear of getting in trouble. And you should let them know that they don’t have to hug or kiss anyone they don’t want to.
Also, let your child know that no one should ever be touching their genital area except for a doctor or nurse during a physical exam (with a parent present) or their parent if they are trying to find a cause of pain in the genital area. When having these conversations with your child, use the same tone and attitude that you would when speaking to them about a topic such as crossing the street safely. Most importantly, let your child know that they can tell you anything, anytime, and you will believe them, and repeat this conversation as they get older.
What behaviors are normal for children
Many parents wonder what is considered healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviors for children.
Ages 0-2 years old
For children ages 0-2, healthy behaviors include exploring their genitals and learning the difference between the two genders. They typically have no inhibitions about nudity.
Ages 2-5 years old
For children ages 2-5, healthy behaviors include learning to describe private parts, knowing the difference between genders, and knowing the basics of human reproduction (babies grow inside of mom’s tummy). They may engage in masturbation as a self-soothing technique, and they may show curiosity about adult genitalia (such as trying to see parents nude). They may also try to look at the genital of same age-mates, such as playing doctor with them. Unhealthy behaviors include speaking in detail about adult-like sexual acts, use of explicit sexual language, or adult-like sexual contact with adults or other children. At this age, parents can model the importance of privacy during bathing and toileting. Parents can also teach the child that it is okay to touch oneself in private.
Ages 5-8 years old
For children ages 5-8, healthy behaviors include having a basic understanding of puberty and human reproduction, masturbation in private, and becoming modest about nudity. They may also understand differences in sexual orientation. Unhealthy behaviors include adult-like sexual interactions, overly sexual or very specific sexual language, and public masturbation. Parents can assist by respecting a child’s need for privacy, being clear about respect for other people’s boundaries and the need for privacy, teaching kids about puberty by age 7-8 (because some children will start puberty shortly after this age and should be prepared) and teaching kids about sexual activity by age eight. At this age, many children will start to talk to their peers about sex, and you want to be the go-to person for your child if they have any questions.
For more resources about talking to your children about their bodies and healthy vs. unhealthy sexual behaviors, parents can visit the American Academy of Pediatrics parent website www.healthychildren.org or the sexual abuse prevention website Darkness to Light, www.d2l.org, which has a variety of parent resources.