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Talking With Your Child About Sexual Health

The growing up years

There are many sexual behaviours that are common among children. Not all children do these things. It is normal if they do and normal if they don't. Some responses may be linked to sexual feelings and many are spontaneous reactions to other things.

  • Birth to age two
    Children may:
    • explore body parts, including the genitals
    • experience pleasure from touch to all body parts including the genitals
    • begin to develop a positive or negative attitude towards own body
    • start to learn expected behaviours for boys and girls

Boys may have erections while still in their mother’s uterus and girls produce vaginal lubrication shortly after birth.

You might feel anxious if your child enjoys touching his or her genitals. Some children in their first year of life even seem to have orgasms. Relax! This simply means your child's body is working well. Children have feelings about their bodies long before they can talk. As you cuddle, feed, change and talk to your child, good feelings about their bodies grow. It is easier for infants who receive loving touch to be close to other people when they become adults.

It is important to give your child words for all parts of the body. Teach them socially acceptable and commonly understood words - penis, testicles, vulva and vagina. These are words they will keep using as they go to childcare or school.

  • Ages three and four
    Children may:
    • be curious about gender and body differences
    • try to look at people and touch them when they are nude or undressing
    • enjoy examining their genitals and self- pleasuring (masturbation)
    • engage in sex play with friends and siblings
    • learn sex words including bathroom and swear words
    • establish a clear belief about being either male or female
    • be curious about how babies are made and born and develop their own ideas about where babies come from regardless of what they are told

Children are curious about themselves and others. This may lead to sex play with other children. They are learning the differences between boys and girls - and what's the same. Most sex play is normal. However, some types might indicate sexual abuse. For example, a child may force or bribe another or there may be a big age difference between the children. If you are concerned about sex play, call Children's Aid for advice or talk to your child's childcare staff, public health staff or school principal.

  • Ages five to eight
    Children may:
    • learn what is acceptable and unacceptable to adults
    • use sexual language to shock, tease, joke, impress friends
    • continue sex play with children of the same and/or other gender
    • continue self-pleasuring (masturbation)
    • try to look at people, pictures or videos of people when they are nude or undressing
    • become modest

As your child learns to read and becomes more independent, you have less control over what they hear and see. It is important to find out what your child is learning. Discuss your values and feelings about the sexual messages they get from the world around them. Teach your child what is appropriate and acceptable behaviour for their age.

  • Ages nine to twelve
    Children may:
    • continue sex play and self-pleasuring (masturbation)
    • seek out same-sex peer groups
    • often tease and chase
    • the other gender
    • start to show signs of puberty
    • be more easily affected by external influences such as friends and the media
    • have fantasies and crushes

As your child realizes that their body is starting to change, they may be confused, anxious, excited- or have all of these feelings. You can help your child learn about the changes ahead by talking with them. Find a book about puberty at the library or bookstore and read it together. Talking about how you felt when you were young can make your child feel more normal and bring you closer together. Puberty education is part of the Ontario school curriculum. Find out when it will be taught at school so that you can talk to your child about what they are learning.