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What do we need to know about childhood sexual development?

Monday, April 01, 2013

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to understanding child development in general. With childhood sexual development, things seem to be even trickier! While it’s not uncommon in our culture to shy away from talking about sex with our children, it’s incredibly important to do so. Increasing children’s knowledge about their bodies, sexuality, and development is one piece of the puzzle in preventing child sexual abuse. These sometimes scary conversations (many of you may refer to it as “the talk”) play a role in increasing protective factors against experiencing abuse and may decrease risk factors for future perpetration.

100 conversationsA big part of having “the talk” is knowing what you’re talking about! While sexuality involves many different influences and factors, like social norms, emotional responses, and personal values, it also requires an understanding of the body and bodily changes. Many adults want to know what to expect and what is normal when it comes to the children in their care. Know that this idea of “normal” is pretty fluid; sexuality is personal and unique. While this is the way we ask the question, the way that we frame the answer involves describing behaviors that are developmentally appropriate compared with behaviors that are concerning. Fortunately, there is plenty of information on what to expect at every stage of childhood development. Even better, adults can learn how they can promote healthy development from infancy to adolescence! The good news is that the more you talk about it, the less scary it is! It can start small by doing things like teaching children the proper names of their body parts or calmly explaining social boundaries for being naked. The more you talk about, the easier the later conversations about sexual decision making will be. Rather than having “the talk” one time, have 100 conversations, over and over again, and do it all along the way.

In addition to knowing ways to promote healthy childhood sexual development, it’s also important to know what kinds of behaviors are definitely not normal. Organizations like Stop It Now refer to a traffic light in describing the range of sexual behaviors and what an appropriate response is like. “Green light” behaviors are those that are normal, age-appropriate, and expected—like the behaviors including in the Overview of Childhood Sexual Development for this year’s SAAM (Sexual Assault Awareness Month) Campaign. Adults are also encouraged to understand and identify behaviors that may be somewhat concerning, called “yellow light” behaviors, and take steps to monitor, address, and adjust with the child. This might include using sexual words or terms that don’t seem age appropriate. Adults should also be prepared to recognize and intervene if they notice a “red light” behavior, like forcing another child into sexual positions.

Every adult has the power to end child sexual abuse. A great start for many adults with children in their lives is to understand childhood sexual development, promote healthy behaviors, and be ready to intervene when something just doesn’t seem right. The 2013 SAAM Campaign—“It’s time to talk about it! Talk early, talk often, prevent sexual violence!”—asks us to do just that. Check out some of the resources, like the overview, advocate’s guide, resources for parents and community members, and exercises to get you ready for your (many) talks. Many of these resources are available in both English and Spanish. So what are you waiting for? It’s time…to talk about it!

What are your tips for talking with children about healthy sexuality?