Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Talking with Kids about Sexuality: Toddlers

One question that comes up a lot on my Facebook page is how parents can begin to address the topic of sexuality early in their child’s life.

If we’re not going with “the talk” plan, what does that mean about what we talk about with younger kids? I put this question forward to Dr. Dae and we spent some time together talking about what different age groups need to know.

Today we’ll focus on what kinds of things parents need to talk with toddlers about. Remember, this is the stage where you’re laying the groundwork for an open, honest line of communication between you and your child. Here are some specific areas that parents with toddlers should think about addressing:

  • Discuss body parts with proper names: Dr. Dae suggests that using nicknames can confuse and create issues down the line with shame, body image, self-esteem and healthy sexuality. She also cautions against using terms such as “down there” when discussing genitals. Instead, focus on helping your child develop a healthy, working vocabulary for all of their body parts.
  • Discuss public and private body parts: This is a great age to introduce a concept that you’ll continually come back to, namely, that there are public and private parts of our bodies. At this age, using something that a child already knows can help them understand the concept. For example, anything that your bathing suit covers is a private part. This means that these parts are their own and that others are not supposed to touch them unless it’s a trusted adult who is helping with toileting or hygiene or a doctor who’s examining them with the child and parent’s permission. Help your child name trusted adults so they can identify these people when they need to do so.
  • No secrets: At this age you want to go ahead and begin talking with your child about the fact that they don’t need to keep secrets from you. Make sure they know that they can tell or ask you anything without fear of rejection or getting in trouble. Let them know that if anyone does ask them to keep a secret from their parents, then that’s something that they should tell you right away.Also, be sure to answer questions about sexuality honestly, but considering your child’s level of development. Keep it simple for this age group, and ask, “Is that what you wanted to know, or do you need more information?”
  • Self touch: This is an age when many children will begin to touch their genitals experimentally and realize that it is pleasurable. Self-touch makes some parents nervous. I asked Dr. Dae for her thoughts on the best way to handle self-touch. She said,

Recognize that children have no sexual frame of reference as we adults do, so when they stroke their genitals, or attempt to self-stimulate, this is perfectly normal and they have just found another wonderful part of their very own bodies. Avoid punishing them or saying things like, ‘that’s dirty!’

As a clinical sexologist, I see both men and women for varying degrees of relationship issues and sexual dysfunction. When I ask my clients to recall their first memories surrounding sex, an overwhelming percentage of them remember the exact moment they were caught masturbating and it was not a positive experience. Whether it was a pointed comment such as ‘good girls don’t do that’ or a slap on the hand with a disapproving look, or the extreme of being physically abused, an intense exchange with their parents bred shame and set a derogatory tone regarding their sexuality.

Instead, take the approach that self touch is a natural exploration, just like the other ways that your child is exploring how their body works.

These are some beginning tips for talking with toddlers about sexuality. Do you have other suggestions for this age group?

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2013 by in Talking and tagged , , .
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