A lot of my friends have little boys about five and six years old and they have all been very stressed out because their boys have been caught exploring their private parts with each other and/or stimulating themselves alone. They tend to freak out and want to punish their kids, especially the dads. Can you address how to handle this? I think a lot of parents could benefit as to what is age appropriate and what isn’t and how to go about consequences, how to talk to your children even that young about their bodies, and what to do about play dates with other kids after inappropriate behaviors have been discovered.
I’ve noticed how many parents these days tend to imagine the worst-case scenario when they catch their young children exploring their own or other kids’ private areas. Even for the most sophisticated parents, it’s still difficult to react unemotionally to these surprise discoveries. It’s even more difficult when it involves someone else’s child.
It’s best to start from a neutral place that doesn’t shame the child for their curiosity about their own and others’ bodies. Sexual appetite doesn’t drive their curiosity. Instead, they’re driven by their instinct to explore, learn and experience the world around them. Adults are the ones who sexualize this exploration and end up shaming children’s experience with their own bodies.
I recognize that most parents are terrified they are dealing with potential sexual abuse issues when their children are exploring themselves and other children. While I certainly have seen my share of sexual abuse in over 15 years as a professional counselor, I also recognize that the way to deal with both innocent exploration and more serious issues of child sexual abuse is to respond in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the child.
Our reactions teach our children how they should feel about their bodies, their emotions and the world around them. If we overreact with anger, panic and shame, our children get the message that they are bad and have done something horrible to upset mom or dad. This message is difficult to undo, so it’s important to think ahead about how you want to respond to your child’s sexual behavior so they can learn the lessons you want to impart.
Check your own feelings about bodies and sexuality. Are you disgusted with your own body and sexuality? If so, you will be horrified to see that your child is curious about his or her own body. Again, this isn’t sexual for your children. They are discovering how things feel and how their bodies respond. We don’t want them to be ashamed of their bodies but want them to recognize the wonders of how their body works.
In most cases involving small children, a gentle and straightforward redirection is sufficient. If, for example, you encounter two young children engaged in exploration of their bodies, you can calmly say, “Let’s pull your pants up and find something else to play.” Children will learn from these direct boundaries that this is something they shouldn’t do. You don’t need to lecture them or punish them.
Children are often satisfied with direct and neutral answers about their bodies. These issues aren’t complicated for them, as they often are for adults. Use anatomically correct names for body parts, as using slang names or nicknames for body parts communicates shame about their own bodies. The less reactive you are about their questions and discoveries, the more they’ll be at peace with their bodies. Your anxiety and panic about their bodies will only drive more intense curiosity.
Dr. Haim Ginott wrote:
Sex education has two parts: information and values. Information can be given in school, church, or at home. But values are best learned at home.
Your children need to know your values about sex and their bodies. Punishing your children for curiosity about their bodies doesn’t teach them values – it teaches them fear and shame.
Instead, if your child is exploring his body or another child’s body, you can set the initial boundary and then succinctly impart your value to him privately. For example, you might say, “I can see you are so curious about your friend’s body, but we give other people privacy and don’t touch their private parts or let them touch ours.”
Seek out reputable resources on teaching children about sex and bodies so you have accurate information and clarity about your own values. When you are prepared, you won’t overwhelm your child. If you’re worried about a child demonstrating signs of being sexually abused, then seek help from a child therapist who can help you know how to approach this delicate situation.
If your children have questions about bodies, find out what they understand and know first, and then clarify, if necessary. By letting them lead, you only share at the level they understand. As they get older and it’s an appropriate time to give them more information, they will already have comfortable familiarity with the subject matter and it won’t be so uncomfortable for you or them.
Parents need to have honest and open conversations with other parents so children aren’t punished or shamed for developmentally normal curiosity. If you notice something odd or unusual, react calmly and set an appropriate boundary. Talk privately with the other parent and give them a chance to respond to their own child.
We want our children to appreciate their bodies, to have a safe environment to discover their bodies, and to not worry about being a bad person for simply learning how the body works. As you and your friends learn how to navigate these new stages for your children, it will help everyone relax and give the children a positive message about their developing bodies.
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Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
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