During the early childhood stage, preschoolers display increased independence and connection with others outside their family. They are also very inquisitive and ask many questions. Common characteristics of a preschooler’s sexual development include consensual and playful exploration with other children of the same age. They may ask questions about sexuality and/or reproduction, such as the age-old question, “Where do babies come from?” Children at this age may even show curiosity regarding adult bodies. Masturbation at this age may occur. However, this is usually a soothing behavior instead of sexual pleasure at this age.
As your child’s social network is expanding with the start of school and joining prosocial activities, such as participating in sports or clubs, a Caregiver’s role at this stage includes informing and educating their children about sexual development and creating healthy sexual boundaries for their children. Natasha Daniels, a Clinical Social Worker, recommends the following ways caregivers can educate and create healthy sexual boundaries for children :
- Talk about body parts early.
- Teach them that some body parts are private.
- Teach your child body boundaries.
- Tell your child that body secrets are not okay.
- Tell your child that no one should take pictures of their private parts.
- Teach your child to get out of scary or uncomfortable situations.
- Have a code word your children can use when they feel unsafe or want to be picked up.
- Tell your children they will never be in trouble if they tell you a body secret.
- Tell your child that a body touch might tickle or feel good.
- Tell your child these rules apply to people they know and even to another child.
Caregivers can integrate the knowledge of healthy boundaries and sexual development into their family’s daily life by normalizing conversations, redirecting unwanted behavior, setting clear expectations, and planning.
Normalize Conversations. Remember, you don’t have to teach your children all they need to know in one conversation. Instead, having continuous conversations over time will help normalize these conversations and make them part of your daily life. Thus, opening the door for your child to feel safe and comfortable coming to you with any questions now and in the future.
Redirect Unwanted Behavior. When you see your child acting out, you can use reminders to enforce healthy behaviors, such as saying, “We don’t touch our private parts in public.” Redirecting your child or changing the environment may be helpful if they repeat the unwanted behavior. For example, suppose your child is in the living room and keeps taking off their pants and has received a mixed message from another adult that this behavior was funny. In that case, you can stand up and lead your child to another room to pick out a toy to play with or take the child outside to play, thus redirecting your child’s focus to something else and changing the environment.
Set Clear Expectations. Developing family rules around your expectations for your child’s behavior is important. It helps inform your children about exactly what you expect from them and also helps set the tone for teaching them rules about their behavior from a young age. Creating a structure within your family promotes physical and emotional safety as it provides a sense of predictability and consistency for your children.
Plan Ahead. Finally, remember that as your child develops, there will be plenty of opportunities for teachable moments. You won’t be able to plan for every single situation that comes your way. However, you can plan for some general situations, including how you will react in awkward situations, what boundaries and rules are non-negotiable for you and your child, and what you might say to another caregiver regarding your boundaries for your child. It may even be helpful to practice what you might say to your child about their sexuality and sexual development, so when these conversations occur, you feel confident and relaxed, thus creating an engaging environment for your child to open up and ask questions.
CDC (2021) Child Development: Preschoolers. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/positiveparenting/preschoolers.html
National Sexual Violence Resource Center. (2013). An Overview of healthy childhood sexual development. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalcac.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/HealthySexualDevelopmentOverview.pdf
Natasha Daniels (2021) 10 ways to teach children to speak up about sexual abuse. Child Mind Institute.
Charbonneau, M., Crooker, R., & Slider, P. (2007). 1-2-3 CARE: A trauma sensitive toolkit for caregivers of children. Spokane Regional Health District Retrieve from: https://srhd.org/1-2-3-care-toolkit