As a parent, modeling respectful behaviors and boundaries and sharing age-appropriate information can counter unhealthy social norms around sexuality and relationships. Children are constantly learning social norms from peers and the media, and it is your job to teach them what is expected or appropriate in interactions and relationships.
From infancy you can start talking about healthy childhood development. This may not come naturally for you, so you will need to learn about healthy childhood sexual development and age-appropriate behaviors to better discuss unhealthy behaviors or abusive touch with your children.
To help get you started, here are five ways you can teach your children about their sexual development.
1. Create safe, positive, and open communication patterns, especially around sexuality and development. Your children will have lots of questions about their bodies, other people’s bodies, and life in general. Answer their questions with age-appropriate and candid responses. This will build confidence and trust with your child. Teach them that there are no secrets in the family and that they can always ask you anything and tell you everything. Instead of the word “secrets” use “surprises” when necessary. Explain the difference between a secret and a surprise.
2. Teach and use correct names of body parts, such as penis, vagina, and breasts. You can begin from infancy. It might be uncomfortable at first, but use the proper names of body parts. Children need to know the proper names for their genitals. This knowledge gives children correct language for understanding their bodies, for asking questions that need to be asked, and for telling about any behavior that could lead to sexual abuse.
3. Initiate conversations with your child about relationships and their body. “When I was a little girl I had a lot of questions about my body parts and other people’s body parts. Do you have any questions you want to talk about?” Or, “I know you like to play dress up at school or your friend’s house, but it’s not okay to take off your clothes to put on a costume unless you are at your house with mom or dad home. Do you understand why I say that?”
Also, let your children know they can tell you if anyone touches them in the private areas or in any way that makes them feel uncomfortable—no matter who the person is, or what the person says to them.
4. Promote healthy behaviors by praising your children when their behaviors model healthy friendships and respect for personal boundaries. “Brian, that was great when you listened when Sara said she wanted you to stop hugging her. That was a good way to respect your friend’s boundaries and stop when she asked you.”
5. Model respectful boundaries with your children by teaching them from a young age that they are in control of their bodies and have a responsibility to respect the boundaries of others. “Most of the time you like to be hugged, snuggled, tickled, and kissed, but sometimes you don’t and that’s okay. You have a right to personal space, privacy, and boundaries. Let me know if anyone—myself, family member, friend, or anyone else—touches any part of your body or talks to you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable.”
If your son or daughter does not want to kiss or hug you or someone else do not force the exchange. Instead teach them to say, “No thank you.” They can give a high five or wave hello or goodbye. Encourage your children to seek help when something feels uncomfortable for them. It may take awhile for extended family members to catch on to this new trend in relating, so you as your child’s advocate will need to explain what is allowed and not allowed.