Private Parts: Talking to Kids about Sexuality

Balancing Open Communication and Privacy with Children

It was a typically casual and warm early summer Saturday afternoon. Jess and Derek had friends over for a laidback cookout. Both families had young boys, aged 4 and 6, who were always excited to see each other and ready to rambunctiously play together. As the adults were talking after lunch, Jess suddenly became aware of how unusually quite the two boys had become. She walked toward her son’s room; no one was there. She listened carefully to hear soft giggles coming from the bathroom. As she opened the door, she was met with a surprise and asked, “What are you two doing?” Her son, innocently announced, “We’re taking pictures of our pee-pee’s! It’s gross!” he added with a gleefully sheepish smile. Her friends’ son, holding the tablet, looked up with embarrassed, yet blameless eyes.

As a registered play therapist and licensed professional counselor who works with children as young as 3, I hear a variety of stories such as this from concerned and confused caregivers. When children display behaviors in play that adults consider sexualized, it is a natural reaction to begin fearing that there has been abuse. However, for preschool-aged children, it is common and a developmentally appropriate exploratory behavior. In fact, many children who engage in play or behaviors involving their private areas have not experienced any form of sexual abuse, says Natasha Elkovitch, PLMHP.

Adds Elkovich, common normative behaviors of preschoolers include: touching their own private parts at home or in public, exposing private parts to others, trying to look at others private parts, standing too close to others and touching female breasts.

While knowing that this curiosity and naïve exploration of their bodies and the bodies of others is a normal, developmentally appropriate stage, it does not lessen the often awkward feelings and uncertainty of how to handle it for caregivers. Often the statistics related to sexualized behaviors and the adolescent stage of development add to many caregivers’ fears. According to a 2008 adolescent survey report conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, 50 percent of U.S. adolescents (grades 9-12) were sexually active, 7.1 percent had their first sexual experience before age 13, nearly 15 percent had already had “four or more partners,” and 38.5 percent did not use contraception.

However, when caregivers observe, or learn about, their child’s play involving private parts and respond with alarm, sternness, isolation of the child, or avoidance of the topic, the caregiver may be inadvertently shaming the child. This makes the mental connection for the child that private parts are bad and that their caregiver is not someone to talk to about their curiosity. Children who exhibit more persistent play involving private parts or sexualized behavior problems (i.e., touching others private parts, attempting to coerce others to touch their private parts, imitating adult sexual acts) tend to have caregivers who view their children as attention seeking, consider time with them as unrewarding, are emotionally distant and engage in more conflict dominated interactions within the family. Children who grow up with this parenting style tend to seek answers, nurturing and a semblance of love from others taking their cues from online information and peer pressure as they view caregivers as unreliable role-models of interpersonal relationships or invaluable resources on awkward topics.

So, as caregivers what do you do to help your children bridge the expanse from developmentally appropriate curiosity of the world around them in preschool to healthy decision making and boundaries?

Carlye Kincaid, a child and family psychologist at Silber Psychological Services in Raleigh, North Carolina, states that the answer is that the kind of relationship your children have with you is the key to their future resiliency in interpersonal skills, personal boundaries and healthy relational decision-making. The authoritative parenting style, balancing warmth and support with monitoring and control, is supported as most effective across socioeconomic and ethnic groups. When it comes to gender, the balance scale between warmth/support and monitoring/control seems to be tipped slightly differently for boys and girls. As any caregiver can attest, boys and girls generally relate to and interact with the world around them in different  ways. Girls respond better to higher levels of warmth and support, as they tend to place more value on emotional connectedness; boys tend to respond more favorably to realistic rules and the structure of increased parental monitoring.

Beginning in the first year of life, children are learning how and whether to trust their caregivers. Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development explains this, while also stating that during the preschool years, children are attempting to gain a sense of autonomy. They want and need to feel both emotionally safe enough to explore the world around them, including their and others’ bodies, as well as emotionally secure enough to seek out caregivers when confusion or “storms of life” arise. This time of your child seeking refuge in you is the most valuable and opportune time to start the lessons of interpersonal boundaries, social etiquette, family morals and values and decision-making skills.

With preschoolers and elementary aged children, it is best to engage in these conversations and lessons through play. When children are engrossed in their toys and imaginations, they are more likely to talk. Gary Landreth, Ph.D., a pioneer in the world of play therapy, says, “Play is a child’s language, and toys are their words.” Entering your children’s world through play is the best way to speak their language about tricky topics. Watching your children play and keeping track of the themes in their play can provide you with great insight into what your children are trying to gain mastery over or what is troubling their hearts and minds. Playful lessons may seem counter-intuitive, however, they make the most lasting memories and connections for children. It also builds the bonds that helps your children feel that emotional security to seek you out when troubles come.

Jess calmly, despite pounding heart beats and racing thoughts, says, “We don’t take pictures of our private parts. Please hand me the tablet, and go sit in the living room.” After a few minutes, both dads walked into the living room, finding the boys in the midst of setting up a Matchbox car race. They sat on the floor, joining in the preparation. As they worked, they took turns talking. It was a short discussion explaining that no one, except a safe adult such as parents and doctors, should ever look at, touch, or take pictures of private parts. The boys acknowledged they had heard, and the race began.

*All identifying details of these stories have been altered in order to protect the identity of the persons referred to in this article.

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