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.
Ive 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, its still difficult to react unemotionally to these surprise discoveries. Its even more difficult when it involves someone elses child.
Its best to start from a neutral place that doesnt shame the child for their curiosity in their own and others bodies. Sexual appetite doesnt drive their curiosity. Instead theyre 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 childrens experience with their own bodies.
I recognize that most parents are terrified that 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 fifteen 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 doesnt 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 overwhelm mom or dad. This message is difficult to undo, so its important to think ahead about how you want to respond to your childs 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 isnt sexual for your children. They are discovering how things feel and how their bodies respond. We dont 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, “lets pull your pants up and find something else to play.” Children will learn from these direct boundaries that this is something they shouldnt do. You dont need to lecture them or punish them.
Children are often satisfied with direct and neutral answers about their bodies. These issues arent 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 theyll be at peace with their bodies. Your anxiety and panic about their bodies will only drive more intense curiosity.
Dr. Haim Ginott wrote that “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 child for curiosity about their bodies doesnt teach them values. It teaches them fear and shame.
Instead, if your child is exploring their body or another childs body, you can set the initial boundary and then succinctly impart your value to them privately. For example, you might say, “I can see you are so curious about your friends body, but we give other people privacy and dont 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 wont overwhelm your child. If youre 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 child has 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 that they understand. As they get older and its an appropriate time to give them more information, they will already have comfortable familiarity with the subject matter and it wont be so uncomfortable for you or them.
Parents need to have honest and open conversations with other parents so children arent 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 their bodies work. As you and your friends learn how to navigate these new stages for your children, it will help everyone relax and give their children a positive message about their developing bodies.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St.
George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a masters degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
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