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When your child starts exploring ‘down there’

 Photo: Courtesy

Children's sexuality development is a normal part of their growing body awareness. Even before they are born, children experiment with their bodies, including their sex organs. Sexuality play and experimentation, including touching for pleasure, continue into childhood as a normal, healthy aspect of development.

Sexuality development unfolds in a relatively predictable progression during the period between birth and three years. Infants and toddlers explore their body parts, including their genitals, begin to develop positive or negative attitudes about their bodies and experience genital pleasure.

Preschoolers may engage in various forms of sexuality-related play, such as undressing to see each other's bodies or playing Doctor, or Mummy and Daddy. They enjoy bathroom humour and will use sexual slang they've heard instead of the proper terms when discussing their body parts.

Children at this age show a lot of interest in pregnancy and birth. And they will masturbate at home and sometimes at school. They may show other children their private body parts, try to look at the bodies of other children, and show interest in the bodies of their family members, especially a same-sex parent.

The important thing is for adults to treat children's sexuality experimentation and play as normal. When a child is found to be engaging in such activity, this is an opportunity to reinforce an important message: that all children experiment this way sometimes; and that such experimenting is alright, just something done in private.

How that message is conveyed will vary depending on the child's age and developmental stage. A teacher might ignore or redirect an infant or toddler's sexuality activity, but she might also talk with an older child about its appropriateness in various settings.

Children should never be teased, shamed, or punished for self-discovery. If they are, they may begin to hide their activity, and secrecy is always undesirable. Also, conveying the idea that healthy sexuality is "bad" could negatively affect their enjoyment of sex as adults and discourage proper sexual health care.

While healthy adult sexuality is typically deliberate and private, young children are spontaneous and open - which is why it seems fine to a preschooler to pull down his pants and announce, "I'm a boy, and I have a pee-pee" in the supermarket.

Young children usually make no attempt to hide their experimentation. As in all domains, young children learn from their experiences. To young children, experimenting with their developing sexuality is not a different form experimenting with mixing painting or pouring rice through a funnel. However, the time a child spends in sexuality experimentation should not be excessive relative to time spent in other types of experiential learning.

Sexuality behaviour that is suspect Sexuality play an experimentation, beginning in infancy and continuing into childhood, are normal, healthy aspects of development. But sometimes a child's sexuality behaviour is or becomes unhealthy or inappropriate in some way. Such behaviour can even be an indicator of possible sexual abuse.

Children's caregivers and teachers should always be sensitive to sexuality behaviour that seems inappropriate or typical for a particular child or for children of a particular age.

Some uncommon or atypical behaviours that should always cause adults to take note: *Discussion by a child about sexual acts or attempts by a child to give to engage in a sex act with another child *Attempts to engage a stranger in sexuality play *Classmates begin to complain about the child's sexuality play *Unusually detailed or suddenly heightened interest or information about sexual behaviour *Inappropriate sexuality play such as use of force, penetration of any oral cavity with a foreign object, or attempts to engage a much older or younger child in sexual interaction.

Another problem is hiding or denying or becoming angry when observed engaged in sexual play. Even once children begin to understand that some body parts and activities are 'private' their healthy sexuality play is not fraught with secrecy typically.

So although children may hide or deny their behaviour if they have been shamed or punished for it, there could be other, more dangerous causes-such as child sexual abuse.

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