Early Childhood (2-5)
In many ways, the development of sexuality during the years 2 to 5 is a continuation of the key developmental processes that began in infancy. For example, by around age 3, children should have a clear sense of whether they are a boy or a girl and have sense of autonomy and confidence in themselves rather than overriding sense of guilt and shame. With respect to gender, most children by the age 3 can identify people in photographs or on television and dolls as male or female and can tell an adult whether they are a boy or a girl.
By age 2, children will have become quite familiar with their own bodies. Now, as part of the learning process, children will start to become very interested and curious about the bodies of others, both adults and children. Recognition that opposite sex children, older children, and adults have bodies different from their own feeds this curiousity. Because the genital areas are usually covered by clothing, interest in these areas may be heightened. For example, a child will likely be curious about a mother’s breasts and a father’s penis and why adults have pubic hair but children don’t. Children will engage in “peeking” games during visits to the toilet. These can be opportunities for parents to continue teaching accurate names for the genitals as many children at this age will have developed euphemisms for the genitals. These interactions with parents can also provide an opportunity introduce the concept of privacy. Before age 5, children need to learn that nudity and sexuality are not engaged in publicly.
As a part of their intense curiosity about the human body, this is an age period where children may start to play games like “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours” where same sex or opposite sex children of a similar age show each other their genitals. “Playing Doctor” or “Playing House” are similar games. These activities are more about curiosity than they are about sexual activity. Some children will play these games with their friends and similarly aged brothers and sisters. Other children will not play these games.
“Playing Doctor” or “Playing House” are typical ways that boys and girls are able to see how other children’s bodies, including their genitals, are similar and different from their own or to try out roles such as “Mommy” and “Daddy”. As such, these games can be positive learning experiences for the child. Young children may hug, kiss, and touch each other. However, it is important to distinguish between situations where children are engaged in play appropriate for their age and situations where the interaction is more reflective of adult sexual behaviour. For example, toddlers do not typically engage in oral-genital contact. Children who do exhibit these behaviours may be mimicking what they have seen in sexually explicit media (television, videos, films, ect). In some cases, acting out adult sexual behaviours may be a sign that a child has been sexually abused.
It is important that activities like “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours” or other forms of exploratory play are consensual and a child is not being forced or coerced into activities she or he is not comfortable with. For children in the 2-5 age group, their close friends are very likely to be of a similar age and games like “Playing Doctor” usually occur with children who are close in age. Such games that take place where one child is more than a few years older than another are cause for concern. In these instances, the activity is less likely to involve mutual curiosity between two young same age friends. Significant age discrepancies between children may create a situation where one child is being manipulated or exploited by another. Instances where an older child appears to be forcing a younger child into sexually related behaviour requires adult intervention. Some 2-5 year-olds, both male and female will touch or rub their genitals as a way of relaxing, often before naps or bedtime. Some will rub themselves against furniture or pillows. As with infants, this activity is not arousal or orgasm focused as it is with adults. Some children do not touch their genitals. Children need to learn that touching their genitals is something they should do in private.
Excessive genital touching may be a response to emotional turmoil similar to the ways that many children suck their thumbs or compulsively twirl their hair as a response to stress. In some other cases it may be a sign that the child may have been sexually abused.
Children at this age may exhibit behaviours that are contrary to the ways we might expect girls and boys to behave. For example, a boy might enjoy wearing his mother’s shoes or a girl may prefer playing with trucks and refuse to play with dolls. Children at this age will have a clear sense of whether they are a girl or a boy and cross gender behaviour (e.g., the boy who likes wearing his mothers shoes) is only likely to be a serious concern if it is accompanied by gender confusion (e.g., the boy insists that he is a girl). Many children will not develop a sense of gender constancy (e.g., a girl knowing she will always be a girl) until middle childhood (ages 5-8). A child who consistently insists that they want to grow up to be the other gender should be assessed by a pediatrician.
Some children may begin to ask “Where did I come from?” or “Where do babies come from?” Others may be curious at the sight of a pregnant woman. Since the entire and detailed process of human reproduction is complex and requires a level of cognitive sophistication beyond that of many toddlers, a detailed explanation is unlikely to be necessary nor will the child be interested in the details. Basic but accurate descriptions will suffice. However, it is helpful, as a building block for future learning, to be accurate.
- Ability to identify oneself as male or female
- In process of understanding the basic elements of human reproduction.
- In process of understanding the concept of privacy in relation to nudity and sexuality.
- Enters stage of infrequent to persistent curiosity about genitalia of peers and adults of same and opposite sex.
- Occasional masturbation (soothing or relaxation rather than arousal/ sexual pleasure focus).
- Consensual exploration of same age playmates’ bodies in a playful, curiosity-focused manner (e.g., playing doctor).
- Enjoys nudity
- Uses slang terms for bodily functions
- Signs of possible sexual abuse (e.g., trauma to genitals, developmentally inappropriate sexual behaviours)
- Persistent belief of child that she/he is the opposite gender or he/she wants to be the opposite gender.
- Persistent nudity or sexual behaviour in public after being given privacy guidelines.
- Engaging in physically harmful/painful sexual activity.
- Engaging in oral-genital contact.
- Engaging in simulated (while undressed) or actual sexual intercourse.
- Penetration of another child’s vagina or anus with objects or fingers.
- Verbally or physically coercing another child into sexually related behaviours.
- Obsessive or very frequent talk about sexuality or sexuality related questions.
- Teach the basics of reproduction (e.g., babies grow in the uterus of a woman, male and female are required for reproduction).
- Teach basic rules around privacy.
- Teach child “Your body belongs to you”.
- Teach child difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching (good touch/bad touch)