Children and Learning about Sexuality


Click here for a printable version of this document - (PDF PDF Icon 835.3 kb)

Government of SA - Children and Larning about Sxaulity

Learning about sexuality is just as important to children as any other learning. Children need to learn about the sexual parts of their body, just as they learn about arms and legs. They need to feel good about their body and about being themselves.

Children build their understanding of sexual matters, relationships and values a little at a time as they grow and mature. They learn from lots of sources whether parents teach them about it or not.

When parents talk with children easily and openly, it is a chance to give correct information and to discuss family values. Children learn that it is OK to talk with parents about these things.

Influences on children’s learning

Learning about sexuality means learning about bodies, babies, puberty, gender, relationships, feelings, making decisions and family values. Photo of children
Children build their understanding of these things bit by bit as they grow up, and learn from many different sources.

Parents

Children learn from parents — their first teachers. What you think and feel about sexuality has a big influence on how you deal with your child’s sexual development.

What your own parents said and did, your religion, cultural background and feelings all affect how you approach it.
You can help your children to feel good, healthy and normal by what you say and do.

How adults treat each other

Children also learn from how they see their parents treating each other, and whether they care for and respect each other.
Some children see adults ‘putting down’ or making fun of people of the other sex, or even themselves. This can teach children to feel unhappy about who they are. They can learn to feel afraid of, or think less of a particular gender.

Media

From a young age children are influenced by media such as TV, movies, electronic games, social media, websites, magazines and billboards.
The intensity and frequency of this media is far greater than it has ever been.

Children see lots of sexualised images and examples of what it means to be a girl, boy, man or woman and how they should act.

Sometimes children see examples of unhealthy attitudes and behaviours. They may see sexual violence and other sexual activity that they don’t understand and this can worry them.

Children’s services and schools

Most schools and early childhood services teach children about their bodies, including the correct names for parts of their bodies.

They teach children how to ask for help if they don’t feel safe.

Children benefit when parents talk with them easily and openly about sexuality in ways that suit their age and development.

Why talk with children about sexuality?

It is important to talk with children about sexuality because:

Talking about sexuality can also make life easier for children who don’t fit usual boy/girl ‘types’. Challenging stereotypes about what girls and boys are ‘supposed’ to do can give children a broader view of what it means to be a boy or a girl, and improve their wellbeing and sense of belonging.

While many parents accept the value of talking with their children about these matters, it can sometimes be hard to know what to say or how to go about it. The following tips may be useful.

Tips for talking with children

Start talking in age‐appropriate ways when your children are young. Try to be relaxed and easy so that it becomes just like any other topic you help them learn about. If you find it hard to talk about these things you could say ‘When I was young no one spoke to me about sexuality. It is really important and I want us to be able to talk about it’. Your children will know it is OK to discuss this topic.

In the early years

It’s best to have lots of small conversations over time. Don’t wait to have the ‘one big talk’.

Be a ‘tell-able’ parent. Be approachable and unshockable. Let your children know that this is a topic you are happy to talk about.

Finding out what your school is teaching about sexual health can be a good way to start conversations at home.

In the primary school years

Online

Good communication needs two‐way talk. Listen to your child and try not to lecture. Open conversations about feelings and relationships help them work out their values.

What if they don’t ask?

If your children don’t ask you questions, it does not mean they are not interested. They may be getting the message that this is a topic you are not keen to talk about. You will need to be the one that brings it up.
If they don’t want to talk, or say they know it all already, you could ask to chat for a short while anyway.

Talking with sons and daughters

Boys and girls benefit when both men and women are involved in this part of their learning.

In the past it has often been seen as ‘mum’s job’ to handle these things. As more men become involved in the day to day care of their children, it is likely that they will be more involved in these conversations too.

It is important that dads are seen as reliable sources of information and that children, especially boys, get the message it is OK for men to talk about these things.

No one should have to talk about things that make them very uncomfortable. If a father sees his daughter doesn’t want to discuss bras and periods with him, it’s best not to persist.

Some mums and dads may also feel they don’t have enough understanding about what is happening for their child of the opposite gender. You could:

It can help to let your child know you feel uncomfortable, or don’t know much about the topic. Say something like ‘I’m not sure what to say, but I think it’s really important we can talk about it. When I was a boy/girl, the only thing I knew about girls/boys was…’

Children with a disability

Children with a disability need to learn about sexuality and relationships too. As with all children they need accurate information that suits their age and development. There are opportunities to talk about these things simply and easily in everyday situations. Help them learn about the changes of puberty before they happen, and give them correct terminology. Concepts may need to be repeated a number of times or reinforced in different ways. Learning about these things builds children’s confidence and a positive attitude to their sexuality. It makes them less vulnerable to exploitation or abuse.
Children with a disability need to learn about privacy, safety and basic sexual matters. Seek help from professionals if you need it. Your doctor or school counsellor may be a good place to start.

Caring touch

Caring touch such as hugs and cuddles by both parents is very important for children to feel loved and learn to show love and affection. If they experience caring touch they are more likely to identify any touch that is inappropriate.
Some fathers and stepfathers worry about cuddling or holding their child because they fear being accused of sexual abuse. There is a difference between caring and sexual touch. It is the adult’s responsibility not to cross the line.
Give children lots of hugs, cuddles and caring touch. Most of all, children need to feel loved and loveable.

Children’s behaviours

As children grow up, there are behaviours related to the sexual parts of the body that are common at different ages. These can sometimes surprise, embarrass or worry parents.
Children’s behaviours are usually not ‘sexual’ in the way that adults understand them. They are mostly a natural part of how children learn about sexuality and are nothing to worry about.

It can help parents to know what is usual for their child’s age, and how to talk with children about it.

In the preschool years

In the primary school years

Make sure all children know they can say ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ to any touching they do not like or want, and that unwanted touching should never be kept a secret. Help them understand that their whole body is private.

When to be concerned

There are some things children do which might be cause for concern such as:

It could also be a cause for concern if children have unexplained redness, soreness or injury of the genital areas or mouth. Signs of stress, such as a return to bedwetting, soiling their pants or hurting themselves show that your child needs help.

If you are concerned, talk it over with your doctor or counsellor.

Children’s behaviours related to sexuality are usually a natural part of how they learn, and nothing to worry about. However, if you are concerned about your child, seek help from your doctor or counsellor.

Looking for more information

ParentLink - for other parenting guides, online parenting information:

Child and Family Centres - for parenting information and support

Raising Children’s Network - covering topics for parenting newborns to teens


This guide’s content was produced by Parenting SA.

© Department of Education and Child Development, Government of South Australia. Reproduced with permission and adapted by the ACT Government to reflect Australian Capital Territory laws (11/17).

Important: This information is not intended to replace advice from a qualified practitioner.


Published by ParentLink, Community Services Directorate
GPO Box 158, Canberra ACT 2601, telephone 13 34 27, email parentlink@act.gov.au

ACT Government Publication No. 16/0585 (July 2016)

The text for this topic is copyright Department of Health, Government of South Australia.