Archive of ‘Parenting’ category

Supporting Your Child with their Sexual Development

Watching life happen through your child’s eyes and teaching them about the world can feel exciting and fun. However, it can also feel overwhelming or even scary at times, especially when it comes to helping them navigate their sexual development. As parents, we move into our responsibility of teaching our children about the world and how to navigate challenges, but when it comes to sexuality, it can feel uncomfortable. If sexual development is one of the most important and wide-ranging parts of life, why do many of us fear navigating it with our children?  

Perhaps it was never openly discussed in your family, so it feels more comfortable to uphold the secretive attitudes around it. According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline, this can lead to misunderstandings and possible shaming. For example, she discussed that many parents don’t have enough knowledge about human behaviors and child development whereas developmentally appropriate behaviors may be viewed as misbehavior.  Based on your developmental journey, you may have some of your own challenges with sex, making it more terrifying to talk about it with your kids. You may even have some deep-rooted thoughts of sex being shameful or dirty, so you’re left wondering: how can I navigate this with my kids in a positive way without creating shame and guilt? 

The Sexual Development Process

It is important to note that a child’s sexual development is so much more than sex. Their development bores out of the attachment relationship they had with their caregivers beginning at birth, connecting a physical association with being loved and intimate. As a child develops, they are constantly interpreting messages and learning social norms and appropriate expectations, shaping their actions, attitudes, feelings, interactions and behaviors. 

Since learning during these formative years sets the stage for your child’s adult sexuality and their relationships to others, it is vital that parents understand normative, sexual behaviors within their child’s developmental process to avoid creating shame around healthy, age-appropriate behaviors. In turn, more knowledge may bring healing and comfort to your past experiences and positive attitudes into your child’s process. This will support your child with learning healthy actions, attitudes, feelings, interactions and behaviors in confidence and safety within their bodies.

Healthy Childhood Sexual Development

Stage of DevelopmentCommon BehaviorsEncouraging Healthy Development
Infancy (Ages 0-2)•Natural to explore and have curiosity about their body, including genitals, “Who I am in relation to this body attached to me?”.
•Sensory is the highest form of information gathering: touching their genitals, including masturbation, in public and in private
•No inhibitions around nudity
•Attachment and positive physical association with being loved and intimacy
•Teach correct names of body parts, such as penis and vagina
•Explain basic information about the differences between male and female anatomy
•Help children begin to understand how to interact respectfully with peers of the same age
•Provide very simple answers to questions about the body and bodily functions
Early Childhood (Ages 2-5)•Occasional masturbation as a soothing behavior rather than for sexual pleasure. It may occur publicly or privately.
•Consensual and playful exploration with children of the same age. This could include “playing house” or “playing doctor”.
•May ask questions about sexuality or reproduction, such as, “Where do babies come from?”
•May show curiosity in regard to adult bodies (e.g., wanting to go into the bathroom with parents, touching women’s breasts, etc.)
•Continued lack of inhibition around nudity. May take-off their diaper or clothes off
•Uses slang terms for body parts and bodily functions
•Provide basic information about reproduction (e.g., babies grow in theuterus of a woman)
•Encourage a basic understanding of privacy and when things areappropriate and inappropriate
•Explain the difference between wanted and unwanted touch. For example, a hug that is welcome and positive versus one that isunwelcome and uncomfortable.
•Teach children about boundaries. Let children know that their body belongs to them and that they can say no to unwanted touch.
Middle childhood (Ages 5-8)•Continued use of slang words, “potty humor” or jokes to describe body parts and functions
•Deeper understanding of gender roles. May act in a more “gendered” manner as expected behaviors and norms associated with gender are learned (e.g., girls may want to wear dresses).
•Sex play or activities that explore sexuality and bodies may occur with same- and opposite-sex friends
•Masturbation. Some children may touch their genitals for the purpose of pleasure. This happens more often privately rather than in public.
•Promote a solid understanding of gender and how children experience their gender identity. Children who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming will experience this also, but can face confusion and may need increased support from adults.
•Explain the basics of human reproduction, including the role of vaginal intercourse.
•Talk about the physical changes that will occur during puberty.
•Explain that there are different sexual orientations such as heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual.
•Teach that masturbation is something that occurs in private.
•Educate on personal rights (e.g., “your body belongs to you”) and responsibilities (e.g., treat boys and girls equally) related to sexuality.
Late childhood(Ages 9-12)•As puberty begins an increased need for privacy and independence is often expressed.
•Interest in relationships. May want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend.
•May express curiosity about adult bodies. This could involve the child trying to see people naked or undressing or involve looking for media (such as TV, movies, websites, and magazines) with sexual content.
•As social norms around masturbation become clearer. Masturbation will likely occur in private.
•Provide ongoing information about the physical aspects of puberty and changes in their body.
•Educate children on the social and emotional aspects of puberty. Help to normalize the new emotions and needs that they may be experiencing.
•Provide age-appropriate sexuality information and basic information about sexual behaviors and sexually transmitted infections, etc.
•Encourage critical thinking and build the skills to differentiate fact from fiction in media images and representations of sexuality.
•Support them in understanding they have both rights and responsibilities in their friendships and relationships. Encourage characteristics of healthy friendships and relationships.
•Support their emerging voice as they assert personal boundaries, setting the stage for empowerment and letting them try roles out.
Adolescence(Ages 13- 18)•Puberty brings rapid physical growth and body changes, which can create body image issues. This is truefor most adolescents, but especially for transgender youth.
• Increased interest in being seen as physically and sexually attractive.
•Hormonally and biological experience: getting used to a maturing body and new feelings, including an emerging sex drive and feelings of love or desire. This can be exciting and stressful for youth of all orientations
•Increased sense of modesty or shyness and need for privacy.
•Concern about feelings/behaviors being “normal.”
•Development of personal identity and independence: “Who am I?” Trying out different clothes, friends, and interests to find their identity.
•Separation form childhood with a desire for parents to be less involved.
•Peers are most influential and peer group socializing is very important as it provides opportunity for youth of all genders to interact. What am I going to tolerate? What am I interested in? How do I have a voice?
•Provide age-appropriate sexuality information on such topics as consent, reproduction, healthy relationships, sexual orientation & gender identity, boundaries, body image, and pregnancy prevention, and sexually transmitted infections.
•Provide empathy within their experience: it is an uncontrollable process as their body changes and the new emotions and needs that they may be experiencing.
•Support adolescents in understanding they have both rights and responsibilities in their relationships. Modeling characteristics of healthy relationships. Intervening and providing guidance when characteristics of unhealthy relationships and/or sexual violence occur.
•Help build critical-thinking skills to separate fact from fiction in media, such as TV, music, video games, pornography, and other depictions of sexuality.
•Create space to build connection and trust so they have an opportunity to share experiences and emotions. Start an open and honest dialogue, ask questions, listen to understand and connect with emotion rather than offering advice. “”I can see how that can feel frustrating… tell me more””.
•Encourage independence while setting clear boundaries.

Although other normative behaviors are worth noting, this chart can be used to support you with understanding some of your child’s typical exploration behaviors. It may still leave you wondering if some of your child’s behaviors are appropriate or healthy, but since every child’s developmental process is specific to their growth process, it can be challenging to distinguish. 

Being that exploration and curiosity tend to be a common theme throughout the developmental process, looking at the motivation behind your child’s behavior is important: Are they spontaneously exploring? Is it mutual and non-coercive when it involves other children? Do they respond to your correction after the behavior is done? Does it involve more advanced sexual behaviors such as intercourse or oral sex? If this leaves you with concerns or questions, the  Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) can provide more, detailed information related to appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviors. In addition, seeking advice from a professional who can support you is also available.  

As a therapist supporting individuals through their unique journeys, I have found this topic very close to my heart. If you personally have any experiences that are creating unhealthy emotions, thoughts, or sensations and would like support with reprogramming, I would love to connect with you. As Terry Real, an internationally recognized family therapist, once said, “Family dysfunction travels like wildfire from generation to generation until one brave soul turns around to face the flames. That person brings peace to generations who came before them and spares the generations to come.” Healing yourself may be exactly what your child needs. 


Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers: Report of the Task Force on Children with Sexual Behavior Problems (2006)

National Center on the Sexual Behavior Of Youth (2023)

National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2013)

 National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2014)

Parenting the Preteen

Preteens are among one of the most difficult age groups to parent. I say this with grace and understanding to all parents because parenting is already a tough job to manage. However, the unique needs of a child in this growing stage of life are often misunderstood or neglected. Through the ages of 8-12 years old, a child’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development shift tremendously; that is why I love working with preteens so much as a therapist: I get to see them grow in every sense right before my eyes. Parents must adapt their ways of thinking in order to best support this stage of life. A preteen requires respect, understanding, and open communication with their parents. I believe parents will experience positive effects from maintaining clear, reasonable boundaries, fostering their child’s independence, and respecting their identity exploration. Also don’t forget: it’s not personal!

Create a Balanced Relationship

Parenting, much like life itself, is about balance. Therefore, it is imperative when parenting preteens to create a balanced dynamic between parent and child. The common battle of this stage is control vs. freedom; the preteen wants to achieve freedom from all perceived restraints, but parents seek to control their child’s behavior. The middle ground to rest upon is a relationship where parents set clear expectations and boundaries. Preteens feel their need for autonomy is respected, but parents still hold the power to make rules and keep the child safe. Too much control will cause the child to feel like their parent holds all the power, and thus creates the dreaded power struggle. The flip side of being too relaxed in boundaries can decrease the preteen’s sense of safety, support, and understanding of expectations in the home. If a parent tries to be more of a friend than a parental figure, how can we expect the child to listen to anything they have to say? The key to limiting relationship issues with a preteen is to build a healthy balance of limits and freedom. 

Step Back to Watch

One of the hardest tasks of parenting is loosening the reins to watch your child grow. This is necessary, but of course it is also frightening! You will see a preteen pull away from family members, change their friends constantly, and ignore responsibilities that used to matter to them- but this is totally normal in the grand scheme of development. Identifying outside the home is a positive because that means the child is increasing their self-confidence and becoming more independent. Parents, please encourage this independence to show your preteen that you are happy they can create social connections and develop new interests. Emphasize that you are always there for them and that you still value times of connection and love, but that it is important for a preteen to grow outside of what they have always known. Another hugely important lesson is that failure is not unacceptable, it’s inevitable; so a parent must prepare to see their child fail on their own. Parents should try to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on achieving perfect grades, high accolades in sports, etc. unless the child asks for this additional support. Strive for greatness, not perfection, and teach that there is more to life than being the best. 

Respect is the Bottom Line

In every stage of parenting from a positive parenting lens, respect is communicated and shown at all times. Especially in the preteen stage, the child requires unconditional respect because they generally feel misunderstood by adults. When handling tasks in the home, it is important to be calm and reasonable in your requests: for example, asking a child to clean their room after first insulting how messy it looks will foster a negative dynamic with the child. I like to call upon a parenting Golden Rule: Reflect before reacting, then respond with respect. If you model to your child that yelling, name-calling, and poor listening is acceptable when you do it, then how can you expect the child to behave any differently? Show preteens respect by listening without judgment when they tell you about their day, or remaining calm and supportive when learning about a bad grade. When a child feels that their parents respect their changing identity and will still be there for them no matter what, then the relationship can hopefully remain strong.

It’s Never Personal

My final wisdom to impart on all parents of preteen children: please try to remember that the way your children treat you is not personal. Due to changing bodies and brains and responsibilities in the world, preteens experience intense challenges! So if heightened emotional expressions and increased incidents of crying, stomping, or eye-rolling start to pop up it is likely a reaction to what they are experiencing OUTSIDE the home. While that might seem confusing, it is helpful to remember that parents are easy targets because a child consciously/subconsciously knows as an eternal truth that their parent will never abandon them. Thus, they feel comfortable pushing boundaries and buttons to the extreme because they can act out these feelings without suffering a consequence of social rejection, school punishment, or public shame. It is necessary to expect resistance from a preteen and accept the forthcoming challenges as they come, like riding a wave. In addition, please allow yourself to grieve their childhood while also holding space for pride that they are growing closer to adulthood. Parenting is a wonderful, scary, messy, often thankless, but always rewarding job that never ends. Be kind to yourself, be kind to your preteen, and be okay with not having it all figured out because they will learn from your vulnerability and resilience.

I learned a lot of helpful tips and encourage following up by reading these articles!

Being Present With Your Adolescent Child

Among parents and caregivers, numerous factors can pose barriers to making time to have meaningful conversations with our children during their rocky teenage years. Parents may need to work long hours or tackle everyday chores, consuming so much time and focus that it leaves little time to be fully present with their children. After a long workday and looking forward to much needed downtime, it can become easy to focus on ourselves or our partners, resorting to “out of sight, out of mind” habits when teenagers disappear in their room for hours at a time. Adolescents naturally become more independent so understandably they can be emotionally distanced or disengaged. As I use the term “children” here, these tips can be applied to our children at any age; it is fundamentally about providing moments of positive connection.

Provide a safe space for child or teen to be heard

One of the most fundamental needs of children is feeling safe in a nurturing environment that fosters warmth, trust and healthy boundaries lasting through adolescence and young adulthood. When children experience trauma at home in an unsafe environment, especially repeated trauma exposure, this can severely impair their ability to form positive relationships in throughout the lifespan. Conversely, establishing a consistent pattern of being available and emotionally bonding with your children forms a blueprint for healthy relationships in their developing brains, providing them vital skills in forming healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.

Moments of calm connection strengthen the relationship with your child

It is important to place emphasis on the word “calm” as talking to them from a place of anger or criticism can easily bring up defensiveness and does little to foster positive connection. Of course, there are moments where we may become angry or critical with our kids, such as becoming exasperated when they fail a test since they did not study or coming home past hours past their curfew.

Positive communication teaches healthy relationships

It has been well established that children learn behaviors from social modeling and observation. As parents, we can be mindful of how we communicate with our partners and children, setting the stage for less challenging conversations with our teens. It is important to acknowledge that that there will be communication exchanges that go awry, mistakes will happen. When reflecting on these not-so-great moments, we can practice self-compassion and think how we could have handled the situation differently.

Dining together is a big deal

It can be hard to find appropriate settings to have quality conversation time with our kids. Research has shown that teens who dine more regularly with their families (seven days a week versus twice a week or less) reported less drug and alcohol use, as well as less depressive symptoms. Dining in or out together can provide valuable moments of connection that will help wire their brains toward navigating current and future relationships.

With these simple guidelines, parents can be more intentional about the quality and frequency of interactions with their children. No one approach will work with every teen and challenges vary. Many teenagers have their schedules packed, not only with school, but social and extracurricular activities that leave them away from home for most of the day. Building fond memories even in the small moments of the day can do wonders for their well-being. After all, kids grow up so fast!


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, P. H. D. T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child. Random House.

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