Archive of ‘Sexual Health’ 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)

Talking to Adolescents About Porn

Often I am consulting clinically about how best to handle screen time expectations and tech boundaries in terms of both consumption and content. Online pornography is a subset of media that consistently comes up, not only with adults and couples I work with but also with parents and teens. Often, parents regard this topic with fear or uncertainty, so I wanted to share some resources to help create empowered and open communication around media and porn literacy. This feels ever-important during a time where curricula and state law seem to be pushing censorship or shame.

A cultural inevitability 

Our culture is still clumsily navigating the rapid proliferation of readily available and seemingly unavoidable online pornography, which now comprises approximately 1/10 of internet content. Studies show kids are exposed to online pornography at an average age of around 13, and over 40% the initial exposure was accidental. That said, exposure can happen much earlier. Generally, parents tend to address issues around puberty and sexuality around age 13. The assumption here is that sex and sexual issues do not need to be addressed until puberty. Yet, puberty happens more frequently between the ages of 10-12, and sexual consideration and curiosity do not operate like a light switch directly aligned with puberty–it’s a continuum aligned with human developmental stages and begins, in some ways as early as 4 years of age.

Why talking to your preteen or teen about porn is important

Though any sort of sex talk can feel taboo or be awkward, talking about pornography is part of a healthy sex-positive environment and creates an open field of engagement with your child. It is notable that there is a negative assumption that educating adolescents about sex might unintentionally push them to have sex earlier, yet this is statistically untrue. The earlier you can include positive and shame-free sex discussions and education in your home, the better. Based on the lack of porn literacy taught within school settings, the onus is tending to fall on parents and therapists to have these discussions when/if they arise. And knowing 70% of youth either happen upon (scrolling), or seek out online pornography (for education), this is more of a when.

Studies also indicate that, particularly for cis-hetero males, early exposure to porn may be correlated to a desire to seek power over women. Thus, having open conversations about the types of sexual engagements that are depicted in mainstream porn can impact not only a sex-positive attitude but also may deepen relational awareness and connection.

Replacement as Sex Ed

Unfortunately, only 30 states in the U.S. are required to teach sex ed at all, 13 of which are science-based. About 20 of these 30 states still operate under the outmoded abstinence-only model. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the states which lack an affirmative and science-based sexual education model, are also the states with the highest amount of teen pregnancy, and the inverse is true: sex ed that is comprehensive and empirical significantly decreases teen pregnancy.

Based on the dearth of comprehensive and media-literate education and considering the ease with which porn can be located on a device, adolescents are often attempting to educate themselves and their peers using this very easily accessible “resource.”

One of the issues with this, particularly with the absence of other forms of education, is that porn is by nature performative, and often non-consent-driven. This mainstream content easily creates the assumption that this is how sex goes. This type of pornographic content, however, excludes the awkward, messy, real, and autonomous versions of sex. It also tends to be geared more toward cis, hetoronormative, and at times violent, depictions of sex, excluding more diverse and inclusive images of sex. Finally, it outsources imagination, which is core and vital to human life, particularly at this age, to the churn of consumeristic drives of The Algorithm. 

Awareness about this stage

On top of porn’s availability and adolescents’ burgeoning sexual awareness and desire, the stage of adolescence is a marked time for black and white thinking (based on the brain’s development), and it is a wrought time for repetition-compulsion. Adolescents, our greatest nihilists, are beholden to their stage of life which is all about transformation and initiation. Richard Frankel, a Jungian psychoanalyst notes, “without guidance, left on their own, adolescents’ attempts at initiation take on an extreme character” (1999, p. 61). Frankel continues regarding adolescent exploratory methods:

Like the repetition of a symptom after the experience of trauma, the compulsion to repeat these events, be it drug and alcohol use, acts of violence, or discriminant sex, may be better understood not under the rubric of the psychology of addiction, but as failed attempts at initiation that leaves one in a state of yearning for a kind of deliverance that never seems to quite manifest itself. (p. 61)

Our culture, one without much initiation or ritual, operates via dopamine pump: check the email, check again; I liked that substance, I want more; this construct creates this emotion, repeat, repeat, repeat. Rather than allowing a substance or experiences to signify an initiation, they instead become literalized as a threshold itself, with which to carry over newly initiated vision or life stages. Herein, our culture, under which auspices our adolescents are trained, simply craves and acquires more. After the initial experience of a new substance-construct, whether it is alcohol, pornography, a violent event, or a combination, Frankel notes that the “extremity of behavior may lead an adolescent to the threshold of an initiatory door. However, without the proper structures in place, he cannot pass through it” (p. 61). 

In a word: education and cultural, or subcultural, consciousness begets awareness and can help guard against these black and white compulsions.

When/If this topic arises, here are some tips for having that conversation with your kid:

As porn is designed as a means-to-an-end, it mostly misses out on modeling consent. Consent is a must, and training around this can happen as early as 1 year of age. This begins by including permission when wanting to touch or embrace. “Let’s ask Kendell if she’d like a hug to say bye today!” And later can include teaching around body autonomy, and honoring one’s ‘gut’ feelings.

Later, teaching enthusiastic consent, about actual sexual experiences is important. This can happen in middle school if appropriate for your child.

Don’t freak out!

While I would argue pornography is not always a great first exposure to sex, it is common that it is the first brush. The more you can handle this topic with active listening, the better the setup for sex-positive communication between parent and adolescent. Also, discussing porn as a thing that exists can help your child decide how they’d like to interact (or not) with it if it comes up in a peer setting.

No shame!

Sexual curiosity and education-seeking are part of development, and as noted, made more seductive due to our cultural lack of comprehensive education. Generally speaking, when adolescents, who already naturally feel ‘on stage’ incur feelings of outer shame, they shut down. It’s on you to mitigate your fear/upset as a parent, and model and encourage an open line of conversation for your kid.

An opportunity to set boundaries and agreements

Aim for solutions rather than reactive consequences. Part of this education can be teaching kids and teens that porn exists as entertainment and is not meant to be educational. 

Within this, negotiations around screen time or media blocks, particularly for younger ages might be appropriate to help them have lesser access. Though it might feel uncomfortable, asking open-ended questions (where, how, when) rather than possibly accusatory why questions, can help aid in creating discussions that point to the purpose of the search. For instance, if your adolescent was simply curious, more education may be the key. If it was peer pressure, it’s a perfect opportunity to discuss consent (even about media consumption). And, if they accidentally were exposed and feel ashamed or traumatized, it can be a great time to normalize the instance and seek greater awareness of their tech habits, solo and in-situ.

There’s no one way to handle this intricacy-laden and, for some, discomforting topic. But hopefully, this, and the resources listed below are a helpful start!


For parents:

Is the Porn Brain our new Sex Educator by sex educator Yana Tallon-Hicks

Sex Positive Families is a platform that offers a variety of resources to support these talks

Six Minute Sex Ed – podcast on various topucs

How to Talk to Your Kids about Pornography

For adolescents

Yes to consent– a platform offering podcasts that cover myriad topics around tech, consent and porn.

Let’s Talk About It

Wait, What?

Earlier resources for younger kids

Yes! No!: A first conversation about consent

How to Talk About “Hookup Culture” with Tweens and Teens

(AKA What the Heck is the Hot Girl Summer Challenge and why is it influencing my teen to want to “hookup”?)

If you are like me, you may have little-to-no knowledge about the Hot Girl Summer Challenge that is blowing up on tween and teen social media accounts, most notably, Tik Tok.  When I first heard about it from one of my clients, I felt totally out of the loop.  With very little research, I was able to find out that it is based on a song from last summer by Megan Thee Stallion called “Hot Girl Summer.” She says on Twitter, “Being a Hot Girl is about being unapologetically YOU, having fun, being confident, living YOUR truth, being the life of the party, etc.” What I’ve learned from talking to teens and tweens is that this message has translated very differently to different kids.  For some, it truly is about inspiration and positivity while for others, it is in inspiration to “hookup”. I’ve seen lists that include…

Hot Girl Summer Challenge – Version 1

  • Taking a bath (5 points)
  • Working out (10 points)
  • Staying up all night with your best friend (15 points)
  • Doing something nice for a friend (15 points)

Unfortunately the song and its message has also been the inspiration for lists that look like this:

Hot Girl Summer Challenge – Version 2

  • Sexting (5 points)
  • Hookup with 2 guys (10 points)
  • Ghost someone (10 points)
  • Hot tub makeout (10 points)

As a parent myself, when I hear about trends like this, I panic a little inside. Further, I feel the strong pull to get my kids in front of me and tell them about every possible danger they might face and how to protect themselves.  However, what I have learned as a therapist and Positive Discipline Trainer is that trends like this one are actually OPPORTUNITIES for us to connect with our kids. 

START HERE: Be Genuinely Curious About Their World

Start with approaching your kiddo with an attitude of curiosity.  If you are really anxious or worried when you bring this up, they will feel it and shut down or become upset. Ground yourself first by taking deep breaths or trying one of the practices in this blog by my dear colleague Julie Burke, LPC.

Conversational Curiosity Questions:

  • Can you teach me about ___?
  • What is Hot Girl Summer? Can you tell me about it?
  • Are your friends doing it?
  • What were you trying to accomplish?
  • What’s the goal of Hot Girl Summer? 
  • How do you get points? 
  • What do you think of HGS?
  • How do you feel about what happened?
  • How did you feel about your score being posted by your BFF? 
  • Are you okay?
  • What did you learn from this experience?
  • What did you learn from what happened?/What are you learning from the HGS Challenge?
  • What ideas do you have to take care of the problem now?
  • What ideas do you have to move forward with Tik Tok use in a safe way?
  • What agreements do you want to make about your phone and social media use?
  • How do you plan to address this issue with your BFF? 
  • Is there any other information you can give me to help me understand?

For counseling for your tween/teen and or for parent support, please reach out to AFC to talk to a therapist today!  [email protected]  

For more information about parenting tweens and teens, please check out the following::

By: Lora Ferguson, MA, LPC-S, AFC Founder & Co-Director

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