Sexual Development of Young Children - Fact Sheet
From the time we are born, we are sexual
beings, deriving enormous satisfaction from our own bodies and from
our interactions with others, particularly the warm embraces of our
mother and father. Most infants delight in being stroked, rocked,
held, and touched. Research shows that the amount of intimate and
loving care we receive as infants "is essential to the development
of healthy human sexuality"1
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about the sexuality
of children with disabilities. The most common myth is that
children and youth with disabilities are asexual and consequently
do not need education about their sexuality. The truth is that all
children are social and sexual beings from the day they are born.
They grow and become adolescents with physically maturing bodies
and a host of emerging social and sexual feelings and needs. This
is true for the vast majority of young people, including those with
Some people also think that individuals with disabilities will
not marry or have children, so they have no need to learn about
sexuality. This is not true either. With increased realization of
their rights, more independence and self-sufficiency, people with
disabilities are choosing to marry and/or become sexually involved.
As a consequence of increased choice and wider opportunity,
children and youth with disabilities do have a genuine need to
learn about sexuality - what sexuality is, its meaning in
adolescent and adult life, and the responsibilities that go along
with exploring and experiencing one's own sexuality. They need
information about values, morals, and the subtleties of friendship,
dating, love, and intimacy. They also need to know how to protect
themselves against unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted
diseases, and sexual exploitation.
Talking to your children
So when do you start talking to your child about sex and
The answer is that it's never too early to start talking to your
children about sexual matters. Openness, even with young children,
will show that sex is an acceptable topic of conversation. Teach
your child that you are available to discuss sexual issues, and
establish a comfort level - for both of you - with the topic.
What you tell your child about sex is obviously a personal
decision, influenced by your own values, morals and religious
beliefs, however here are some suggestions:
- Don't make the common mistake of confusing sex education with
- Children will at some stage be curious about where babies come
from and it is appropriate for parents to answer their questions
- Reproductive education, sometimes described by the euphemism
'the birds and the bees' can be used by embarrassed parents as a
more comfortable substitute for a discussion about human
In early childhood (ages 3 to 6) normal sexual development of
children includes the following:
- •Children are often curious about where babies come from.
- Children may explore other children's and adults' bodies out of
- By age four, children may show significant attachment to the
- Children begin to have a sense of modesty and of the difference
between private and public behaviour.
- For many children, genital touching increases, especially when
they are tired or upset.
Some generally-accepted rules are that during this period
children should learn:
- That touching their sex organs is normal, and to seek privacy
when they want to touch their sex organs for pleasure.
- The biological differences between males and females, and how
babies are made.
- That the child's body belongs to himself or herself, and how to
say "no" to unwanted touching.
- The correct terms for sexual body parts, and how to talk about
all their body parts without feeling "naughty".
- To learn and understand how to accept their appearances and
As the child grows it is appropriate to introduce more complex
topics such as:
- The fact that sexual thought and fantasies are normal.
- That people can experience sexual pleasure in different ways;
some people are heterosexual, some homosexual and some are
- And very importantly, about sexual abuse and its dangers - that
sexual predators may seem kind, giving, and loving, and may be
friends or family members; and to protect themselves from potential
Sexual development should be explained to
children before significant sexual maturation begins.
Girls in particular should be taught about menstruation well
before they enter puberty. Children should be taught that sex
is pleasurable and nothing to feel guilty or embarrassed
about. It is also important that children learn about
contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy before
they become sexually active.
It is important for parents and carers to be aware that not only
does a brain injury not mean that a child is asexual; in fact a
brain injury may result in precocious puberty.3
Precocious or early puberty may occur at 5 years of age or even
earlier and can be a source of great distress for both the affected
child and parents. Puberty happens when the hypothalamus, which is
responsible for managing the way your body runs, signals the
pituitary gland to signal the ovaries or testes to make sex
hormones. Precocious puberty can happen for no known reason (or
even be inherited), but when a brain injury is involved the
hypothalamus or pituitary gland can malfunction in many different
ways, one of which is early signalling of puberty.
If your child's doctor suspects that your child has precocious
puberty, he or she may refer you to a paediatric endocrinologist (a
doctor who specializes in growth and hormonal disorders in
children) for further evaluation and treatment.
Treatment usually consists of hormone therapy that stops sexual
development until a more appropriate age.4
References and further information