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Sexual Development of Young Children - Fact Sheet

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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 disabilities.


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 sexuality?

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 reproductive education.
  • Children will at some stage be curious about where babies come from and it is appropriate for parents to answer their questions truthfully.
  • 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 sexuality.


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 curiosity.
  • By age four, children may show significant attachment to the opposite-sex parent.
  • 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 their desires.2


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 bisexual.
  • 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 abuse.


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.


Precocious puberty

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

1.National Information Centre for Children and Youths with Disabilities -

2.Wikipedia - Child Sexuality -
3.Kids Health for Parents - Precocious Puberty -
4.Magic Foundation for Children's Growth - Central Precocious Puberty -
5.Family Planning Queensland -


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