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Socialization of Sexuality in Children:

Teaching and talking about boundaries and behaviors

Lynne Kenney Markan, Psy.D.

What follows is a compilation of theory, clinical knowledge, and practical information about childhood sexuality with a particular emphasis on intervening with children who have had their boundaries inappropriately crossed.

Socialization of sexuality is an important aspect of the development of the child.   In a child’s early years, adults have a strong influence in shaping the world of the child. Adults are charged with meeting needs for food and shelter, warmth and safety. Caretakers provide the early framework for the child’s attachment to and relationships with people. Caretakers provide early modeling of appropriate socialization skills necessary for healthy adaptation of the child.  Beginning as early as toddlerhood and often by the preschool years, children’s interactions with siblings and peers begin to provide opportunities for growth and development as well as ground for improvement of social skills and patterning of relationships.

An important part of interpersonal and intrapersonal growth involves the identification of oneself as a sexual being.  Children start to learn about their sexuality in the first few months of life when they notice pleasurable areas on their own bodies. As children grow they begin to develop sex role identities.  Children adopt preferential play activities, often based on their identification as a boy or a girl, and they begin to learn about social norms, customs and mores around exploration of and expression of sexuality.  Parents often provide the imprint and early guidance around sexuality and later on peers provide further influence on feelings about, meanings of, and expression of sexuality.  Parents also provide education which can keep children from being harmed.

 I. Talking With Children About Sexuality

  • Think about and try to understand your attitudes and feelings about sexuality.
  • Think about how you communicate about sexual issues such as health, child bearing, pleasure, comfort, and discomfort with your partner.
  • Identify what you believe your child will need to know in order to be a healthy, productive, safe sexual citizen.
  • Learn the facts about human reproductive systems and procreation.
  • Learn the facts about birth control methods, even if you don’t plan to share your knowledge with your children.
  • Learn the facts about medical issues related to sexuality such as sexually transmitted diseases.

II. Talking With Children About Sexuality

  • Be factual, honest, open, and simple.
  • Answer questions with sentences not longer in words than the age of the child.
  • Answer questions directly and succinctly in one sentence then wait for another question. If a question is not forthcoming you may simply re-direct the child to an age appropriate activity or you may choose to offer the child some assistance.
  • "Can dad/mom/grandma help you find your words?"
  • If the child says yes, ask a simple question that is based on the current experience.
  • In order to model that sexuality is as natural a part of life as any other aspect of family life, no need to sit down and have "the talk" simply offer information as the child requests it.  Be simple in your answers.

Boundaries That Enhance Healthy Relationships for Children

with Precocious Sexual Knowledge

  • Make children safe from known or alleged offenders, from their own reactive behaviors and from trauma triggers.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Supervise children closely.
  • Encourage privacy in bathroom use, bathing, sleeping arrangements, getting dressed and changing clothing.
  • Do not allow children to enter bathrooms with other people.
  • Teach children that no one can touch them without their express verbal permission.   As an example don't allow aunts or uncles to hug and kiss children until the children have said that they would like that. When children are taught in social situations to be polite to relatives and hug and kiss without wanting to, their defenses for potentially dangerous situations can be poorly developed.
  • Teach the children that people, even relatives don't lay with them in bed.  If a relative wants to read a child a story they can sit on the edge of the bed or pull up a chair.
  • Have kids soak in bathtub rather than have their private areas washed.
  • Teach children that they are only ones who touch their own private parts once out of diapers.
  • "Private parts for private places."
  • Teach accurate sex education; use factual information.
  • Around the house have everyone wear clothing.
  • Dress and undress in a timely manner with privacy.
  • Teach kids to practice saying "no."  Teach assertiveness.
  • Have no "secrets" in your family.
  • Have safety rules for wrestling, bumping or tickling, avoid indiscriminate sexual contact.

 Increasing Appropriate Sexual Behavior

If children are having challenges looking, touching, peeking or showing their body parts make a Braggin' Draggin' chart to help them monitor and change their behavior. Teach the children what behavior is expected of them by naming the positive behavior.

 Make a chart and have the children rate their behaviors one time per day.  Then you rate them too.  Talk about how respectful or not respectful they were of their own and other's bodies during the day.  Encourage them to respect body space - one arms length apart. 

 No wrestling, rolling, climbing over other children, bumping etc.

 Plan activities or simple rewards after five days of showing their bodies and other's bodies respect.

Have the child monitor behavior with a chart - This enhances mastery and helps 
the child observe his/her thoughts, feelings, behaviors, needs and impulses

                                                                       Sun     Mon     Tues      Wed     Thur     Fri      Sat


Kept my hands to myself

Gave others their space

Respected my body parts

Respected other peoples' body parts

Kept my body private

Enjoyed non-touching activities

 How Parents Can Support a Child Who Reports

Having Experienced Child Abuse or Maltreatment

This handout is a compilation of aspects of the work that is conducted with parents after they have learned that their child has experienced abuse at the hands of another person and they have brought their child in for treatment.  It is not intended as any form of guideline for identification or reporting of child abuse. Please seek professional consultation with a qualified physician or psychologist if your child has experienced child maltreatment.

1. Talk with your child calmly and matter of factly about the experience.

2. Support the child’s words and report.

3. Do not interrogate the child or question his/her veracity.

4. Reassure the child that the abuse was not his/her fault and that he/she has done nothing wrong.

5. Accept the child’s feelings be they anger, fear, ambivalence, confusion etc.

6. Follow through with normal life and household routines as much as possible.

7. If the child brings up the abuse allow the child to talk about it and then guide the child through re-direction to an age appropriate activity. Do not ask questions, be a sounding board by saying something like, " Sounds like you want to tell me something," or " You'd like to talk with mom about something."

8. Allow the child to move to another topic or activity as soon as possible. Again, the goal is to help "unstick" the child and help him/her to move on with life’s developmental tasks.

9. Depending on the type and degree of reported abuse, you may need to discontinue all contact in person, by phone and by writing with the person(s) the child has identified as having abused him/her until further advised by the police or a mental health clinician experienced in child abuse.

10. Enlist the assistance of an experienced licensed professional to educate parents, relatives, and teachers, about helping children through trauma.

11. In the case of reported sexual abuse, contact an experienced licensed professional to learn the facts about trauma reactions, sexually reactive children, and types of treatment or intervention.

General Goals for Parenting a Child in Need of

Emotional Containment

  • Establish an emotionally safe home environment where the child is shown, through parent modeling, that feelings can be identified, explored, respected and worked through.
  • Help the child modulate feelings, and behavior through increasing the ability of the child to observe her own behavior, identify events that precede her feeling out of control, and by assisting her to delay action and make conscious choices about her behavior.
  • Help the child to accept accountability for her own behavior with calm, and direct confrontation that is factually based. No need to blame or criticize the child, simply point her behavior out and make her take responsibility for what she has done.
  • Build sense of worth through successful actions.
  • Reinforce successive approximations to a desired task or outcome.
  • Build healthy attachments through empathy.
  • Enhance social relationships with peers.
  • Monitor symptoms (they often signify the need for professional assistance) - anxiety, depression, fears, bedwetting, nightmares, isolation, regression etc.

 General Goals for Parenting a Child in Need of Physical Containment

 Identify triggers to sexual acting out and manage the child's life to minimize exposure to triggers

Identify behaviors or circumstances which precede sexual acting out or regression and manage 
the child's life to minimize exposure to antecedent events.

Remember safety first. Children need to be safe from sexually mistreating themselves or others.

 Educate other adults and children about sexual safety. 
Respect each other's body. Respect each other's space. No sexual touching.

 Managing Behavior in Children and Teens

  • People need a sense that they are important and they can make a difference in their world.

  • identify positive role models in the child/teen’s world
  • differentiate between one’s selfhood and one’s behavior
  • provide opportunities for everyone to express feelings

  • communicate clear messages, this is okay, this is not okay
  • assure others that everyone makes mistakes
  • set limits clearly, be consistent

  • provide opportunities to re-work mistakes

  • clearly identify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors
  • enhance socialization skills

  • be factual and honest, not blaming and bargaining

  • enhance problem solving skills

  • communicate, don’t lecture

  • learn and practice prevention skills
  • send a message that you expect accountability for behavior 

  • enhance social support

  • use honest, calm, and clear confrontation for unacceptable behavior

  • enhance familial support
  • establish consequences for inappropriate behavior
  • encourage healthy peer relationships

  • encourage mastery, individuality, and competence

  • identify islands of competence - areas in which the child can shine!

Copyright © 1999, by the author.