Sexual Development at All Ages
Understanding Sexual Development May Help You Respond More Effectively After Sexual Abuse Has Occurred
When a child has experienced sexual abuse, it can alter their perceptions of sex and intimacy because their experience was beyond their stage of sexual development. As a parent, educating yourself about stages of sexual development is crucial. Understanding this information can help you know what your child would typically be experiencing for their age and maturity level and allow you to see where they may have misperceptions or unhelpful sexual attitudes or behaviors. With the assistance of a therapist and other medical professionals, you will be able to tackle these issues early and often so that your child can have healthy, age-appropriate behaviors and experiences.
Although it can seem a bit backwards, you may still want to start with the basics, making sure that your child or teen has correct information on even the simplest aspects of sexual development. This won’t just be a matter of having one conversation and getting it over with; instead, it should be a progression of multiple discussions. This will allow you to see what they should be experiencing and what you may need to help them unlearn, relearn, or change their perceptions about.
Because their experience with anything related to sex or sexual development occurred without consent and in an unhealthy way, it may take time for them to want to open up and talk about it. As you take the time to have those small conversations, you build confidence in your child and they’ll see you as a trusted source to turn to for information about sexuality. This confidence and knowledge can make a difference because it will:
Alert your child to possible red flags in their relationships with others, including things they may not have known were red flags before.
Reduce the likelihood they’ll sexually harm another child out of curiosity or exploration, especially since they may have misperceptions about consent and boundaries after experiencing sexual abuse.
Help your child understand sex and sexual development and that it can be a normal, healthy, and enjoyable part of life and relationships.
What do we mean when we say sexual development? At Defend Innocence, we spend a lot of time on research to make sure we address the most important aspects of healing from child sexual abuse. Our approach to sexual development, and how it relates to the prevention of or recovery from child sexual abuse, includes:
Stages of development
Concerning sexual behaviors
Online and digital safety
As you can see, sexual development is about much more than just sex. It includes the values, attitudes, and interactions that we have with our bodies and those around us. The World Health Organization has said, “Sexual health requires… safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.” The Younique Foundation created a resource that states the individual rights we each have in regards to our bodies and sexuality; depending on the age and maturity level of your child, you may want to consider sharing this information and talk about the rights that were violated and how you can work to reestablish safety and a feeling of ownership of those rights. A licensed therapist—especially one with a background in sexual abuse or trauma—can be a very helpful part of those conversations.
Depending on their age and the type of relationship they had with their abuser, your child may have a difficult time separating the emotions they felt during the abuse and how that impacts their attitudes about sex, sexual development, and their own bodies and feelings. It’s very common for survivors of sexual abuse to feel shame, even though the abuse was in no way their fault. They may take the shame they feel and associate it with anything that reminds them of what they experienced. This could include feeling shame for their developing or changing body, shame for feeling attracted to someone, or shame when someone shows any interest in them. If they learn about sexual development and what is “typical” for someone their age, it may reduce some of that shame.
Survivors of child sexual abuse may also develop an extreme attitude toward sex and sexual experiences. On one end of the spectrum they may experience fear, negativity, lack of interest, or associate anything sexual with being dirty, disgusting, or dangerous. On the other end of the spectrum they may experience a compulsivity to engage in sex, including unhealthy or dangerous situations, or they may feel that sex is the only way to gain love, approval, or understanding. Neither one of these extremes is helpful in the long-term and will need to be addressed in a supportive and sympathetic way. Expanding your child’s knowledge on sexual development, what a healthy relationship should look and feel like, and allowing them to ask any questions they may have will go a long way to neutralizing these extreme attitudes.
Stages of Development
When we talk about stages of development we mean learning and understanding what’s common for someone at a certain age, whether physically, emotionally, or in some of the activities they engage in. This will allow you to anticipate what your child may go through at each age or stage in their life. You’ll want to work closely with a doctor or a medical professional to understand if your child’s development may differ because of the trauma they’ve experienced and how you can help them work through those issues as they arise.
Ways to approach the topic of sex and how to talk about it with your child or teen can feel awkward for many parents, especially after a child has experienced sexual trauma, but it’s more important than ever to make sure that you are sharing accurate information with them. This is not one “big talk,” but a series of small conversations that you’ll want to have often. Your child may have misconceptions about sex, whether from things they’ve seen and heard, or because of their abuse. You’ll want to talk openly and honestly about those things to ensure that they understand facts from myths.
Concerning Sexual Behaviors
Understanding and identifying concerning sexual behaviors and what to do about them is another aspect where we believe parents should have information so that you are better able to help and guide your child.
You may sometimes hear people say that anyone who has experienced sexual abuse will grow up to sexually abuse others. This is a myth, and a harmful one. Your child is not inevitably going to grow up and hurt others the way that they were hurt. Yes, what they experienced may have altered their perceptions and make it difficult for them to understand the difference between healthy sexual behaviors that are acceptable and sexual behaviors that are harmful. This is another way that giving them accurate information about sexual development and sexuality is incredibly valuable.
When they are able to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy sexual behaviors, they are more capable of consensual intimate relationships and less likely to be revictimized.
Online and Digital Safety
Online and digital safety involves things like how to help your child if they’ve seen or sought out sexually explicit imagery or what sort of interactions on social media are safe versus those that could be risky. Our lives are lived so much online and on digital platforms that knowing how to keep your child safe and cautious, while still being able to enjoy their experiences, can take some time. We want to help you traverse this ever-changing landscape so that you can recognize what you should do and when.
You Can Do This
You can help your child or teen by understanding sexual development and engaging in frequent conversations with them. There is something you can do—today—to give them a healthy view of sexual development that is free of shame and empower them to seek out healthy, age-appropriate, and respectful relationships.
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