Helping Children Develop Healthy Sexual Behavior and Attitudes

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Apr 21, 2014


After seeing two teenagers kissing passionately in a park, your five year-old son looks up and asks you, "Mommy, why are they sexing?" Or, your ten year-old daughter comes to you visibly upset and discloses to you that one of her fifth grade classmates said to her during recess, "You really make my _ _ _ _ (penis) hard." Or, you overhear one of your thirteen year-old daughter's friends telling her, "So-and-so is giving out _ _ _ _ (oral sex) to all the boys!" Or, you read in the newspaper that police showed up at a school because a third grade boy was caught touching and attempting to sodomize a female classmate. You can't help but be astounded by how much sexual awareness there is among young people today. Even if you think your own child is innocent and sheltered from sexual talk and experiences, you can't get over what you see and hear about what the "other" kids are doing.

Times have changed considerably. I've been involved in public school sex education for over twenty years, yet I am amazed at the significant numbers of children who express sexualized behaviors at younger and younger ages. As a whole, they seem to be genuinely more interested in sex, as if their curiosity about sex has been ratcheted up several notches. For parents, the days of postponing any discussion about intimate sex with your kids until they become teenagers are long gone. Today, if you haven't discussed the biological, psychological and moral implications of sexual relations with your kids by the time they've entered middle school, make a change quickly!

What factors influence the sexualization of children?

  • We live in a sexually potent environment. Before a child even reaches puberty, he or she has likely been exposed to thousands of sexual messages. Moreover, many of these messages are very explicit, sensational, violent, and lack any mention of the importance of emotional commitment in sexual relationships. We know that when children are exposed to excessive amounts of sexual stimuli, particularly at early ages when it can be confusing and incomprehensible, there is the potential for negative behaviors to follow.
  • Excessive exposure to sexual stimuli can result in sexualized bullies. Children who bully are also being bombarded by sexual stimuli. It makes sense that a percentage of these bullies will learn to incorporate sexual harm as part of their bullying tactics. This also raises the question, "Are we cultivating more sexual abusers and offenders as a result?" I have been particularly alarmed at the unusually high number of cases of young children who sexually hurt other children in our public schools. When we begin to see an inordinate number of elementary school children who act sexually aggressive, as I have from my position as Director of Health Services in a school district, red flags need to be raised.
  • Approximately 88,000 children were sexually abused in the United States in 2000. It is generally accepted that 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males will be sexually abused, assaulted, or raped before age 18. Many children who have been sexually abused will display problematic sexual behaviors. Although not a majority, many will also grow up to become abusers themselves.
  • A majority of parents do not communicate with their kids about sex, and when they do it is usually not enough. From an empirical standpoint, we know that many parents in the United States have difficulty speaking to their children about sexual issues. We also know that even when parents think they communicate well, their children frequently tell us it's not enough. Poor parent-child communication only hinders the child's ability to understand sexual matters. The good news is that when parents do communicate well, the results can be profound. In families where effective communication occurs, research shows children are less likely to experience intercourse, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted disease.
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