Understanding psychosexual development

Children explore their bodies, seek out enjoyable sensations and notice that girls and boys are different from very early on. Here are a few tips on how to help your child through the early stages of her psychosexual development.


The main stages

Sexuality is part of your child’s development. As she grows, your toddler will go through various stages, each one prompted by curiosity and exploration.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Sexuality is part of your child’s development. As she grows, your toddler will go through various stages, each one prompted by curiosity and exploration.
When we talk about childhood sexual development and behaviour, it’s important to set aside our views on adult sexuality. For children, sexuality has a much broader sense. Knowing one’s body, discovering the differences between girls and boys, forming one’s sexual identity, learning modesty and intimacy, learning to respect one’s body, experimenting with pleasurable sensations—these are all part of a child’s psychosexual development.

Physical sensations and the oral phase

Psychosexual development begins at birth. Babies enjoy the feelings they experience when their parents take them in their arms. They like being caressed, rocked, or given a massage. “These loving touches reassure them. They understand that they are not alone, and that strengthens their attachment to their parents,” says Mélanie Guérard, sex therapist with the Clinique multidisciplinaire pour le développement de l’enfant. “This gives children a solid foundation for affectionate and loving relationships later on.”

During a baby’s first year of life, she puts everything in her mouth. This is the oral phase. She spends a lot of time sucking, not just to feed herself but also because it’s enjoyable and relaxing. Mommy’s breast, her thumb or the ear of a stuffed toy can all have a calming effect on her. She explores the world with her mouth. “When I take my son by the hands to help him stand up, he leans his head down to put his thumb in mouth,” says Robert, dad to 5-month-old Leonard. “He’s even tried to put his mom’s chin in his mouth.”

Seeking pleasure

Towards 8 to 12 months old, it’s possible for a child to discover that touching her genitals or rubbing against her stuffed animal or another object can provide a pleasurable sensation. This self-stimulation is normal and may last throughout early childhood.

“Many parents tell me that their daughter likes to rub against the strap of her highchair,” notes sex therapist Jocelyne Robert. She recommends not paying too much attention to this behaviour, which is not really masturbation, in the adult sense of the word. The child is not initially motivated by pleasure. She is trying, above all, to discover her own body and appease it. In fact, many children caress themselves to fall asleep. Others do so to soothe themselves when they are anxious. Still others may touch themselves without thinking when they’re focused on something, or when they watch TV, for example.

If your child is still very young and touches herself in front of others (in the living room, for example), you can simply redirect her attention elsewhere. As your child grows up, you can explain to her that such behaviour is best carried out in private. “You should not reprimand your child or tell her that it’s disgusting or that she shouldn’t touch herself,” says Frédérique Saint-Pierre, psychologist at CHU Sainte-Justine. Otherwise, she may feel guilty for feeling pleasure. “This may also have an impact on her sexuality later on.”

The anal phase

Between 15 months and 3 years old, children go through their anal phase. They are slowly able to restrain their urge to go potty. They start to feel new sensations. They also begin to realize that they have a certain control over their own bodies. You’ll benefit most from not pressuring your child into potty training. This will actually help her develop the skill.

“The child may decide to please her parents, or oppose them,” explains Frédérique Saint-Pierre. “This is how she shows her desire to assert herself.” This attitude will prove useful later in her relationships with others. The ability to say no is also important to prevent sexual abuse.

I’m a girl; you’re a boy

Around 2 to 3 years old, children become interested in their own bodies as well as those of others. Boys see that they are made differently from their sisters. Girls notice that they are different from their fathers. “Toddlers understand that there are two genders, and they start identifying with one of the two,” says sex therapist Mélanie Guérard. For example, when taking a bath with his sisters, 3-year-old Derek said to his mom : “Rafaell and Lexie have a vulva, and I have a penis like daddy. Grandpa has one, too, because he’s a boy.”

A child’s sexual behaviour is normal. It’s motivated by curiosity and a need to explore.

Since they are curious, children want to see, and sometimes touch, other people’s bodies. “When it happened with Derek, I told him that he could touch his own private parts, but not those of his sisters,” says mom Kelly. “After their bath, we looked at a children’s book that showed what the genitals look like.”

Towards 3 years old, children start wondering where babies come from. They also start playing make-believe. By pretending to be a daddy, mommy, princess or prince, children experiment with different gender roles. These games help them to understand which gender they belong to.

The Oedipus complex

Around 3 to 4 years old, children consolidate their identity as either a boy or a girl. They may then try to get closer to the opposite-sex parent and reject the parent of the same sex. This stage is called the Oedipus complex, and children experience it to varying degrees of intensity. A little girl may therefore try to get closer to her dad by telling him she loves him. A little boy may want to get closer to his mom, telling her that he wants to marry her. The child may also begin to oppose the other parent more often. Remember this is a normal stage in your child’s development; she still loves both her parents. It will eventually just resolve itself!

How to talk about sexuality with your child

Even if it’s not always easy to talk about sexuality, it’s important to bring up the subject with your toddler. The earlier you start, the easier and more natural it will become.

Even if it’s not always easy to talk about sexuality, it’s important to bring up the subject with your toddler. The earlier you start, the easier and more natural it will become.

From an early age, your child needs to better understand her body and what she’s feeling. She also wants to know where she comes from. This is why talking about sexuality should be incorporated into how you raise your child. “When you talk about it without shame or embarrassment, you give your child a healthy image of sexuality,” says Frédérique Saint-Pierre, psychologist at CHU Sainte-Justine. This also helps you nurture a relationship with your child based on trust.

In turn, during adolescence, your child will tend to turn to you when she has questions about sexuality, rather than to the Internet or her friends. Studies show that children who have been properly informed about sexuality have their first sexual experience later, and fewer of them engage in unprotected sex. Here are some ideas to help you establish a healthy dialogue with your child.

Teach her the correct terms

It’s recommended to use the correct terms from the outset: penis, vulva, vagina, anus, buttocks, and so forth, rather than terms like “weenie,” “wee-wee” or “bum-bum.” These words are not any more difficult for children to learn, and there’s nothing embarrassing about using them. ”I taught my son to name his genital parts during bath time or when dressing,” says Marianne, mom to 2-year-old Léandre. “I taught him the correct terms, like I did with the other parts of his body. For him, it’s completely natural.”

It’s not always sexual!
It’s important to remove our adult glasses when thinking about psychosexual development in children. If one of your child’s actions makes you feel uncomfortable, think about the intention behind her action. For example, a 3-year-old toddler who shamelessly reveals herself is not trying to provoke or seduce. For her it’s not a sexual thing at all. “Children are confirming their sexual identity,” says sex therapist Mélanie Guérard. “They want to show you that they are really a boy or a girl.” By the same token, your intention is not sexual in nature when you wash your child’s genital area, or when you carry your child by holding her between her legs. Your goal is simply to care for your child, and sexual pleasure has nothing to do with it.

Try to see the situation from a child’s point of view

For sex therapist Jocelyne Robert, children are not mini adults. They are, above all, curious and spontaneous. They are not trying to seduce anyone. So, if your toddler shows behaviours that to you seem sexual, don’t put adult intentions on her actions. Try to see the situation from her viewpoint.

Talk to her and answer her questions

It’s good to start talking about sexuality early on and to let your child ask questions. According to Jocelyne Robert, the simplest way is to include sex education in everyday life situations. “Changing her little brother’s diaper, sharing a bath, or having a pregnancy in the family are all opportunities to talk about it,” she says. The dialogue can be continued in this way as your child grows.

So what happens if one of your child’s questions makes you feel uncomfortable, or she asks it as you wait in line at the grocery store? “You can tell her it’s a good question, and that you’ll think about it and give her an answer later on,” suggests Mélanie Guérard, sex therapist with the Clinique multidisciplinaire pour le développement de l’enfant. But you need to stick to your word! Then your child will see that she can trust you.

Provide her with correct, age-appropriate information

A young child doesn’t need all the details. The key is to answer her questions simply. Try to avoid giving her more information than she asked for, since she may not understand it. “If she asks how babies come out of their mommies’ tummies, you can answer that it’s usually through the vagina,” suggests Mélanie Guérard. “It’s pointless to add more. If she wants to know more, she’ll ask another question.”

It is, however, important to give your child the correct information. Stay away from stories about storks bringing babies, or about the penis that falls off if you touch it too much. A good tip before answering your child’s questions is to ask her what she thinks. This will help you adapt your answer to what she already knows and what she is really asking.

Teach her to respect her body

You need to teach your toddler that she can refuse any physical contact that makes her feel uncomfortable. Not forcing your child to give kisses is a good starting point. This is what Marianne does with 2-year-old Léandre. “He has the right to say no to a hug, even if it’s his grandmother or another member of the family who asks for one,” she says.

Talking about sexuality can happen completely naturally during routine activities like getting dressed, bath time or story time.

Your toddler also needs to understand that genital parts are something intimate. “While playing with my eldest, I accidentally hit his penis and he asked me to kiss it better,” says Rachelle, mom to 2-year-old Nicolas and 5-month-old Leonard. “I explained to him that mommies didn’t kiss their children’s private parts, and that no one else could touch them either.”

When your child starts to show more modesty, it’s important to give her more privacy. According to Mélanie Guérard, this will also help her respect her own body and set her limits. “For example, parents must accept their child’s wish to close the bathroom door,” she says. The same goes for bath time. If you think your child is no longer comfortable taking her bath with you, or if you yourself feel uncomfortable, it’s a sign that it’s time to stop.

Answers to your questions

What’s the best way to handle your child’s emerging sexuality? Here are our answers to some FAQs.

What’s the best way to handle your child’s emerging sexuality? Here are our answers to some FAQs.

Why does my baby often get erections?

“It’s not a sexual thing at all,” reassures sex therapist Mélanie Guérard. “It’s simply a natural reaction to touch or to something rubbing at bath time or during diaper changes, for example.” Little boys can also get erections when they need to pee.

Can we have sex in the same room as our baby?

Many parents share their bedroom with their newborn at first. Sex therapist Mélanie Guérard suggests waiting for baby to fall asleep before engaging in intercourse and then doing so discreetly and quietly. You can also quite simply go to another room. However, when your baby reaches about 9 months old, it’s better to stop having sex when in the same room. “Even young babies are aware of their surroundings. They may be troubled by the movements and sounds involved in the sexual act,” adds psychologist Frédérique Saint-Pierre.

My 3-year old is wondering why his sister doesn’t have a penis. What should I tell him?

Here’s what Kelly, mom to 3-year-old Derek, 5-year-old Rafaell and 19-month-old Lexie answered when her son asked her the question: “Your sisters have a vulva and a vagina. When they grow up, they’ll also have breasts like mommy.” According to sex therapist Jocelyne Robert, this is exactly what you should say. She thinks it’s a shame that some adults define women by what they don’t have, i.e. a penis. “Saying girls don’t have a penis is a negative message. It implies that girls are girls because they’re lacking something. Conversely, no one ever thinks of telling boys that they’re boys because they don’t have a vagina!”

When my child is with his friends, they sometimes pull down their underwear when playing doctor. Is this normal?

Sexual games are common between ages 3 and 5. When children play at showing their bums, penis or vulva, they’re not guided by some sexual impulsion. Rather, they want to see the extent to which other children’s bodies look like their own. According to sex therapist Jocelyne Robert, this activity is a way to reassure themselves and to check that they’re normal. It also confirms their identity as either a girl or a boy. She adds that even if a child has already seen his parents naked, he needs to compare himself to other children his age.

How should you react if you catch your child with his pants down among friends? The important thing is to remain calm. You can tell them that their curiosity is normal and add that if they don’t like the game, they need to tell the others. “Also use the opportunity to tell them that they should never play these games with big kids or adults, even members of their own families,” advises Jocelyne Robert.

I want to protect my child from sexual abuse. How can I do that?

You can tell your child that his body is his own and that he can refuse kisses and caresses that he doesn’t want, even if they come from someone he loves. Nobody has the right to touch his body in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable or that bothers him. “You should encourage your child to listen to his feelings,” says Mélanie Guérard. “For example, you can tell him that if he doesn’t feel good in his heart or in his head, he needs to say no.”

You can also teach your child the underwear rule: “No one has the right to touch the parts of your body that are covered by your underwear, except mommy and daddy to help you wash, and the doctor, to examine you.” You can also help him make the difference between good and bad secrets. Good secrets make you happy and are fun to keep to yourself. Bad ones make you sad and hurt in your heart. Those are the ones you need to share with an adult you trust.

Talking about sexual abuse with your child can help make him less vulnerable to it. But remember that he’s still too young to ensure his own safety, and that you are responsible for protecting him. Since most sexual abuse comes from within the child’s close environment, sex therapist Jocelyne Robert thinks it best to avoid saying that sex and love always go together. “The child is then ill-prepared to protect himself or report abuse from a relative or family friend who says they are acting out of love.”

If you yourself were a victim of sexual abuse as a child, it may be difficult for you to warn your child or even to talk to your child about sexuality. In such cases, don’t hesitate to seek professional help from a sex therapist, psychologist or social worker. Your CLSC can help point you to the appropriate resource.

Should I talk about sexual orientation with my toddler?

Your view on homosexuality has a huge influence on your child. If you have gay friends in your entourage, or there’s a child at daycare with two mommies or two daddies, and for you that’s normal, then your child will find it normal as well.

You can also use everyday situations as opportunities to talk about it. “For example, if you see a same-sex couple kissing each other, you can simply say to your child: ‘One day you’ll fall in love too,’” suggests sex therapist Mélanie Guérard. “Or, if your child asks you if two girls or two boys can fall in love with each other, then just answer with a simple yes.” It’s best to talk about it when your child questions you, shows interest in the subject, or simply when the situation requires it.

What should I do if my child catches a sex scene on TV or the computer?

“The best is to tell your child you’re sorry he saw it, since those types of images are only for adults,” suggests psychologist Frédérique Saint-Pierre. “Explain to him that the actions he saw are for big people only: never children.” If your child caught a violent or non-standard sex scene, it’s important to reassure him that it’s not like that in real life. Finally, you should take care not to let it happen again.

My 5-year-old daughter has a sweetheart. What exactly does that mean to her?

Sometimes children say they have a sweetheart to imitate adults. They may also really feel a special bond with another child. In such cases, they are more attached to this friend or “sweetheart” than to their other friends. “It’s a kind of initiation to love, but it’s not sexual in nature,” explains Frédérique Saint-Pierre. “The two children feel good together; they have fun together, and they feel like they mean something special to each other.”

You could ask your child why she thinks this other child is her sweetheart. Listen to her without laughing or minimizing the importance of what she’s feeling. Even if she’s still young, what she feels is real. However, there’s no need to talk about it constantly or to imagine the relationship in the future. It’s even best to avoid using the word “sweetheart” altogether. Since sweetness rarely lasts long among children, this will prevent your toddler from feeling more hurt when the “breakup” takes place.

  • Sexual behaviour is a normal part of a young child’s development.
  • When you talk about sexuality without shame or embarrassment, and you use the correct terms to identify genitalia, you give your child a healthy image of sexuality.
  • Keep your answers to your child’s questions about sexuality short and adapted to his age.


Naître et grandir

Source : Naître et grandir magazine, April 2017
Research and copywriting : Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review : Geneviève Parent, sex therapist, psychotherapist and parenting consultant


Photo: Maxim Morin, GettyImages/Brauns, GettyImages/Evgeniiand