The main stages

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.

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!

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