Handling sexuality development in children with Dr Nandita de Souza

Just as children grow physically, emotionally and socially, they also develop sexually. However it is a phase that not many parents are very comfortable with, mostly due to lack of information/ knowledge or experience. To know what sexual behaviour in children is normal and what is not, understand some of the reactions caregivers can have and how to effectively handle sexual development in children, Developmental and Behavioural paediatrician and director of Sethu, Dr Nandita de Souza, was invited on The Navhind Times, Talk from the Heart, show that aired on the Goa 365 channel on Sunday, November 7.

Since sexuality is a word normally spoken in relation to adults, sexual development in children is generally taboo and most parents/caregivers refrain from discussing it openly. “Childhood sexuality is an extremely important part of child development but very often it is ignored mainly due to the fear and myths surrounding it. I believe it is my duty as a professional working in this field and as a parent to tell people that it is important to talk about this topic and also to explain that it is not difficult handling it,” stated de Souza as she also explained the reason the topic was close to her heart.

Asked if sexual behaviour like touching themselves is more common in boys compared to girls, she answered, “The scientific term for this behaviour is masturbation and it is very natural and normal. In fact ultrasound pictures have shown that even foetuses masturbate. There is nothing bad about this however it has to be socialised and children need to know that it is personal and private behaviour. How masturbation is handled has to be together with this teaching of public and private concept.” She also explained how children should be taught about boundaries and gave tips on handling related situations.

Highlighting the importance of teaching children about body parts and using the right names for these parts, she said, “Parents teach children the proper names of body parts very early on but when it comes to the private parts, they use cute or silly names which can cause a lot of confusion for children.” She recommended that the right names be used in a natural way during their daily activities like bathing or changing babies’ diapers. Debunking the myth that parents should wait for children to ask questions and that by teaching children about private body parts, they are putting ideas into their children’s heads, she said, “Most children have sussed out that this is a topic that they should not talk about, hence they do not ask questions. So if parents and caregivers wait for children to ask questions, they miss the opportunity.

Sex education does not need to be a single tell-all discussion and more importantly has to be age-appropriate. “What you tell a pre-schooler will be different from what you say to an adolescent. But certainly body parts, the private/public concept and safety must come in the pre-school years,” stressed de Souza. She spoke at length about safety of children and explained how to recognise sexual abuse. “Any change in behaviour in a child should be cause for finding out more. For example if a child use to happily go over to the neighbour’s/relative’s house and just doesn’t want to go and starts crying when a certain person appears or is not eating properly or wakes up in the middle of the night with nightmares are some signs to look for,” she said and again stressed on the need to educate children in this area.

Explaining how children should be taught to report any type of abuse, she shared the ‘No, go and tell’ method. “Sometimes sexual abuse can occur without touch, therefore even showing pornographic pictures or body parts, etcetera is abuse and we must teach children that anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should say, ‘NO’ and say it loudly. Secondly they should leave that place and thirdly they should inform someone about it.

Many other related topics were discussed and doubts were cleared.