Growing Up Sexually

People are sometimes surprised to hear that our basic sexual attitudes are set by about the age of 5.

Our family of origin will determine such things, for example, as how comfortable we would be with nudity, and with showing our bodies to others, without shame or guilt. If you’re fortunate to have been born in a family where your parents have become comfortable with their own sexual nature and feel “at home” in their bodies, then usually through the process of osmosis the child will pick up the same basic attitudes towards his or her developing physical self.

This approach of being open within the family with nudity is one that appears to lay the foundations of an easier adjustment later in life to the changing body that the adolescent often experiences with a sense of shock or even dismay.

In extreme situations, a young person who has difficulties accepting his or her changing into a sexually mature person may suffer from an eating disorder, at times even anorexia, a recognized illness that tragically at times results in death.

I usually tell my patients, many of whom grew up in less than ideal circumstances, that there is one generation that needs to make a breakthrough in becoming comfortable with their sexuality. Their children and then subsequent generations coming after them will “naturally” inherit these healthier attitudes.

Basically we can think of people coming from three kinds of homes. The first could be the outright sex negative home which is characterized by a parent or parents making negative comments to their child along the lines: don’t touch down there, that’s dirty, you can go crazy or blind, etc. The sexually neutral home would be one where parents carefully, and studiously, avoid any discussion or reference dealing with sex in the family home. This may also extend to, for example, switching television channels when during family viewing, something comes up that is suggestive of, or involving, nudity and sex. The smallest group, yet most desirable, would be the sex positive home. Here, parents have become comfortable with their sexuality and their bodies, and they convey this in an age appropriate manner to their children. Here, children learn a healthy respect for their bodies, and for privacy, as at the same time, they learn about normal bodily functions and a sense of comfort with their nakedness in front of family members. These children learn to name sexual body parts appropriately and thus are able to talk about any concerns that might arise with parents whom they know are receptive and caring.

Research shows that children who receive positive sex education seem to have a less turbulent time in adolescence, and contrary to some people’s expectation, they are less likely to get into trouble with their sexual behaviour.

Moreover, and very importantly, I think, children who grow up in sex positive homes usually establish a stronger bond with their parents which enables them to communicate about many other issues of concern they encounter during the growing-up years, even unrelated to sexual matters.

It has been shown that infants who do not receive affection, which involves caressing, hugging, and kissing from their care taking adults, can at times fail to develop properly. Thus, once again, it is the parents’ responsibility to become comfortable with showing their care and affection for their children in a physical way that is age appropriate. In general, one can say that hugging and kissing should be the norm in every family, not the exception.

With time, children who grow up with these essential ingredients of development will become sexually mature, integrated adults who feel comfortable ‘in their skin’, and who have integrated their sexuality into a more fulfilling daily existence, better able to share their love on a physical and emotional level with a well-chosen life partner.

– Dr. Frank Sommers