Coping with Awkwardness: Sexual Play in Children
Anyone who thinks that children have no sense of sexuality (of some sort) hasn’t spent much time around children. As any parent discovers pretty quickly, children are curious about their own bodies, other people’s bodies, and the peculiarly appealing secrecy and sensitivity of their genitals.
Typical children learn, at a fairly early age, to keep their private parts more or less private. Children with developmental disabilties often take much longer to learn this– for several reasons, and not just because they take longer to learn a lot of things.
One reason is that they don’t get the same social cues about embarrassment (from other children) that typically developing kids do. There’s an age-range at which typical children obssess intently about potty talk and related topics, learn the rules about keeping certain things private, and then make a very big deal when other children break those rules, thus enforcing a certain behavioral code among their peers. Children with disabilities are often not exposed to this kind of peer group, and may not even get any verbal input from others their own age, and may observe less consistent behavior among the peer group they are in (such as a special education classroom). Lastly, children with disabilties often have a diminished sense of privacy because they need help with personal care (such as bathing and toileting or diaper changing) for much longer than other children, and have to accept this help from a wider variety of people– parents, teachers, therapists, babysitters, and so on.
As a result, one thing I deal with quite often is the issue of children touching their genitals while I am caring for them. Children “play with themselves” in the bath, stick their hands down their pants, and so on. Sometimes the actions are definitely voluntary, sometimes less so. Male children get erections regularly, especially in the bath.
The question for me is how to react in these situations. On the one hand, a certain amount of sexual play is normal and healthy. I don’t want to discourage it or shame children for it– especially, I don’t want to make children feel embarrassed about the fact that I have to see their private parts at times, since this isn’t optional. And I don’t want to teach children that their genitals are dirty or naughty or wrong.
On the other hand, it would not be at all appropriate for me to actively encourage or condone sexual activity of any kind… That would be a form of sexual abuse, because in some way I feel I would be participating in the activity, if only by acknowledging it openly. Some of my clients are at the age where I feel it’s important for them to get some level of sex education, but it’s not my place to give that education unless the parent requests it specifically (maybe not even then– and certainly not without another adult present).
The main thing is that I feel sexual exploration should occur in private… but when do these children have privacy? Most typical children experiment with their genitals in the bath and/or in bed. But the children I work with are bathed by adults. Even the most independent of them generally have me in the same room while they bathe and use the toilet. At night, not all of them sleep alone, and many wear diapers to bed, which I suspect limit self-exploration.
So, my approach is to generally pretend I don’t notice. If the child is in the bath, I will simply look away if they seem interested in exploring their body. I do not wash them or touch them any more than necessary for their safety while they are having an erection or touching their genitals.
If we are in public, I will generally try to intervene as subtly as possible.
(The issue of crotch-grabbing is further confused by the fact that it’s often a sign that a child needs to use the toilet. If I see a child put their hand between their legs, my first response is generally to suggest a potty break.)
For some children, I feel that it is appropriate to offer a quiet, verbal reminder in a neutral (nonjudgmental) tone of voice, such as “Remember, it’s not appropriate to put your hands into your pants in public.” Some kids undress in public as well (or even have clothing fall off!) and then, too, I might say something about keeping private parts covered. A lot of the older kids, at least, know the rules of bodily propriety intellectually, and I don’t want to embarrass them by calling excess attention to what they are doing– which they may be doing absentmindedly, or having forgotten that other people are around, or simply through failure to control their own actions (autistic people, in particular, often express experiencing a wide disconnect between what they intend to do and the actions they find their bodies taking).
Mostly, though, the best trick is to notice when hands are headed in the wrong direction and gently brush them away from going further, or give them something else to do (ask the child to clap or hi-five, hand them something, etc.– without ever mentioning that there was something else you DIDN’T want them doing). Called “redirecting,” this last tactic is also very helpful for helping people break habits (semi-automated activities) like biting their nails or pulling out their hair– you catch them before they are even entirely aware of what they are doing, and get them to do something else instead, and eventually their motor pathways get rewritten. It’s far more effective than drawing someone’s attention to something and telling them NOT to do it– like pointing out that someone shouldn’t scratch an itch, focusing attention on a forbidden action can make someone feel more compelled to do it! (This is, by the way, why nagging is such a terribly ineffective technique).
I think the success of any of these techniques depends on my own ability not to be (or at least not to act) embarrassed. I’m by no means perfect at this, but I’ve made a lot of progress. I think that so many of the mixed feelings many children get about privacy, sexuality, and especially masturbation, stem from their own parents’ discomfort with having to address these topics. Fortunately, regular childcare tends to cure you of two things: the ability to be grossed out easily, and the ability to be easily embarrassed!
One thing I have not dealt with yet (to my knowledge!) is the issue of any of my clients developing a crush on me. I’m open to suggestions on what to do if that situation ever occurs!!