Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

Responding to Behaviors and Comments

(For Parents of Children with Typical Development)
 

Let’s take a look at how to respond to behaviors and comments that seem sexual in nature. There are six steps to follow.

Here we go...

Step #1: Decide first if it is better to ignore the situation. If ignoring the situation is inappropriate, then continue with steps 2-6.

Here’s an example of a behavior that you can ignore: Let’s say that you’ve already discussed masturbation with your child, and that you’ve said it’s okay for them to masturbate in their bedroom as long as the door is closed and they’re all alone. One day you come home, and without thinking, you open your child’s door without knocking. You walk into the room and find your child masturbating. Say you’re sorry and get out of the room as quickly as possible. Your child has done nothing wrong, so you don’t need to respond to their behavior.

Here’s an example of a behavior you can’t ignore: Your 12 year-old son has begun to rub his penis (through his clothing) at various times during the day.

 

Step #2: Name the behavior/comment to your child as you see or hear it; praise if appropriate. You might say to your child:

"I see that you are…"
“I heard you just…”

By naming the behavior or comment, you are making it quite clear to your child that you saw or heard what happened. This makes it harder for them to deny that it occurred. It also helps to insure that you are both talking about the same thing.

So, back to our example… your 12 year-old son who's now rubbing his penis during the day. Simply say to him, “I see that you have started rubbing your penis a lot.”

 

Step #3: Find out the meaning of the behavior/comment to your child. You might say to your child:

"Tell me about that."
"Can you tell me why you are doing that?"
"How come you’re doing that?"
Watch your tone. You're seeking information, and you probably won't get any if you put your child on the defensive.

This may be the most important step of all because you can’t give a good response if you don’t know why your child is behaving the way they are. And the best way to find out the reason behind the behavior is to ask your child.

So, let’s consider your 12 year-old son who's now rubbing his penis during the day. Find out more about the behavior by asking, "Can you tell me why you are doing that?" It will probably be for one of the following reasons:

1. He has hit puberty and now it feels really good to rub it.
2. He has hit puberty, he's getting more erections, and he's trying to figure them out.
3. He has hit puberty and new pubic hairs are causing itchiness.
4. His penis is itchy (perhaps he has an infection).
5. His penis is itchy (perhaps he’s having an allergic reaction to a new detergent or soap).
6. His clothing is too tight.
7. He is really anxious and stressed out about something in his life.
8. He has been sexually abused.

Now you can begin to understand why it is so important to know the reason behind the behavior before you respond to it. The response you give to the boy who enjoys the feeling when he rubs his penis is going to be a whole lot different than the response you give to the boy who’s been sexually abused.

 

Step #4: Decide what "messages" you want to give.

Once you know the reason behind the behavior, you need to decide what messages you want your child to receive. The messages in your mind may not necessarily be the same thing as the response that comes out of your mouth. Responses are built on messages, and messages are based on your own values and beliefs. That’s why it’s a good idea to already start thinking about where you stand on different sexual behaviors (for example, masturbation or viewing pornography on the Internet) before they have the potential to cause problems.

Back to your 12 year-old son who's now rubbing his penis during the day. If he does it because it feels really good, then you might have the following messages in the back of your mind:

I want my son to know that it’s okay to masturbate.
I want my son to know that masturbation should only be done in private.

But what if he's rubbing his penis because he is really anxious and stressed out about something in his life? The messages might look something like this:

I want my son to know that everyone suffers from anxiety and stress at different times in
    their lives.
I want my son to know that there are healthier ways to deal with anxiety and stress.
I want my son to know that he can always talk with me whenever he’s anxious and stressed out.
I want my son to know that he should only rub his penis in private.

Again, responses are built on messages, and messages are based on values and beliefs. Depending upon the reason behind the behavior, different messages will need to be considered before giving your response.

 

Step #5: Give the messages by responding simply.

Finally, you get to respond to the behavior. Remember to respond as simply as possible. If your child needs to know more, they will let you know.

So, if your 12 year-old son is now rubbing his penis during the day because it feels really good, you can respond by saying, “I know that masturbation feels good, but it’s something we only do in private.

But if your 12 year-old son has been sexually abused, then your response is going to be a lot more complicated.

 

Step #6: Encourage your child to give you feedback. You could do this by saying:

"Okay?"
"Does that make sense?"
“Got any questions?”


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Time to Practice

Here’s your chance to practice responding to real situations that we’ve encountered with real children. Be sure you follow all six steps in responding to the situations.

For each situation, try to come up with as many reasons as possible for why the child might have acted or spoke the way they did. Then consider the messages that might apply to each possible reason. Finally, come up with a response for each possible reason.

0-9 years old

Situation #1: In the bathroom you find 3 year-old Jenny standing by the toilet and saying, "I'm making pee-pee like Tommy does."

Situation #2: 4 year-old Michael comes home to tell you that his friend, Sam, was being "bad." Sam was touching himself where he shouldn't."

Situation #3: Your 4 year-old daughter likes talking about her vagina – with just about anyone.

Situation #4: You overhear an older boy telling your 9 year-old son that if you rub your “dick” real hard and then pee, your pee will be white in color.

9-18 years old

Situation #1: Your 11 year-old daughter comes home from school crying. She has been taking a lot of teasing lately because she is the first girl in her class to start developing breasts.

Situation #2: When you go to pick up your 12 year-old son from school, you overhear him calling a girl in his class a "slut." He then accuses her of liking to kiss penises.

Situation #3: You find contraceptive pills at the bottom of your 14 year-old daughter's sock drawer.

Situation #4: You find a stack of pornographic magazines under your 16 year-old son's bed.

 

Adapted from Healthy Foundations: The Teacher's Book, The Center for Family Life Education, Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey , 1993.

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