What’s Normal Childhood Sexual Development?
Sexual development begins when you’re born, not when you turn 18. Yes that’s right–children begin developing sexually and experiencing sexual curiosity from the time they’re infants. It’s a normal and healthy part of childhood sexual development for young children to begin exploring their own bodies, engaging in masturbation when they’re alone, engaging in sexual play such as “doctor” with other kids their age, and sneaking peeks at adult family members and children of the opposite sex in all stages of undress. None of these experiences are considered sexually abusive and are a normal aspect of childhood development and curiosity. For more information on normal childhood sexual development, check out these great charts by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
It’s important to understand these normal aspects of childhood sexual development because victims of childhood sexual abuse often struggle to make sense of why their body may have reacted with pleasure or arousal during what they now understand to be a sexually abusive experience. The reality is, our bodies are wired to respond to sexual pleasure, a reaction which unfortunately is able to continue even during sexual abuse, with or without our say so.
A Child’s NatureAs adults, we often forget that we were once children too – limited in our understanding of the world, dependent on others to protect us, and with little to no control over many situations. We did not have the foresight or the knowledge to understand the things we experienced as they were happening. Now we look back, with adult eyes, condemning our childhood selves for being naïve, curious, compliant – ultimately condemning our childhood selves for having ever been children. It’s important to take a look at the inherent nature of children and really let it sink in before you go condemning your childhood self. Here is a list of 6 common traits most children share.
1. Children have a natural tendency toward curiosity –this is hardwired into them and it is part of their natural drive to learn and explore the world around them. Children often follow their curiosity either to a point of understanding whatever it is they are exploring or until they become afraid and then retreat.
2. Children, in particular, have a natural curiosity about sex, sexual acts, sexual images, sexual touch, and physical sensations of stimulation from a very young age – even though they don’t fully understand sexual acts or sexuality. (See above for more specifics on how children typically act on their sexual curiosity)
3. Children have a natural tendency to seek affection and attention – this is also hardwired into them. It is part of their survival instincts to seek attention, nurturing, protection and caring from those they perceive to be in power. Children perceive power in age differences – regardless of whether that person is only 4 years older or 40 years older.
4. Children are generally trusting of older individuals, especially those who are known to them. Children typically take the approach of trustworthy until proven otherwise. Remember “stranger danger?” This is a good example of how we literally have to teach children to be untrusting of certain people as it’s not in their nature.
5. Children often keep secrets – while not hardwired into children, secrecy is one of a child’s very few means of control over situations which feel threatening in some way. By keeping a secret, children get to feel some sense of control over preventing something bad from happening.
6. Children are taught to be compliant toward anyone older than them – this is a necessary lesson in early childhood as kids are taught to comply with the expectations of parents, older siblings, family members, teachers, coaches, and others in their life.
Take a moment to really look at these each individually and think of how these factors may play a role in childhood sexual abuse. These six factors are extremely important because they are the factors that are most often linked to shame. They are the factors most often used by victims to blame themselves as an adult looking back on their experiences – when in reality they are simply part of a child’s nature and thus why children are most susceptible to abuse. Without an abuser present to harm you, these natural childlike tendencies aren’t foolish or dangerous, they’re just a normal and healthy part of childhood. It’s not your fault they were used against you.
A lot of times we lose our childhood perspective as we become adults. We forget how we felt, how we saw the world, the things we did, the things that mattered to us. We forget we were innocent. We begin holding our 7-year old selves accountable for not reacting the way we would have as an adult. We blame ourselves for not already knowing the things we couldn’t possibly have known, for not protecting ourselves from things we didn’t understand the harm of, and for not telling someone a secret that felt like it was big enough to end the world. The secret still feels big to you now – imagine how big it felt to you then.
You may blame yourself for the abuse. It may feel impossible to lift that blame from your shoulders and place it where it belongs, with your abuser. Instead, begin by focusing on just forgiving yourself for having once been a child. Forgive yourself for having felt and thought and acted as a child would. Start there, the rest will follow.
If you or someone you know is struggling with feelings of shame and self-blame for childhood sexual abuse, call us today to make an appointment to get started. You are not alone.