Focus on the Family

Healthy Childhood Sexual Development

by Rob Jackson

The healthy development of our children is something we all desire. That which begins in the womb as a result of our love and affection, possesses gender, personality, and inestimable value. As parents, we, too, are in ongoing development, learning to cooperate with God's design for the family. We can do this more effectively if we have an overall plan. Even more, we need to begin with the end in mind – what do we want for our children, and why?

This four-part series is designed to help you chart a course that will nurture and fortify your child's sexual development. Believing that God has designed us male and female, it can enlighten us to realize that the sexual union in marriage is a foretaste of the spiritual connection between Christ and His Church. Had we understood this dynamic truth earlier in our own lives, perhaps we would have made better choices along the way. Now, however, we can equip the next generation with this knowledge and strategies that serve them from the cradle to the grave.

Each section follows a format designed to equip you, the parent. And as you might expect, each unit builds upon the previous one. I've also designed this curriculum in a way that helps integrate or harmonize the body, mind, and spirit of your child by applying my Iceberg approach to childhood sexual development. If you're not familiar with the Iceberg, why not review it along with this curriculum.

Of course, your older children may be in the latter stages, so you'll not only want to follow what's recommended for that particular age group, but review each of the earlier stages and unpack them according to your child's particular needs. Sensitivity for not only your child's age, but also his personality, and life experience is critically important. No two children are the same, so tailor the units to your family's precise needs.

Finally, I've chosen to emphasize child sexual development within the larger context of spirituality. More than just coaching you on "the talk" about the birds and the bees, I want to equip you to enter a lifelong mentoring relationship with your child.

Here's our overall mission: to prepare your child's body, mind, and spirit so that he or she developmentally embraces God's gift of sexuality with greater understanding and integrity. With this rewarding and challenging mission in mind, let's get started.

This curriculum is written for Christian parents who wish to integrate their faith with practical lessons for their children. To that end, I'd like to help you to think about sexual development not just in terms of what is healthy or unhealthy, but in terms of what pleases God. We want our children to go beyond sexually moral behavior and be whole in body, mind, and spirit. This sense of wholeness is summed up in the word integrity.

How shall we define sexual health and development?

Let's think about how we can define sexual integrity. For example, how did your family of origin define sexual integrity? Were the standards the same for males and females, or was there a "boys will be boys" or "good girls don't" mentality? What about your culture and its definition of sexual integrity? Did you grow up in the United States during the sexual revolution of the sixties or in China during the Cultural Revolution? Each society and era attempts to redefine what is appropriate and inappropriate – often without any concern for God or the Bible.

We also need to think about how we define sexual integrity as individuals. For example, your total experience as a male or female, where you lived, what you were taught, your sexual history, and a variety of other variables have shaped your personal definition of sexual integrity. None of us embrace everything we were taught either. Often it's what was caught that has shaped our thinking the most.

The single most important question for us to ask is, "How does God define sexual integrity?" As Christians, we affirm that He created us and knows how we function best. He has fashioned us to acquire numerous age-appropriate tasks throughout life, and, likewise, He also designed our sexual development to occur sequentially in an integrated physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual manner.

As a father of two young children and as a therapist specializing in sexual health, I believe that our strategy toward our kids' sexual development needs to be comprehensive. With this goal in mind, here's a list of questions to help you process your thoughts and questions about sexuality, including choices and circumstances:

Biblical principles

Principle-centered thinking is the main goal I hope to encourage throughout this series. As a Christian writing for Christians, I want to emphasize principles drawn from God's Word. As my pastor said last Sunday, "Christianity is a relationship (with God) with helpful guidelines, not a religion of rules with a little relationship thrown in on the side."

Here are three principles that guide my thinking:

God's mandate: a closer look into his heart

If we're going to shepherd our children's sexual development, we need to seek God's heart, not only about sex, but about the specific children (future adults, no less) He has entrusted to our care. As we think about God's plan for sexuality, we begin by affirming marriage — a unique, sexual relationship God established even before the church. He has empowered us as males and females to express sexuality in gender-specific ways, and has placed those expressions in the sacred context of marriage.

Even as imperfect human beings, we have the privilege of emulating Christ and the church. We want our boys to learn that they will be a type of Christ to their future wives, and our daughters will be a type of the Church to their husbands. We need to plan now for what they are becoming in their development throughout life.

Paul called marriage "a great mystery," and then he said he was really talking about Christ and the Church. Here, we parents have the ultimate romance that informs us of how we are to model the good stuff in the presence of our children.

Whatever you glean from this curriculum, I want you to remember this one thing: we can't teach our children what we don't model, and a loving, intimate relationship between two parents strengthens our children's sexual health and integrity.

Opposition

I believe that God's mandate for sexually healthy Christians is obvious and winsome. He wants us to have meaningful marriages with sensitive sex, which teach couples inexpressible lessons of intimacy. But God has an enemy that not only hates Him, but His people and His purposes.

As a young therapist I used to say that if I were Satan for a day, I'd direct my demons to inspire the sexual abuse of children — mostly by men who are entrusted as the spiritual head of the home. I said this because sexual abuse injures the trust and attachability of children to their parents and other adults, and a single act of abuse can effect future generations profoundly.

We now know that childhood sex abuse often recreates itself as sexual promiscuity in later years — a problem that faces many of our older children even into their adulthood. It seems to me that sexual sin begets sexual sin, and each sin is the enemy's counterfeit. In my profession, this return to behaviors that continue to wound us is called trauma reenactment. Injured people often unknowingly continue to seek out the very type of behavior or experience that once wounded them.

Sex is a great thing, which God designed to benefit married men and women. It's so good, in fact, that sexuality is the area Satan seems to target the most. As a colleague of mine says, enemies at war rarely bomb the cornfields, but rather the arsenals. God's enemy clearly knows where to attack us. He knows that the sexual health and development of our children can be arrested through sexual trauma, affecting their bodies, minds, and spirits. And because sexuality and spirituality are inextricably linked in God's design, to damage a child sexually is to damage him spiritually.

With this important connection in mind, we can better grasp God's cares about every aspect of our lives. His precepts flow from a heart full of desire to safeguard us, not only our sexuality, but in our total being. He wants us, in every situation, to be to practice His presence and enjoy Him.

Checkpoints

I know this material and the approach I'm suggesting is a lot to take in. It may be the first time you've considered sexuality within the context of spirituality. So permit me to offer four checkpoints that I encourage you to share with your children. Because our young children think in concrete terms, these ideas (and the rest of this curriculum) will have to be taught often to them in ways they can understand.

  1. The foundation for sexual health and integrity is loving God and finding satisfaction in His spiritual beauty.
  2. Sexual integrity can't be properly motivated or maintained by teaching prohibitions and threatening negative consequences.
  3. Jesus said, simply, "If you love me, keep my commandments" and this applies to every facet of Christian life.
  4. When we sin sexually (or in other ways), it is God's kindness that leads us to change, not only our behaviors, but our character.

Truths and Assumptions

Before we launch into the four stages of childhood sexual development, I'd like to list some basic truths and assumptions that will apply not only to your children's lives but to yours.

Learning to Cope

Sexual development is designed to occur over time without injury or interruption. However, we live in a fallen world where the ideal is not possible. As your child develops sexually there are some factors that lead to the development of at-risk behaviors. If your child or family system has experienced any of the following conditions, it will be easier to address them now before you start seeing behavioral symptoms.

Depending on your unique circumstances, it may be helpful to have a few sessions with a therapist. For example, if your child has experienced the loss of a parent through death or divorce, this injury needs special care. Or if your child has an older sibling who is already showing signs of sexual reactivity or poor conduct, a therapist can help you to discuss what's appropriate with your younger child.

I know of few other topics that carry the significance of sexuality. After all, each of us exists because two people came together in a sexual union. A proper understanding of sexuality helps explain God and us. So, let's get started and see how we can unpack these great and glorious truths for our children.

Understanding the Four Stages of Childhood Sexual Development and Integrity

Each stage of development will review a foundation for the approach taken, one or more goals and target areas, a discussion of what's normal, age-related tasks for your child, tips on how to foster your child's development, what to avoid, and what to do if you're concerned about your child's development. And as you might expect, each stage will build upon prior stages so that you have a comprehensive plan that will round out your efforts to grow a healthy adult.


Preparation

Understanding sexual development and integrity for children ages 0-3

by Rob Jackson

Foundation: Your child's lifelong sexuality needs to be nurtured intentionally. A proper foundation is critical – and, if it's true that children are "growing up quicker today," there's no time to waste. It's also strategic to teach our children the good stuff in this module before we have to get into conversations designed to prevent the bad stuff later.

Goal: To begin to teach your child what to think about his or her body and God's wonderful design, which nurtures it.

The Iceberg Zone: In this unit, both parent and child will focus on the preparation of the physical body. A healthy respect for the body in these early years, builds a solid foundation for the development of the mind and spirit. In this early stage, we simply want to help our children learn to cherish what God has given them. Obviously, the behaviors one chooses are linked to the body one learns to maintain.

What's normal

Developmental tasks for your child

How to foster sexual health and integrity in this stage

What to avoid

What to do if you're concerned for your child's development


Prevention

Understanding sexual development and integrity for children ages 5-8

by Rob Jackson

Foundation: We don't like to think about childhood sexual abuse – let alone it happening to one of our children. Sadly, however, sexual exploitation is a reality. According to statistics, one in four girls1 and one in seven boys2will be molested by age eighteen. Frankly, I believe all of our children are covertly abused by the explicit sexual material throughout our culture and media. Raising healthy kids requires proactive parents who understand the culture they live in. And speaking of time, now is the time to equip them with information to (1) prevent excessive vulnerability to sex abuse, and (2) help them to think correctly about sexual exploitation were it to happen to them.

Goals:

  1. Continue to help your child value his or her physical body. This value lies in the fact that the body becomes the temple of God when one has a faith experience with Jesus Christ.
  2. Proactively protect your child's emerging sexuality without inhibiting him or increasing his anxiety. As parents we can learn to curb our anxiety for our children's well-being as we recognize that God loves them even more then we do. If, however, we're anxious for them, our children will most likely develop their own anxieties.

Iceberg Zones:

  1. We will continue to affirm that the physical body is God's gift to us, and that it houses not only physical organs that are important to our overall health, but that it houses the mind and the spirit.
  2. In this section we will begin to teach our children about the mind, which includes our personality, values, likes and dislikes, etc. This emphasis will include a development of how to think, with an emphasis on healthy thoughts specific to sexual health and integrity.

What's normal

Developmental tasks for your child

How to foster sexual health and integrity in this stage

What to avoid

What to do if you're concerned for your child's development


1L. Dickinson, F. Verloin deGruy, W.P. Dickinson, and L. Candib, "Health-Related Quality of Life and Symptom Profiles of Female Survivors of Sexual Abuse," Arch Fam Med. 1999; 8:35-43.
2Delaplane, D. and A. Delaplane. Victims of Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, Elder Abuse, Rape, Robbery, Assault, and Violent Death: A Manual for Clergy and Congregations. Special Edition for Military Chaplains. Includes a section entitled, "Scriptural References About Children." Scriptures include Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, and the New Testament.

Stewardship

Understanding sexual development and integrity for children ages 9-12

by Rob Jackson

Foundation: As our children come to appreciate the value God places on them, they will also want to learn that self-care or stewardship becomes the appropriate response to our gratitude to God. This mindset will also help limit some of the heightened self-consciousness and ego associated with the preadolescent years. We want to maximize this time for sexual integrity, as our children are still free of the hormone rush that will soon awaken their sex drive.

Goals:

  1. Continue to maintain the goals from prior units.
  2. To equip your child to take care of his body, mind, and spirit as a response of gratitude to God.

Iceberg Zones:

  1. The body discussed in Unit 1 and the analytic mind discussed in Unit 2.
  2. The mind, with an emphasis on healthy emotions specific to sexual health and integrity. In this stage we want to help our children learn how to process their emotions in general, and any emotions that are specific to sexual health and integrity. Here, they will learn that emotions are one part of their system designed to inform or alert them so that good decisions can be made. Time spent now in the development of emotional hygiene will provide a good foundation for adolescence where emotions will be influenced by raging hormones.

What's normal

Developmental tasks for your child

How to foster sexual health and integrity in this stage

What to avoid

What to do if you're concerned for your child's development


Fulfillment

Understanding sexual development and integrity for children ages 13-18

by Rob Jackson

Foundation: If our children cherish their spiritual engagement with Christ, they can learn that even now they are complete in Christ. Having a boyfriend or girlfriend won't be necessary for the deeper fulfillment that only God can satisfy. In this age span, we want to encourage them to embrace their life in Christ in such a way that whether single or married in the future, they have learned how to sustain their total fidelity of body, mind, and spirit to Christ. And should they marry in the future, their greater fidelity to Christ thus far will be the best wedding gift they can give to their bride or groom.

Goals:

  1. Continue to maintain the goals from prior units.
  2. To equip your child to know and delight in the fact that in Christ he is complete now, and that virginity is something to cherish.

Iceberg Zones:

  1. The body discussed in Unit 1 and the mind discussed in Units 2 and 3.
  2. The human spirit with an emphasis on sexual health and integrity as they relate to loving God.

What's normal

Developmental tasks for your child

How to foster sexual health and integrity in this stage

What to avoid

What to do if you're concerned for your child's development

During this stage of development it's not uncommon for adolescents to challenge their parents. Peers will become more important to them than ever before. Their individual identities will continue to emerge, and this can be a time of personal insecurity and significant anxiety.

If your efforts to reach out to your child are failing, consider family therapy sooner than later.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources on healthy childhood sexual development

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