The age limits given in the descriptions of the various developmental phases are generalised. Each child develops at an individual pace.
Early childhood (ca. 0-4 years old)
A child is a sexual being from birth, but this does not mean that they have sexual needs, as these only emerge at puberty. Around the age of 2, they are usually able to classify themselves into a particular gender. We call this mechanism gender identification. The age of 3 is usually the beginning of identification with an adult of the same sex and the first stage of learning how to communicate feelings. Around the age of 4, the child begins to understand differences in anatomy. The sense of gender perception stabilises - that is, a boy knows that he will be a man when he grows up, and a girl knows that she will be a woman when she grows up. This process is, of course, stable if the child’s gender identity is consistent with its sex at birth.
This theory applies to cisgender people. For transgender people, the process of gender identification might occur individually.
Childhood (ca. 4-6 years old)
At this stage, curiosity is the motivation for action. The child explores and learns about the world. However, they do this without awareness of boundaries, empathy and understanding of the social context. The child’s curiosity manifests itself in establishing relations with the environment, interest in the physicality of others and autoerotic behaviour. The activities undertaken by the child have a cognitive rather than a sexual dimension. A natural and very common part of development is masturbation, which may (but does not have to) take place. We call it developmental because it involves exploring one’s body. The genitals, due to their structure, are more sensitive to touch, so stimulating them provides the child with different sensations than touching other parts of the body. However, this has nothing to do with orgasm or arousal.
Interpersonal games at this age take place mainly among peers of the same gender. Boys usually compare the length of their penises or engage in urinating competitions. Girls prefer, for example, to try on their mothers’ clothes. Children get to know each other’s bodies mainly by participating in the care of their siblings, helping other children to dress or peeping.
However, some behaviours require adult intervention:
- incorporating frictional movements into play. Children of this age showing knowledge of what sexual intercourse looks like can be a worrying sign. It may or may not indicate that the child has witnessed sex or has been abused. Undoubtedly, it is something that needs to be investigated;
- experimental masturbation. These are autoerotic behaviours involving the use of additional objects to test the limits of one’s body. They are characterised by a lack of repetition, trying. These might involve risky behaviours that lead to damage to the child’s genitals, mouth, vagina or anus;
- instrumental masturbation. It is aimed at satisfying a non-sexual need. It can be a manifestation of lack of human contact, rejection, loneliness, emotional tension or stress. It is an addiction and an expression of frustration. It is repetitive. It sends a signal to the people around and stems from deficits. It is a substitute and requires professional intervention;
For the sake of children’s well-being and responsibility, sex education on gender, building a positive self-image and protecting against sexual exploitation should be introduced at this age.
Latency stage (ca. 6-10 years old)
During the latency stage, interest in sexuality is reduced. Social interests related to the process of adaptation and group acceptance come to the front. The child focuses their attention on new school tasks. The child’s sexuality at this stage is still shaped by caregivers and the peer group, but interest in sexuality is suppressed or weakened. The peer group becomes the primary basis for building self-esteem. It is a transitional stage at the threshold of adolescence. In the latency phase, same-sex groups are formed, in which friendship building is an important element.
An important fact is that the pace of development is highly individualised at this stage. Significant differences in appearance are noticeable.
Adolescence (ca. 10-16 years old)
The aim of this stage is development - emotional, social and sexual. It is largely determined by intensive biological changes - change in body shape, increase in body fat and the onset of menstruation or spontaneous ejaculation. An important source of sexual development is the peer group, whose influence is often in opposition to that of the family, carers and other important institutions, including school. How people of this age perceive their sexuality significantly affects their self-esteem. Communication is important at this stage, explaining the changes taking place, learning to accept what is happening. Sexual education in adolescence can protect young people from developing complexes.
At this stage, sexual needs usually appear, and activities such as adolescent masturbation, petting, sexual initiation are likely to be undertaken. Attention should be paid to inappropriate patterns of forming sexual preferences (for example, pornography) and the possible lack of acceptance of one’s sexual or gender identity.