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Let’s talk about SEX… and PARENTing

How do you feel when the words ‘sex’, ‘child’, and/or ‘parent’ are combined in a thought or sentence?  Uncomfortable?  Shameful?  Somehow in our culture, sexual awareness has been psychologically extracted from the rest of our existence and, when we attempt to re-assimilate it to its normal and exalted place within our lives, the voices- in our own heads and from the mouths of those around us- wield words of guilt and shame.  When did ‘sex’ come to mean solely the act of intercourse?  And, though childhood sexual abuse continues to be a concern for many parents, is it in our children’s best interest to ignore or manipulate their basal understanding of what feels good and right for their bodies?  We can help our children understand ‘good touch’ deeply in the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of their being easily just by doing what comes naturally to humans.  This is the root of a positive self-concept, meaningful relationships, and sexual gratification.

Guess what?  From the time our children are born, we are sending them strong and powerful messages about their sexuality and sense of well-being, not just on a conscious level but in chemical form.  Our physical interactions in the form of touch go straight to the pleasure center of their brains in the form of oxytocin- a hormone that yields a sense of calm, safety, and relaxation.  A post at psychworld.com entitled Orgasm and Attachment: the Power of Touch alludes to the direct positive correlation between healthy, sustained physical connection between parents and children and the child’s subsequent psychological, sexual, and interpersonal development. 

Attached parents foster self-confident children and adults

‘Attachment parenting’ is a label ascribed to parents who attend to their infants’ physical needs immediately and lovingly.  Most APers breastfeed, hold their babies in slings or other close carriers, co-sleep, and thereby become quickly in tune with their baby’s rhythms and messages.  The AP philosophy and research indicate that this close connection through meeting the physical needs of the baby supports self-confidence, growth, and learning by limiting or entirely alleviating psychological and physical stressors.  Not to mention that it’s what feels just right in the hearts of parents!  Check out What AP is: 7 Baby Bs at Ask Dr. Sears to find out more about attachment parenting.

But let’s take this one step further.  It goes without saying, given the information about oxytocin release, that those who hold, massage, and lovingly touch their babies and children are actually creating a calm, relaxed individual with a stronger sense of security on a physical level that is associated with close, loving relationships.  We are creating an addiction for our children.  A what? Yes, because oxytocin is an addictive chemical, we are supporting our children’s addiction to feeling good.  Every decision we make in our lives should come from this pure, connected place of satisfaction and contentment.

Sexual connection and empowerment

Where do the differences in levels of touch, sexual desire, and interpersonal connection in adults stem from?  Among other things, we cannot discount the importance that physical touch between the parent and child has on the development of confident, loving adults who are receptive and desirous of physical connection with others.  It would stand to reason that a lack of appropriate or loving physical touch in the child could manifest in the inability to connect in a fulfilling way in relationships and sexual dysfunctions such as diminished sexual response, avoidance, or even addiction as adults.  Three Kinds of Touch authors Joyce and Barry Vissell categorize different kinds of touch which may help you to feel more comfortable with all of this child, parent, sex, and touching talk.  Their words sum it up well: “We need to emphasize that before there can be healthy adult touch, there needs to be enough healthy expression of parent and child touch.”

Honoring the power of touch

So studies show that attentive, loving touch is pivotal from a psychological and physiological development standpoint in babies and children.  What about us adults?  We can start now.  By honoring The Power of Touch and the realization that it is highly effective in reducing stress, a source of well-deserved pleasure, and a means to share loving connection, we can understand and justify the introduction of, or increase in, loving touch with our children, partners, and casual loving touch with friends.  Yes, we benefit each other and forge and foster deeper, more meaningful relationships!  Heck, loosen up with a massage.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I just had a conversation today with a friend who told me the tale of a friend who…

    is a male, now 26 years old and just showing an interest in dating for the first time. no, he’s not gay. he grew up as an only child with a mom and dad and his mom was not only a massage therapist by trade but a loving mother who very easily and naturally put her son’s needs high on her priority list and together they enjoyed a very healthy and nurturing, connected relationship. Example: as a teen this boy played competitive soccer and, like soccer players around the world, he came home after most bouts with aches and pains. Instead of the usual ice pack and lounging in front of the TV, he would return home to a freshly drawn hot bath with mineral salts and then a thorough and therapeutic massage to work out the kinks. Massage, and lots of it, were actually par for this mom and son relationship.

    I love massage myself and have a husband who is a massage therapist. I can attest to the frequency with which I personally would love to receive a thorough and therapeutic massage. I don’t get one nearly as often as I would like. When I heard this story of the boy and dating and his relationship with his mom, I was initially a bit thrown off course but also immediately curious. The friend who told me the tale is very good friends with both the mom and son and so I was able to inquire at length about the relationship dynamics. After some intense thinking on this interesting story, what I concluded was that this boy’s integral needs for love, connection and touch were very naturally met through his relationship with his mother. Even though there was no intimate kissing, sex play, intercourse or other forms of coupling sexuality involved, his needs were nonetheless being met. This was a lightbulb moment for me. Is all sexual coupling that occurs, whether as kids, teens or adults, a result of the attempt to fulfill unmet needs, or is there a higher power at work that is designed to get us hooked up when our bodies are simply physically mature enough to ejaculate and drop an egg every month? Right now I am ready to consider that the former is what’s true. What would our world look like if all children were nurtured in this way?

    October 19, 2011
  2. Attachment Parenting is not about providing for our children’s needs for the first five years of life- Attachment Parenting is providing for our children’s needs, including all of their physical needs- for their entire childhoods, until adulthood. Barb, your comment highlights such a beautiful truth- When the adolescent child had his physical needs for intense physical affection met by his Mom, it makes sense that he grew into a young man who was so in touch with his body and his needs that he was in no rush to couple up. When he finds a partner, he will likely to be able to find such mutual joy with his partner. I believe, Barb, and said it in my book, too, that most of what teens and young adults are doing by being prematurely sexually active are attempts to desperately meet unmet attachment needs from the parent-child relationship, something our touch-starved culture won’t allow in any other form but sex.

    I know that my son, who is 17, requires a great deal of intense physical affection daily from me, sometimes multiple times per day. He loves to be held, caressed and massaged. Skin-to-skin touch is incredibly healing physically, neurologically, emotionally, spiritually and holistically for an adolescent child, especially a traumatized child who missed so much of that touch prior to him coming into my life through adoption. The deep closeness and intimate bond that we share as a result of this affectionate relationship is something so many parents say they wish they could have with their teen child. Intimate, non-sexual physical touch is very natural to human beings; in peaceful nonviolent tribal societies, caressing, holding and even lying intertwined is natural amongst parents and children of all ages and between adults and friends. It is our touch-starved culture that is unnatural, causing adolescent children to express this need in ways not yet healthy for their sexual development.

    How else does a child feel sexually whole and pure except through the physically nurturing intimacy with parents? I believe that children develop a deep sense of shame when their parents begin to give messages that their bodies are somehow shameful, bad, dirty and not to be touched– This is what puts children at risk for sexual assault and exploitation. It is in honoring our children’s bodies and nurturing them with loving touch all through out childhood that children feel safe, assertive, holistically intact, loved, at peace with themselves and divine.

    October 20, 2011
    • I am so glad we are talking about this. I have a couple things to say: first, I think that many parents feel unable or unmotivated to nurture their child or teen in this deeply connected way because they themselves are so needy for authentic love, connection and touch. Laurie, how do you meet your own needs for touch as a single mom?

      Also, while we are doing our best in this email conversation to state that nurturing touch with a child or teen is not sexual, I think it’s important to be aware that ALL touch – in fact, all joyful connection, whether it is with another or with a passionate interest in anything be it painting, singing, reading, working, etc., is sexual. The ‘feel good’ chemistry of engaging in something we enjoy or love or find pleasurable on any front triggers a sexual stimulus. This is natural and good and right and true and we should be completely comfortable with both acknowledging and welcoming it.

      Hmmm… now I am wondering if this is precisely why we live in a culture that places so much importance on doing things we DON’T like (going to school, working at jobs we don’t enjoy, seeking higher ed degrees that feel more punitive than rewarding, following religious beliefs that have us feeling unworthy, etc.) – because we are so AFRAID of feeling sexual!

      October 20, 2011
      • Very interesting way to look at sexuality, Barb. It seems so interesting that just about everything that religion and school force upon children is the antithesis to feeling good. Children’s bodies are made to suffer in the form of deprivation of their basic needs such as elimination, eating, hydrating, playing, moving and physical activity and anything that children find fun and exciting is banned. Religion also teaches people that if it is pleasurable, it is sinful.

        How do I meet my own needs as a single Mom? I love being a Mom. I love seeing my son heal, thrive and grow. The main way I recharge is through time alone to write and do my art when my son spends a night or two at a friend’s house. Although I had a very difficult childhood, thankfully both of my parents were affectionate and I still have affectionate connection with certain family members. Being a person with Asperger’s, it has just been in recent years that I have been extending affection outside of the family in a significant way- I know this is such a spiritually healthy and fulfilling way to be.

        October 20, 2011
  3. mbh #

    Interesting conversation.

    As I think about it, most certainly inappropriate touch when a child is young can have a dramatic effects on sexual health later. I’m not so sure it is the other way around, though.

    As a mom who has a child who has always been touch-averse, I find that his sexual development is as normal as can be. I never withheld touch from him but he almost always rejected my touch. I received my first hug only a few years ago. (He is now 14).

    It seems, alternatively, that since he has become more sexually mature, he has become more able to physically connect with me. (He still doesn’t want or like hugs but he will come sit next to me and make physical contact. So my experience is almost backwards to what you are describing.

    I think it is complex.

    Certainly, sex is a most basic drive. I personally think it will evolve naturally and perfectly (even without lots of parental touch) as long as we don’t screw it up with messages of shame or harmful experiences.

    Just my opinion.

    October 22, 2011
    • Touch tends to be a basic and comforting drive for newborns extending into child- and adulthood. Of course, different people are comfortable with different levels and variations of expression of touch. As an example, my daughter loves deep muscle massage (and always has) while my son prefers light touch and holding. I am certainly not suggesting that touch should ever be forceful. Rather, I think we are talking about the same thing- natural expression of touch that feels mutual, loving, and appropriate to the needs and desires of those involved.

      What are the antecedent factors (other than overt abuse) that might predispose an individual to being ‘touch averse’?

      October 26, 2011
      • mbh #

        Outside of overt abuse, touch aversion is a biological condition, some call it “Sensory Integration Disorder,” and it is often a symptom that goes along with autism. Those on the autism spectrum are often either sensory-seeking or sensory-defensive, although one does not have to have autism to have issues with being sensory defensive. I’m not sure if they know what makes someone sensory defensive, but my guess is that it is neurological. As I am sensory-defensive myself, I can tell you that certain kinds of touch (especially light touch) is outright painful. Sensory defensiveness also includes defensiveness with the other senses as well. You may see someone who can’t handle loud or lots of sound, too much light, strong flavors, etc.

        I think in terms of caring for a child who has sensory issues, the most loving thing a parent can do is to connect with the child in a way that is most comfortable to the child, which may involve very little touch, if touch is uncomfortable.

        October 26, 2011
        • with regard to this conversation, i.e., what natural behaviors in childhood allow for the fulfilling development of sexual satisfaction, tell us from your experience what kinds of ways you connect with your child to allow this to happen. What have you observed with regard to his sexual desire in relation to his lack of interest in touch?

          October 26, 2011
          • mbh #

            First, again, I believe that sexuality develops naturally, without much parental intervention. With that said, our culture gives a lot of mixed messages about sexuality which can effect our feelings about sex. So, if parents do have an effect on their kids’ healthy sexual development, I think it is in terms of reinforcing healthy sexual feelings and behaviors and helping to reduce shame.

            As this relates to my touch averse kid (but I would think it applies to all kids) this means that I model healthy physically and emotionally affectionate and intimate relationships. My son knows that my husband and I have and love sex with one another. It is not taboo.

            I also have been very consistent and telling my son, “I love you.” He knows that he is deeply loved, even if I am not allowed to show it physically to him.

            I have supported his natural sexual exploration, being sure to express to him that there is nothing shameful about being sexual.

            I don’t see that his aversion to touch has effected his sexual development in any way. As a matter of fact, I would say that his sexual development has helped lessen his touch aversion, which makes a lot of sense. He gets to experience the kind of touch that does not hurt, and feels good instead.

            October 27, 2011
            • thanks for that info and feedback, I appreciate it!

              October 27, 2011
              • Parents or any adult can have a drastic and devastating effect on a child’s developing sexuality or a healthy, positive effect. This is the neurology of trauma and child development. Trauma, attachment and children’s brain development are my specialty and my primary research focus.

                October 27, 2011
      • @Sarah, overt and covert abuse is certainly a factor in someone being touch adverse. There are two other factors as well, a disrupted parent-child attachment due to Western parenting (birth trauma, circumcision, crib sleeping, bottle feeding or breast feeding for less than 2.5 years, day care, public school) and a child on the Autism spectrum (or some other neurological issue). Being touch-averse usually signals a red flag. The good news is that in all of the above cases, from abuse, attachment disruption and Autism spectrum, a child can become more open to touch. I help families with this everyday.

        October 26, 2011
  4. ALL life begins as an orgasm.

    Sex is our primary energy … thinking it’s time to un-shame-ify it.

    November 14, 2011
    • Yes! That’s why we’re here. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

      November 14, 2011
    • yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. this is something we should be acknowledging in infants – yes, they have orgasms – and as we talk to children, allow for their maximum development, create nurturing environments for sexual exploration.

      November 14, 2011
  5. Information on children and their sexual
    Health is VERY hard to find. Why? I found this through a google search. Imam trying
    To find information for my mother. Last
    Night she told me, that she had a talk with my daughter about not letting people touch her private parts. I was quite upset and was not able to vocalize why this was wrong. It seems that it is not a holistic approach to children’s health. Words alone do not develop boundaries and positive self-image with children. I wonder too if such talks could
    Be damaging. If they could distort her ideas about sex, shame her, make her afraid or
    Confused. Anyone have any more information on this? Specifically about talking to children about sex? I really appreciate this blog Post and all the comments.🙂

    June 12, 2012
    • I agree that healthy information on childhood sexual development is indeed hard to find. In my active research in this area over many years I have concluded that everyone from psychologists to regular parents are just plain afraid to talk about it, given the increasing numbers of regulations and crimes that have grown surrounding this big and important issue. (FYI, we will discuss such sexual topics extensively at my conference this year)

      The reason what your mother did was wrong (I can vocalize this for you) is multifaceted:

      1. it is an invasion of your daughter’s privacy
      2. it teaches your daughter to be afraid of others
      3. it shows a lack of trust in your daughter’s ability to know what feels right to her
      4. it gives your daughter a message of sexuality that feels foreign, unnatural and fundamentally confusing

      The good thing is that you know your mother said this. This gives you an opportunity to have a conversation with your daughter about what she is thinking and feeling about what was said. In general I have learned that children who are raised in respectful, freedom-based homes will inquire and talk about and explore their sexual development easily and openly. Have you found this to be true with your daughter?

      June 12, 2012
      • I have found this to be true. I have not found it necessary to sit them
        Down and have the talk. They shower with us and experience us in the bathroom, and that is where
        Most of the discussions happen. They always start the discussions.

        June 12, 2012
  6. Weeeeellllllll you just changed my life so thank you for that.

    June 13, 2012

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