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Developmental stages - a guide

How do I know what to talk about at what age?

These Talk Tips can provide a guide for you as you start talking to them about sex and sexuality.

Birth to two years old

Young children are sensual and learn about themselves and the world through touch.

By the time they’re one, most babies/pēpe will get pleasure from touching their genitals. If they’re told off for this they can start to feel that there’s something wrong with this part of their body.

This is a good time to start naming body parts, such as nose, elbow, penis, vulva. Using the technical names helps make children understand their body parts are normal, and it gives them a common language to use.

Three to four years old

Children will be aware of gender difference and may look under each other’s clothing – this is normal behaviour.

They may repeat swear words and enjoy “toilet” humour. They are not embarrassed to use words like penis or vulva unless their parents are.

Children will still find it pleasurable to touch their genitals. This may be a good time to start talking about public and private behaviour and public and private body parts. Simple messages about wanted and unwanted touching can be part of these conversations.

Use opportunities that occur to have conversations. For instance, if you see someone who is pregnant, you can bring up the issue of pregnancy and how and where a baby grows. 

Five to eight years old

Children start having strong friendships with people of the same sex. This is a good time to talk with them about friendship, how friendships work and being a good friend.  

They can also be intensely interested in talking about pregnancy and childbirth. This gives you an opportunity to build on things you’ve talked with them about previously.

For instance, if you’re unpacking the shopping and you’ve bought a box of tampons, you can talk about what they’re for.

A good strategy is to ask your children what they know and where they got their ideas from. This will help you build on what they know and correct any misinformation.

Answer their questions. Have a phrase for awkward moments, for instance, the queue at the supermarket. “That’s a good question. Let’s talk about it when we get home” and make sure you do.

Eight to fourteen years old

Puberty/pūhuruhurutanga is starting younger; early menarche is the term used to describe periods beginning at a very young age, sometimes as early as eight.

Young people need to understand how bodies change at puberty including how their own bodies are likely to develop. 

Older children may not want to admit they don’t know things. Ask them what they know and fill in the gaps.

This is also the age to be introducing or reinforcing your religious or moral views about sexual responsibility. Don’t be afraid to tell your child what you think and why. Try to avoid making harsh judgement. Just because they are asking questions does not mean they are having sex.

If you only tell them about the scary stuff such as pregnancy, infections and abuse, they may feel you’re out of touch and will be reluctant to raise the subject again.

If you talk openly with your young person about issues such as teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, virginity, abortion, and respect each other’s views, you are modelling good relationship skills.

This helps young people to develop their own attitudes and values which may be different from your own. 

Family Planning has clinics located throughout New Zealand. Use the clinic finder to find your nearest clinic.