Body Awareness & Sexuality: Advice On Dealing With Preschool Fears

Dear Dr. Heather,

I am worried about my 3-year-old daughter, who has made 2 comments about her "bottom" in the last 2 weeks. She didn't want me to look at her bottom when I was putting a pull-up on her. When I asked her why, she said "I don't know." And visiting her grandparents' house, she was getting dressed for the day and told her grandma that she didn't want grandpa to see her bottom. I know that her grandpa would NEVER EVER do anything inappropriate...as a matter of fact, he has never even changed her diaper when she was younger. There is nobody else who she is in contact with who would EVER do anything inappropriate either. But I am concerned. I have never used the word "bottom". I do not leave my girls alone with men or even just grandpas or other children (like playing in their room by themselves). They have to play where I can see them.

What I want to know is this: Do preschoolers develop a self-awareness of their body to a point where they don't want certain people seeing them in their undies, or in the bathtub....at what age and is this normal? What should I be doing at this point? My number one priority is protecting my young daughters.

Signed,

Anonymous -- and Fearful -- Mom

Dear Fearful Mom,

Sometimes it's hard to see our babies venture into territory like this. Body awareness, along with a sense of "private parts", is a first step in a child's developing sexuality. This can trigger strong feelings in us as parents, especially for those who have lingering issues over sexuality, or perhaps have experienced some sort of sexual abuse or inappropriateness in our own pasts. The natural response is to hypervigilant about any possible danger, and to protect your child at any cost. But this can get in the way of your child's growing -- and normal -- awareness of his or her own body.

So YES, children do start to develop a beginning sense of body awareness -- and privacy -- by age 3. It's not a fully-formed sense yet, but preschoolers do start to pick up on the fact that some areas of the body are "private". It's a complicated idea and so at first they can get confused. They might not totally understand whom you DO and DON'T show your private parts to....it would not be unusual for a 3-year-old to act shy about her "bottom", even with a parent. Then there may be other times where she will run around naked, with no inhibitions. They're trying to figure out the "rules" about who can view which body parts. It's a long process that takes at least a couple of years to really come to grips with what is a complicated -- and "loaded" -- concept.

You mention that you're worried about where she heard the word "bottom", since you don't use it in your family. You might think about where else she might have picked it up. Does she go to preschool? Or have friends that use the word "bottom"? Those are possibilities. She could have even overheard a mother talking to her child about it at the grocery store, for instance, "Sit on your bottom when you are in the shopping cart." Of course I can't know, but I'm just thinking of how often you hear parents talking to toddlers and preschoolers about stuff like that in public. Maybe that's where she heard it.

Now, it sounds as if you are afraid something inappropriate might have happened. Of course I cannot say one way or another if that is the case; I'm not evaluating your daughter, only giving you some parenting information. But I can tell you that, usually, children who have been sexually abused show MANY signs of disturbance and regression including sleep, appetite, behavioral, and other problems. Simply using an unfamiliar word -- by itself -- would not necessarily concern me. I would look at her OVERALL behavior over a period of time. Of course if you have reasonable suspicion, you should report those suspicions to her doctor and the authorities. But hopefully this is just part of the normal process of your daughter learning about "public" and "private" body parts -- a task that all preschoolers do work on at this age.

You might also want to check out another article of mine on the normal development of sexual sensations in preschoolers. Click here for it. I hope that helps. Let me know if you need more help.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Post updated 12/2/2010