When storks visit

To parents, their children's sexual development may seem a long way off. But actually, kids develop an emotional and physical foundation for sexuality in many subtle ways as they grow

Parents with childrenSujit Kumar's father would talk of how all the men in the Kumar family had always had women for the asking. He would be vulgar in his humour, and explicitly talk to the nine-year-old Sujit about the female anatomy, and inquire about every girl in his class - "Is she your girlfriend?" One day the impressionable Sujit inappropriately touched a girl in his class thinking it was okay to do so and he was pulled up by the school authorities. The mixed signals were a shock for Sujit - what his father encouraged, his teachers disgraced him for. Sujit developed an anxiety disorder as a result of this inner conflict, and suffered from feelings of inadequacy for years. He also compulsively engaged in promiscuity to live out the script dictated by his father - that the Kumar men were proud of the record of their sexual exploits.

Karishma's parents had never taken care to see whether their daughter was asleep or awake in the same bedroom before engaging in sexual talk or sexual touching. Her mother had even walked out nude from the bathroom on a couple of occasions with six-year-old Karishma watching the scene of her father fondling her mother, commenting on her breasts, and feeling confused and concerned about the goings on, as her mother sounded as if she was in pain, but also giggled intermittently. This led to a complex mindset in Karishma as she reached adolescence. She naturally had small breasts at her age and felt inferior about the same, as she constantly compared her body to her mother's nude body, and found herself inadequate. Also, the vivid audio-visual impact of the sexual interaction between her parents, left her feeling confused about the pleasure element in sex, and she found it difficult to let go completely with her sexual partner, and therefore could not reach an orgasm.

Are you sexually abusing your own child?

In the case of Sujit as well as Karishma, we can see how being a witness to adult sexual behaviour, adversely impacted their adolescent and adult lives, influencing both their attitudes and behaviours. This effect can be equated to the adverse impact of pornography on young and impressionable minds. It leaves them confused as they are unable to process what they see and hear, resulting in warped perceptions, lopsided values, unhealthy beliefs, detrimental attitudes and dysfunctional behaviours.

When adults display sexual behaviour in front of young minds, they are in fact engaging in sexual abuse with the child. This subtle sexual abuse of the child's mind is not classically viewed as sexual abuse, but the damage is as grave as if the child had been physically sexually abused, and the effects as devastating and with long lasting consequences.

Viewing of adult sexual behaviour can create arousal in a young child even before he/she is existentially ready to understand and healthily process such feelings. It therefore is a tampering with nature's timing, and interferes greatly with the natural growing up process of the child.

For a young adult, viewing of adult sexual behaviour may not interfere with the growing up process, but the stimulus can still result in an unmanageable level of arousal, leading to early sexual experimentation, which has its own set of problems such as teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases as well as leaving the young inexperienced teenager psychologically destabilised.

Verbally too, the use of sexual innuendos while talking, sexual jokes, and descriptions of sexual behaviour should be strictly avoided in front of children and young adults. Also, any form of touching with sexual overtones should be restricted to the bedroom or a more private place, away from the gaze of a child.

Arman's elder sister was engaged to be married, and the young couple would often kiss and neck each other, and intimately touch each other with Arman being around. Arman, who was then 16 years old, would get aroused, and was not satisfied with self-pleasuring as he would view his sister and brother-in-law openly sexual with each other. He started craving the touch of a woman, and so once when he was alone at home for the weekend, he arranged for a call girl to come home and had unprotected sex. She was HIV+ - as he realised a year later - when he developed immunity problems. He developed full blown AIDS a few years later, and died when he was just in his 20s.

Are you a good role model for intimacy?

However, we must clarify that if a child observes two adults of the opposite gender, whether his parents or otherwise, expressing warm and caring feelings, such as expression of appreciation, gratitude, admiration, encouragement and other kind and comforting words, he/she learns to model such emotional intimacy. Also, equally beneficial would be for the child to witness apologies being asked, and forgiveness being granted, as it models humility and love in the relationship. Moreover, non-sexual touching such as holding hands, a head on the shoulder of the partner, an arm around the shoulder, and a light and affectionate hug, are not only harmless but helps in being a role model for a healthy and emotionally intimate man-woman relationship. When children see their parents affectionate in such a way, it over and above creates in them a feeling of security knowing that all is well between the parents.

Seven-year-old Swati would force her parents to sit side-by-side and hold hands after an argument which she had witnessed. After a few times, the parents realised that their arguments were making Swati insecure about the wellbeing of the family, and that she needed to feel secure, thus the forced togetherness that she initiated between her parents. Parents need to know that if there are differences expressed in front of children which come across as arguments, then it is their solemn duty to make up and make peace in front of children, to help them know that all is well, and to demonstrate the same through words and acts of non-sexual affection with each other in the presence of the child.

Twelve-year-old Jason was anxious about the state of the relationship between his parents, as in the midst of loud sounds he heard his mother refer to "that woman", and his father using words such as "I'm fed up of your nagging". He was always watching from the corner of his eye as to how close or far they were sitting to each other, whether his Dad was sleeping in the bedroom or on the sofa, and would breathe a sigh of relief when they held hands. In fact, on a vacation he decided to be the family photographer, and asked his parents to pose for the camera, instructing them on various affectionate postures like his father's arm around his mother's shoulders, asking them to sit very close to each other, to look at each other and smile, and even asked his father to plant a kiss on his mother's cheek for a photograph.

In conclusion, we can say that there is a clear demarcation between sexual and non-sexual yet affectionate behaviour, where the first if viewed is harmful, while the other is helpful. Therefore, adults should be alert and aware of the effects of both and make responsible choices while interacting with each other in front of children.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.
Rajan Bhonsle
Rajan Bhonsle, MD, is a consultant in sexual medicine and counsellor. Along with his wife Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, who is a consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, he runs a unique therapy centre

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