Helping Children Develop Healthy Sexual Attitudes
By Caroline Hilton, MS
Have you ever wondered when and how sexual tastes and preferences are formed and where they originate? Arousal templates serve as a basic guide in the way that we approach sexuality. However uncomfortable it may be to think about your teenager having an arousal template, it is important to accept the reality that every human being, including your teenager, has an arousal template set up as a compass that will influence their sexual preferences, tastes, and relationships. Accepting this reality and creating open communication in your home are the key first steps in helping your child develop healthy sexual attitudes.
Dr. Patrick Carnes defined an arousal template as “the total constellation of thoughts, images, behaviors, sounds, smells, sights, fantasies, and objects that arouse us sexually. This constellation encompasses vast categories of stimuli that come from our early experiences with family, friends, religious affiliations, media, and teachers” (Facing the Shadow, 2015).
Arousal templates are formed through making associations of sensory input (such as sights, sounds, smells, experiences or feelings) and sexual arousal. The preferred sexual tastes and behaviors of adults can be compared to the classically conditioned responses of Pavlovian theory. One fascinating study in the 1960’s showed a group of men images of nude women alongside images of boots. These men eventually became sexually aroused by just the images of boots themselves (Rachman, 1966).
Childhood trauma can also impact how an arousal template develops. The amygdala is an important center in the brain that controls fear, safety, and sexual arousal. In a healthy relationship, sexual arousal should be based on connection, intimacy, and safety (Salu, 2013). However, when childhood abuse occurs, sexual arousal may become a confusing conglomeration of fear, pleasure and pain.
The good news is that arousal templates are permeable and changeable. When sexual addiction becomes an issue, individuals would need treatment. A trained professional can help to change the recovering addict’s arousal template to be more inclusive of healthy behaviors and to eliminate those behaviors that are based in trauma or negative experiences.
Consider these examples of how arousal templates may be formed.
- The man whose mother was emotionally and physically abusive to him as a child may prefer romantic relationships where the female is the aggressor and more dominant.
- The woman who was sexually abused as a young girl by a more powerful male may be more inclined to take on a seductive and dominant role in sexual relationships to maintain control and power.
- The man who was frequently exposed to his mother walking around the house nude as a child may be aroused by voyeurism and inconspicuously spying on women who are dressing or changing.
- The man who was raised in a rural environment in a third-world country and frequently witnessed nude women peeing by the river may have a fetish of golden showers as part of his arousal template.
- The young girl who frequently witnessed her parents screaming and arguing and then masturbated to soothe herself to sleep may only be able to become aroused when she is sworn at and treated aggressively by her partner.
As parents, we should want our children to grow up to experience fulfilling and satisfying sexuality. Here are some ways to help children develop a healthy arousal template:
- Teach them appropriate boundaries with others. Starting at a young age, teach your children appropriate social boundaries, how to communicate with others, and how to respect the physical space of others. Our 30 Days os Sex Talks for ages 12+ and our 30 Days to a Stronger Child have great lessons on relationship boundaries and social boundaries.
- Protect them from sexual predators and abusive situations. Be cautious in who you choose as caregivers for your children. Most sexual abuse abuse cases deal with a friend of the family, not a stranger to the family. Above all, trust your intuition!
- Create open communication about healthy sexuality. Talk about sex in age-appropriate and positive manner. Make it clear that your children can always ask questions. If you are negative about sex, they will learn to associate sex with shame which can lead to developing a maladaptive arousal template.
- Focus on intimacy. Help your child understand that sex is most valuable and most satisfying when it is based in heartfelt connection and closeness. Show your kids through words and actions what healthy and kind relationships, based in mutual respect, look like.
Understanding the power of arousal templates and creating open dialogues in your home will help your child to not only develop healthy sexual attitudes, but have a satisfying sex life based in intimacy and connection. For more ideas regarding what to talk about, simple discussions and definitions regarding sexuality education, check out our books 30 Days of Sex Talks: Empowering Your Child with Knowledge of Sexual Intimacy (available for 3 age groups: 3-7, 8-11, and 12+). Available
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Caroline HIlton received her Bachelor’s degree in Marriage, Family, and Human Development from Brigham Young University in 2011. During that time, she completed an internship at a residential treatment center for teenage girls dealing with a variety of challenges such as addiction, trauma, and eating disorders; this sparked her desire to work in the mental health field. She attained her Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is a single mother of two children who keep her very busy! She enjoys art, cooking, and the outdoors.
Carnes, P. (2015). Facing the Shadow: Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery: a Gentle Path to Beginning Recovery from Sex Addiction.
Rachman, S. (1966). Sexual fetishism: An experimental analogue. Psychological Record, 16, 293-296.
Salu, Y. (2013). The role of the amygdala in the development of sexual arousal. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 16.