My toddler-aged girl is discovering herself physically and seems to enjoy a lot of "self touching." What's the best way to help her keep a healthy self-esteem regarding her sexuality, but also help her be "discreet" and clean in her explorations?
This is a very important question to raise, and the answer will help other parents deal with this very normal part of their child's development.
I went straight to one of my favorite experts in the field of sexuality for her advice on how parents can best handle the situation with confidence. Debra Haffner, MPH, is the author of the book From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children; she is a sexuality education expert with more than 25 years of experience teaching parents and developing sexuality programs for schools.
Haffner's down-to-earth approach comes from her belief that teaching the concepts of sexuality and healthy body image should begin early. Having the "big talk" when children reach puberty is too late, she says, and it leaves most parents and children feeling uncomfortable. Looking for teachable moments throughout your child's life creates a healthy, open environment for your child to ask questions and feel comfortable talking to you.
She points out that parents should talk together about what their views, values, and morals are and how they would like to raise their child. Topics including marriage, birth control, religious views, premarital sex, abstinence, and more should be discussed.
When it comes to your child and her increasing curiosity about her body, being frank and open with her is important. When your child is exploring her body, she is not approaching it in the same way that an adult would, and her exploration should not be viewed as such. "Toddlers and preschoolers touch their genitals in a much less purposeful way than older children and adolescents, and many do so without anxiety or embarrassment," Haffner says.
She recommends that if you come upon your child (in his or her own room or other private place) in the midst of "self touching," don't make a big deal about it, just leave discreetly. If your child is touching her genitals in public, she recommends the following: First, quietly acknowledge the behavior in case she is unaware that she's doing it. Then gently remind her that this is an activity to be done in private, and help her to identify private spaces in your home. She does point out that it might take a lot of reinforcing before a child learns the importance of privacy and discretion.
Haffner gives the following hints and tips about communicating with your young child in her book:
- It's OK to feel uncomfortable [when discussing touchy topics].
- Find teachable moments; don't just wait for your child's questions (but do reward her when she has them).
- Remember that sexuality education is an ongoing process!
- Understand that there is a difference between childhood sexuality and adult sexuality.
- Have both parents teach children about sexuality.
- Take the time to think about what you want to teach about sexuality.
- Educate both your sons and your daughters.
- Use words that are appropriate for your child's level of development.
- Know it's OK to make a mistake [when addressing a topic the first time]!
- Listen to your children.