Touchy Feely: How to Handle Your Young Child's Sexual Exploration
What's normal and how to weather the changes ahead when your child is discovering his or her body
You and a group of friends have just gathered in your living room. Everyone is relaxed and having a good time. Suddenly, your three-year-old daughter, who had been playing quietly in the corner of the room, straddles her oversized teddy bear and begins to rock rhythmically. The conversation comes to an abrupt halt as your sweet, innocent child’s eyes glaze over and her cheeks flush. She’s clearly in her own little world—while you’re dying of embarrassment in yours. “Looks like somebody is tired!” you proclaim, scooping her up and rushing her from the room, hoping your guests will forget what just happened.
Most parents are shocked to learn that it’s perfectly normal—even common—for young children to explore their bodies, often going so far as to act out what adults would label masturbation. While toddlers and preschoolers don’t have an understanding of sex as it applies to us, they are smart enough to figure out that touching certain parts of their bodies feels good. And to figure out that if touching feels good, touching again and again feels downright great.
So what is a loving parent to do?
“Children at this age are naturally curious and uninhibited,” explains Dr. Carl Arinoldo, MD, a child psychologist and author of Essentials of Smart Parenting: Learning the Fine Art of Managing Your Children. “They’re going to explore, especially their own bodies.” Because children often touch themselves as a comforting mechanism, parents may see it when their children get sleepy or when are in unfamiliar surroundings and feel nervous.
As unsettling as it may be to see your young son stroking his genitals or your daughter furiously rubbing her thighs together, try not to show alarm. Yelling at your child to stop, telling him or her that this behavior is “dirty,” or punishing the behavior only confuses your child and may even cause sexual dysfunction later in life. A child’s sexuality develops much in the same way that motor skills, language, and cognitive ability develop—through experimentation.
Take It Behind Closed Doors
Understanding that this type of behavior is normal doesn’t mean that you should allow your child to launch an exploratory mission in his pants in the middle of the frozen foods section. “Parents should tell their children that everyone has private body parts, and that those parts should not be shown or touched in public,” says Dr. Arinoldo. “Explain the difference between public behavior and private behavior.”
By the time your child is potty trained, he or she has come to understand that certain activities happen in certain places; we sleep in our beds, eat at the kitchen table, and pee in the bathroom. While it sometimes takes very young children a few years to really grasp the concept of public versus private, consistent reinforcement and patience on the part of parents can make the idea stick. By age six, most kids understand the difference.
In the meantime, if you see your child beginning to touch or rub while you’re at home or out in public, gently and quietly remind her that this is something she should do when she’s alone. If she wants to “play that game” she should go to her room to play privately. Once that boundary is established, stick to it. If you see your child masturbating in his or her own room or in the bathroom, ignore it. And don’t feel that you have to rush to have an uncomfortable “birds and bees” conversation with a preschool-aged child.
“Children at this age are limited in their cognitive understanding of the world,” Dr. Arinoldo says. “Don’t attempt to discuss sexuality with the child; it will only confuse them. Instead, take a non-judgmental attitude toward your child’s inquisitiveness and answer questions in an age-appropriate way.”
Drive Them to Distraction
If the urge to touch should strike your child when you’re out in public, and the “this is a private moment” conversation isn’t effective, try distracting your child with another activity or object. Kids often reach for their genitals when boredom sets in, so drawing their attention to a picture on the wall, an item in a storefront window, or a bubbling fountain can solve the problem immediately. Put something place-appropriate into their hands and follow it up with praises or exclamations such as, “Look at that!”
If you suspect that your child’s touching is a self-comforting behavior, you might want to introduce a “safety object” such as a teddy bear or blanket. Let your child bring this object along whenever you go out and hang on to it and hug it as much as he or she needs to.
Get the Babysitter on Board
Kids need consistency, and babysitters and daycare providers should be aware of special rules we make for our kids. This kind of touch-feely behavior is no exception. If you’ve noticed that your son always touches himself at nap time, let the people at his daycare center know. Talk to them about it, explain how you handle it, and ask them to keep to the same course of action. If bringing her favorite doll to the park keeps your young daughter from pulling her dress up over her head, then let the babysitter know that this particular doll should come with them on all of their outings.
Nearly all self-touching behavior is normal, and as a general rule, parents have nothing to fear from their child’s sexual exploration. However, there are times when touching could be a sign of a larger issue.
Kids pull on their earlobes when their ears hurt and rub their eyes when they’re sleepy. In the same way, they often tug at, rub, or touch their genitals in response to pain or discomfort. Consistent touching could be a sign that your child has an infection, skin irritation, or injury. If there is redness, swelling, or any visible changes to your child’s genital area, call your pediatrician immediately.
Masturbation and other kinds of genital touching are common comfort-inducers in children. If your child’s touching becomes so prevalent that it gets in the way of other, normally enjoyed activities—like playing with toys or listening to a story—it could be a symptom of depression or intense worry. Try to determine what in your child’s life may be causing such emotional distress; is there a new baby in the house, or has he or she started at a new school? If your child is old enough to have a conversation with you, ask questions, and try to get at the root of the problem.
When to Seek Help
In very rare cases, self-touching can be a sign of sexual abuse. If your child seems to be connecting the dots about adult sex, if he or she is attempting to have real or simulated sexual contact with another child, or if he or she cannot be easily distracted from masturbatory behavior, parents should seek the advice of a doctor or child psychologist.
“Any behavior that seems abnormal or just not right should be immediately investigated by the parents and the child’s pediatrician,” says Dr. Arinoldo. “Never be afraid to bring your child’s doctor into the situation.”
In the end, you know your child best, and you know what is right for him or her. Understanding that sexual exploration is to be expected in your child will help you better deal with it when it happens and provide your child with a safe and understanding environment in which to develop.
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