Many young children touch their privates, and often it is simple curiosity: they are interested in “that thing” down there. They pull on it, push on it, wiggle it, and sometimes while exploring their diaper they find some poop! Wow, that came out of ME?! This is kind of fun! This type of touching is usually just a very curious toddler exploring his body, much like his finger explores his nose to see what treasures he can find.
Masturbation in a child is different; the child will usually appear dazed, flushed, and preoccupied while rubbing themselves with their hand or another object. Children might masturbate several times per day or only once a week.
Why do they do this? Mostly because it feels good. Some might do it because they are unhappy about something like getting their pacifier taken away. Children might also do this simply because they are constantly being told not to. Masturbation is NOT caused by simple irritation in the area – this just causes pain and/or itching.
Don’t make a big deal about this: First of all, don’t worry. About one third of young kids do this, and practically all teenagers do it. It is not abnormal unless they continue to do it in public beyond age 5-6.
It does NOT cause any physical harm, and does NOT mean you child will grow up to be sexually promiscuous. However, if adults overreact and make the child think it’s evil or dirty then it can lead to emotional harm, such as guilt or sexual inhibitions.
What to do about it:
- Have realistic goals. You won’t be able to completely stop your child from masturbating, so a realistic goal would be to just control where your child does this. Try to limit it to just the bathroom and the bedroom. You can say to your child, “it is okay to do this in your bedroom when you are tired.” But don’t completely ignore the issue; otherwise your child might think it is okay to do it anywhere.
- Do ignore it at naptime and bedtime. Just leave him alone during these times. Don’t keep checking on him or asking where his hands are.
- Try distraction. At times other than naps and bedtime, try to distract this behavior with other activities or a toy. Getting his mind onto something else might help.
- Give an explanation: If the distraction doesn’t help, then explain to your child, “I know that touching yourself feels good, but it is not polite to do it around other people, you can only do it in private.” You need to insist that the child only does this his room or the bathroom.
- What about at preschool? The same principles should apply. The teacher should first try to distract the child with an activity. If that doesn’t work, then try to get the child to “snap out of it” and grab his attention with a comment like, “Okay, Johnny, we need you to join us now!” Masturbation should only be tolerated at naptime.
- Spend more “snuggle time” with your child. You might be able to decrease this behavior if you give more hugs and cuddles throughout the day.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
- Do not try to eliminate this completely. This will lead to more problems.
- Do not physically punish or yell at your child for masturbating.
- Do not use any physical restraints for their hands.
- Don’t label masturbation as dirty, sinful, or bad.