While I was pregnant, I dreamed of the special times my daughter and I would share when she was a toddler. I envisioned play groups, music classes, and maybe age-appropriate art and crafts activities. I never considered the issue of her sexuality. Like many people, I thought parents did not have to worry about that issue until their kids got closer to adolescence.
Not true. We were happily banging away on a conga drum the other day in rhythm class when the little boy next to us started playing with himself. His mother was very embarrassed and quickly distracted him with a giant cymbal. I wondered if I would have handled the same situation with as much grace. After all, the issue of toddlers touching themselves was never mentioned in any of the parenting books I read.
Brette says that both her kids engaged in some form of self-stimulating behavior as toddlers. She felt that the best way to handle the situation was to talk about the proper names for genitals and to "just let them do it."
That was exactly the right approach. Parents and children should talk through difficult situations in an honest, calm manner. This starts in infancy and pays off in the teen years.
Exploration is a perfectly natural behavior for children. Although it can be alarming, it is best to avoid sending the message that this normal exploration is dirty or harmful. Children can take cues from the behavior of their parents and silent cues are sometimes the most important. Over time, this can have a detrimental effect on the child.
It's important to strive for balance in behaviors like this. You don't want to embarrass your child, especially in front of other people. Most of the time, simple distractions help end the behaviors.
Self-stimulation starts in infancy. Children go through different stages at different ages. Parents should understand that genital play in a public situation is usually just an indication that their child is not yet socialized, and that parents can often have a simple chat about private behaviors to end the public displays.
A study in the journal Pediatrics indicated that it is very common for 2-5 year olds to engage in frequent sexual behaviors like self-stimulation. After that age, this type of exploration drops off dramatically.
Take the time to educate children about touching themselves, sexual innuendoes, and potty humor. It can take a lot of time, but parents will achieve better results with a patient, neutral approach.
The experts offer the following tips:
If you have specific questions, talk to your child's doctor.
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Nemours Kids Health
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Canadian Psychological Association
Friedrich WN, Fisher J, Broughton D, Houston M, Shafran CR.. Normative sexual behavior in children: A contemporary sample. Pediatrics. 1998 Apr;101(4):e9.
Kellogg ND. Sexual behaviors in children: Evaluation and management. Am Fam Physician. 2010;82(10):1233-1238.
Kellogg ND, Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, American Academy of Pediatrics. Clinical report—the evaluation of sexual behaviors in children. Pediatrics. 2009;124(3):992-998.
Understanding early sexual development. Nemours Kids Health website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/sexual_health/development.html. Updated October 2014. Accessed July 20, 2015.
Understanding the sexual behaviors of young children. Fairfax County Department of Family Services website. Available at: http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dfs/pdf/cyf/sexualbehaviorschildren_eng.pdf. Accessed July 20, 2015.
Last reviewed July 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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