Monday, April 7, 2014


Young children have a tendency to touch themselves. They like to touch and explore everywhere on their bodies. They find the funny crevices, like nostrils. They find the spots that hurt, like hitting the funny bone. They find the parts that make them look silly in the mirror, like sticking out their tongue. They find the places that feel good when they rub it, like their penis or vulva.

As young children explore their bodies, they find very quickly that genital rubbing feels good. When the diaper is off, or they are potty training, they like to look and explore this region that is generally left alone and off limits (by clothing restrictions). This kind of touching is just exploration. Children this young (generally under age 8) do not understand sex or masturbation in an adult way. They just want to know what their bodies look like and can do.

Knowing this, let's imagine a typical response when you find your child playing with their genitals. I was on the phone with a friend who had a 3-year-old boy. In the middle of our conversation I heard this on my end, "Aaaaah, stop touching that." (Voice tone sounded like he was petting a snake.) "Get your hands out of your pants." (They must have been on fire.) "He's always touching himself! I can't get him to stop." (Exasperated).

Does this sound familiar in some way? Your main goal is to get them to stop touching themselves? Imagine you are the child and someone is talking to you that way about your toe. After quite a few incidents like this, how would you feel about your toe? I came across a great quote a while ago: "To hear many religious people talk, one would think God created the torso, head, legs and arms, but the devil slapped on the genitals." (Don Schrader) When you respond to your child, are you making them feel the sacredness of their genitals, or creating the impression that they are bad?

When children are young, they are not generally masturbating (as you may believe, which is why you respond the way you do). They are exploring their little bodies, ALL of it (maybe to your dismay).
Your doctor recommends that every month you perform a self-breast or self-testicle exam. This is NOT masturbation. This is self-exploration, to make sure your body feels like it's in proper working order.

Self-exploration turns into masturbation when children begin to get a little older and their bodies are preparing for puberty, around age 8.

So, how should you respond?
1. STAY CALM. I feel like a broken record. Keep your voice tone and body language as you would if you found them poking their finger in their ear.
2. Don't put too much emphasis on what they are doing. This may create a bigger problem. They will do it more if you pay more attention to it. Redirect their attention to something else. "Would you like to play a game, read a book, help mommy or daddy?"
3. If it happens regularly, pay attention to times and places it happens. They might use it as a self-soothing when they are upset or overstimulated. If you find a pattern, see if you can help them find something else to do that will help them manage their emotions.

What do I say? (If you need to say anything at all)
For infants, "It feels good to touch your body all over."
For toddlers, "Your body is amazing, isn't it? Let's go read a story."
For preschooler, "That feels good, but please do it in private, like your room."
For older preschoolers, "I know it feels good to touch yourself in that way; these parts of your body are special and you are going to be able to use them in a special way when you are older. Please do that in private."
For school-age (5-7), "I know it feels good to touch yourself in that way; these parts of your body are special and you are going to be able to use them in a special way when you are older. Please find something else to do with your hands."
You also may want to make sure they understand that cleanliness is important to avoid bacteria (especially for girls). Teach them to wash their hands after touching themselves, and before (if possible, they usually don't plan to touch themselves).

As your child reaches age 8, you may need to have a discussion on masturbation if they are still touching themselves often. You should include masturbation as part of your pre-teen (boys AND girls) discussions on pubertal development. You will NEED to talk about masturbation because it is becoming the new "abstinence" in the teen world. There are no diseases or pregnancy, and it satisfies sexual desires.

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