Ask a Sex Educator: What to do about young children’s self-touching?
Welcome to our new feature, Ask a Sex Educator! While I will continue to write standalone articles from time to time, I wanted to create a forum where people could ask parenting and sexuality-related questions, and I’ll answer as many of them as I’m able. Besides my own training and experience as a sexuality educator, I have a pretty extensive library and access to research databases, so what I don’t know, I’m able to look up! So if you have a question about parenting and sexuality, ask away! Just use the contact form and put “Ask a Sex Educator” as the top line of your message.
Our first question emerged from a discussion among many of the writers, and it’s a very common one: What to do when you notice your young child playing with their genitals?
It’s very common for young children to stroke and fondle their own genitals, both in an idle, exploratory way and in a purposeful, directed way. One study asked caregivers and revealed that, in the 2-5 age group, 60.2% of boys and 43.8% of girls sometimes touched their genitals at home, to the caregivers’ knowledge. Genital touching in public was less common for both boys and girls, but still reported by a significant number of respondents. Caregivers reported less and less genital touching as children aged through the elementary years, suggesting that children’s self-stimulation behavior either decreases until puberty or that they become more private about it. Given this prevalence, and the lack of any observed connection between genital touching and emotional or developmental problems, touching and playing with one’s genitals is viewed as a normal developmental activity for preschool-aged children. It feels good, and many children find it comforting or soothing.
Even recognizing that it’s normal, however, most parents in the US and related cultures feel uncomfortable thinking about their children self-touching, let alone talking with them about it. While in many cultures, children’s curiosity about sexuality and enjoyment of their bodies is considered normal and healthy, in the US we have few scripts or guidelines for how children should interact with their bodies in a healthy way. Even if we don’t believe it rationally, many of us have an engrained sense that it’s inappropriate and disturbing for children to have any sexual thoughts, knowledge, or behavior at all. Dealing with our own feelings around this, while trying to figure out the best way to teach our children, is understandably an anxious business.
My first piece of advice is that sometimes acknowledging your discomfort can be powerful. We’d all like to be the cool, wise adult who can talk about pleasure and privacy and self-touching as comfortably as we talk about sharing and empathy. But sometimes that’s not in the cards, and children can be pretty good at picking up on discomfort that we’re trying to suppress. Sometimes it’s better to just say frankly, “Grownups sometimes get uncomfortable when talking about things like this, because they’re very private. It’s ok, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.” The important thing is not to hide any signs of discomfort — the important thing is to make sure the child doesn’t put the wrong meaning onto your discomfort.
So that’s about attitude: what about the actual guidance? With very young children, the concept of privacy is the key one. “Yes, it feels good to touch yourself on the penis/vulva/vagina. Those are special parts of your body that are just for you to enjoy, all by yourself. It’s fine if you play with them when you’re alone in your room [and/or in the bath, or wherever else you want to draw the boundary].” Depending on their age and the situation, you can leave it at that or segue into a discussion of sex in general, or of boundaries and consent and how other adults should not be touching their private parts.
Especially if your child is very young, the message likely won’t sink in the first time, and you’ll have to repeat it, just like training them in any other behavior. That’s fine. Whether parents have explicitly had these conversations or not, children generally figure out that self-touching and genitals are supposed to be private as they move into the elementary years anyway; having the conversation just allows them to do it without a sense of shame, or fear that there’s something horribly wrong with them for enjoying sensations that, in fact, most humans enjoy.
What about when it is a problem? Sometimes parents are concerned that too much self-stimulation means that their child has a developmental problem, or has been sexually abused. In general, this is not the case, but there are a couple of things to look for. Genital self-touching and other sexual behaviors that seem obsessive and intrude into many aspects of a child’s life have been more often linked to emotional problems, behavioral problems, or abuse. Self-touching that happens on its own — even frequently — is not worrisome, but if it is part of a pattern of sexualized behavior that seems obsessive, driven, or becomes a central part of a child’s everyday life, it is probably worth looking into.
Teaching children that their genitals are a body part to enjoy in private is often one of our first opportunities to normalize pleasure for our children while teaching about boundaries and respect. Giving children a clear, shame-free understanding about appropriate and inappropriate genital touching is also a great protector against childhood sexual abuse. It’s not an easy conversation, but it’s well worth having.
Featured image by ap.