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Toddler Behavior: Masturbation And Touching The Genitals

5 min read

Your toddler, as you know, is on an exploratory drive. He is curious and mobile, meaning there are not many places in your house that he has not poked his nose in.
Same is true for his body as well. Just like he spent hours as an infant staring at his own hand and putting it in his mouth, at some point of time (generally between his 2nd and 6th year) he will find lot of curiosity and satisfaction in touching and playing with his private parts. This can happen when he is alone or in front of your guests or when you are in a public place – your child is not bashful to do it at any time or place, causing much embarrassment to not only you but other adults around.
Toddler masturbation behavior
(Note: We are using “he” only as an example. Girls go through the same phase and everything written in this article is applicable for your daughter too).
So first things first.

  • Why Do Toddlers Touch Themselves?
  • Why Is It Ok For Toddlers To Touch Their Genitals?
  • How Should You React When You See Your Toddler Playing With His/Her Genitals?
  • Where Should You Draw The Line? What Is Really Inappropriate?

Why Do Toddlers Touch Themselves?

The main reason, as we mentioned before, is curiosity. Here is a part of his body that he had not noticed before, so he wants to explore it to the fullest. The second, and slightly unsettling reason, is that he does it for the same reason adolescents and adults do – for pleasure.

Why Is It Ok For Toddlers To Touch Their Genitals?

Exploring one’s body is part of growing up. You never had a problem when he was sticking his thumb in his mouth, or tried to pull his toes off his feet. Then why do you suddenly find it embarrassing when he touches what is for him “just another body part”? Because, an adult like you consider the act of touching genitals as something “dirty”, “sexual” and “bad”.
The key here is to understand that when your son plays with his penis which might result in an erection in him or when your daughters rubs her bottom against a chair handle, you cannot quite classify these as masturbation. There is pleasure involved, yes. But this is just a “good feeling” they get and is not sexual in nature. They do not feel it is wrong or dirty to do it. They do not know what sex is and this is not something you should be concerned about. We feel so only because we are looking at it with adult’s eyes. Start seeing it from the child’s view and you will immediately understand that the act is totally innocent and largely harmless. He is exploring his body, and the concept of “private parts” do not make much sense to your 3 year old.
That said, this can be a very touchy and embarrassing experience for all adults involved if your child does it in a social / public gathering. So, some level of intervention is required.

How Should You React When You See Your Toddler Playing With His/Her Genitals?

Like everything else, too much of this behavior is also a problem. Sometimes, sexual play or role play in kids may indicate exposure to sexually explicit material, and you may read about it here. Most often, sexually abused children show signs like distraction and withdrawal.

  • Do not scold: Your child does not think he is doing something wrong. And it is not wrong too. So there is no need to scold and punish him
  • Do not call genitals “bad parts”: It is very important not to classify the private parts as “bad parts” that should not be touched. This is unfortunately the most common reactions parents have. However, such a classification will result in the kids having problems with sexuality as they grow into adults
  • Tell him not to do it in public: Without shaming or scolding your child, explain to him that anything to do his private parts has to be done privately. For example, he does not pee in front of others, he does it inside the bathroom. Similarly, explain to him that if he wants to put his hand inside his pants, he has to do it in a different room as it makes you and others in the family uncomfortable. The child will most likely not do it because he would want to be near you. Moreover, since you are not saying “no” to do it, he loses interest in the whole act soon
  • Do not scare him: Another common tactic used. “If you do that, we have to go to doctor for injection.” “If you do that, you will fall sick”. These might work, of course. But it also will result in reducing your child’s self-esteem and might give him unwarranted guilt
  • Sound reasonable: When you talk to your child about it, especially if they are slightly older (4-6 years), you can accept that touching the private areas gives a good feeling. However, if done all the time, then it will stop the child from other more interesting activities like playing a new game or going out with friends
  • Distract: He is most likely touching his genitals involuntarily when he is bored (like nose-picking). So the best way to get him to stop it is to distract him and engage him in other interesting activities. Sometimes, children do it as an anxiety-reliever. If that is the reason, find the root cause and solve that. Teach him how to relieve his anxiety in other more “socially acceptable” ways
  • Ignore it: We think this is by far the best advice. If your child is really small (2-3 years), private parts mean nothing to them. They do not mind running around the house without a shred of cloth on them. They do not mind peeing in front of others. So how do you begin to explain touching genitals is private? You do not. In fact, if you give the whole act too much importance, then it might just peek his curiosity and he might just do it more

Where Should You Draw The Line? What Is Really Inappropriate?

There are normal, common behaviors and there are uncommon, abnormal behaviors.
Touching or rubbing the genital area is normal. At a small age, it is even common and normal for a child to try touching another child’s or adult’s genital area.
However, the following actions are not considered normal and you should talk to your doctor about it:

  • Doing it so frequently that the child stops all other activities and engage in it most of the time
  • Doing it so intensely that it causes physical pain / soreness
  • Doing it in a way that makes it impossible for you to distract him; and he becomes angry when you try to distract him
  • Inserting something into her genital area

These are of course rare cases. In most cases, your child is just curious as he is growing up and he will find something else to explore soon enough. So do not panic or be embarrassed.
Happy parenting!

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