There is no reason to be overly concerned about a young child who fondles his or her genital organs from time to time. As a matter of fact, this behavior is a completely normal expression of early sexuality. So don’t “make a big deal” of it or overreact when you see it happening. If you respond calmly and in an age-appropriate way, the habit will pass as soon as maturity and social pressure from other children begin to take effect.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should simply ignore the behavior. If it becomes obsessive or happens too often in public, you’ll probably want to take steps to discourage it. This requires understanding and some honest, straightforward talk.
To begin with, you need to know that, in small children, genital fondling does not produce a sexual “charge.” Little kids aren’t developmentally equipped for that kind of stimulation. Instead, they engage in this kind of behavior because they find it self-soothing. Very often it’s a way of dealing with boredom, anxiety or nervousness. If you want to put a stop to it, you should start by narrating your child’s actions for him. Say something like, “I’ve noticed you touching your penis (or vagina) a lot lately.” When you do this, be sure to use correct names for body parts. Be frank and open and ask questions – for example, “Why have you been doing this? Does it make you feel good?”
At this point you can help your child understand that different body parts produce different feelings when they’re touched. You should also try to determine the emotions that are driving the behavior. Once you’ve identified these deeper issues, try to redirect the behavior by encouraging your child to focus on something else. Point out that there are other ways he can get to sleep or soothe himself or help himself feel more secure. Offer alternatives, like a teddy bear or a pillow or a special blanket.
If you’re dealing with an older child, some intentional instruction in the area of sex education may be in order. Kids need to explore and discover their own bodies. Sometimes they also need help sorting out their own sensations and understanding what they mean.
Depending on the age of your child, you may also want to explain that there are some things we simply don’t do in front of other people (it might be helpful to use the analogy of going to the toilet). These things aren’t evil, just private. If we do them in public, they’re likely to make others feel uncomfortable. Your purpose in speaking this way is simply to sensitize the child to the social implications of the behavior. Throughout this conversation, your tone should be firm and confident, not shocked or embarrassed.
In the final analysis, it’s important to remember that children are not asexual. Your child’s behavior is merely demonstrating that he’s properly wired. In most cases, the problem eventually resolves itself. So relax and give your child – and yourself – a break.
If you’d like to discuss this issue at greater length, please don’t hesitate to contact our Counseling department.
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Toddlers and Sexual Discovery