Focus on the Family

How to Respond to Toddlers and Their Sexual Discovery

Your toddler’s new sexual discoveries are fueled by age-appropriate curiosity. For toddlers, this exploration is normal. However, you now have an opportunity to create a healthy foundation for biblical sexuality in your toddler’s future.

Toddlers are curious people. The quest for more information often leads these little explorers into uncharted territory. From bugs in the backyard, to Mommy’s makeup drawer, to examining their own body parts, if you have a toddler, you understand how their curiosity can quickly lead them to make new discoveries. At times, a toddler’s curiosity shifts to sexual discovery of his or her private parts.

When you first notice your toddler touching his or her private parts, you have a few immediate options for how to respond. As you read, learn how you can use these moments to build a strong and healthy foundation for biblical sexuality within your family. Also, consider how you can reinforce and create positive messages about sexuality and boundaries for your toddler.

Is It Normal for a Toddler to Touch Themselves?

Within toddlerhood, it is completely normal for toddlers to explore their private parts says Joyce Penner, co-director of the ministry, Passionate Commitment. Penner says, “Toddlerhood is the stage of sexual development that is particularly associated with genital discovery. Just as 18 month to three year olds poke their fingers in their ears and up their noses, they find their genitals and discover that they feel good to touch.”

Although a toddler’s recent find may force some parents out of their comfort zones, Penner says how a parent responds is crucial for healthy sexual development. “How effectively we master each stage of sexual development has an impact on our adult sexual adjustment. The confident mastery of this stage of sexual development leads to positive acceptance of one’s genitals and the ability to affirm our God-given sexual feelings, while making wise decisions about controlling our sexual actions.”

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How to Respond to Your Toddler’s Sexual Discoveries

Since self-control seems to elude most toddlers, it’s up to parents to create an environment with proper safeguards that protect innocence. Here are a few tips on how parents can encourage appropriate physical boundaries for your toddler as he or she has more sexual discoveries:

1. Avoid Shaming

The most helpful response is to acknowledge that touching his or her own private parts feels good and that God designed it to have those special feelings. This can immediately lead to building a healthy foundation of biblical sexuality for your child.

From here, you can begin to reinforce positive, biblical messages about how God created your toddler. Know that your toddler will likely still be curious about his or her body. If your child becomes too focused on touch, try to redirect to another activity.

2. Respect your Toddler’s Privacy

Often, toddlers are inconsistent with their modesty. They might run naked through the house one moment, then refuse to undress in front of a sibling the next. Regardless of their behavior, make sure that you listen to your toddler and his or her needs. You can begin to show respect to your toddler in these moments through your attention and listening. Provide a private place for her to change, go to the bathroom or bathe without an opposite sex sibling (with parental supervision, of course).

3. Keep the Parents’ Door Locked

Be sure to lock your doors when making love with your spouse, even after your child has gone down for the night. Children can become traumatized when they overhear or are exposed to parents’ sexual activities. If your child has accidentally walked in on you, make sure he knows it’s not his fault. You might explain that Mommy and Daddy were just playing around, having fun and loving each other.

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4. Teach Your Toddler About Inappropriate Touch

Even though your child may not understand well enough or completely enough to entirely protect him from harm, teaching about bad touch is a learning process. After all, we start teaching toddlers not to run into the street long before they can be counted on to follow that instruction.

Be sure to communicate the message that because God made our genitals with special feelings, they are private and we have to take very good care of them. And remember, when a parent practices respect toward a child, it will empower him or her to stand up to others when something doesn’t feel right.

5. Teach Positive Image

Delight in your toddler, speaking words of affirmation. Keep your child looking good so that others will respond positively to her also. Everyday, verbalize how much you love your child. Give specifics about what you like about him, even about how he looks. Don’t worry about making your child proud. We all get enough negatives in life that we need all the positives we can get.

Final Thoughts on Toddlers and Sexual Discovery

Remember that your toddler’s new sexual discoveries are fueled by age-appropriate curiosity. At this age and stage, the exploration is as normal as checking out his or her feet or legs. Bottom line, know that this touching is not masturbation, nor is it reason for concern.

As mentioned earlier, these moments present an excellent learning opportunity for your kids. Help your toddlers learn the differences between private and public parts. Then, you can begin to create a healthy foundation for biblical sexuality. Finally, always listen, respect, and value your toddler’s voice and perspective. Your relationship will only grow stronger as they grow older as you develop these healthy habits.

*Compiled with Joyce Penner, Co-Director Passionate Commitment Ministries

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