There’s a certain stage in toddler development that no one really warns parents about. It’s when the little ones become interested—very interested—in touching their own genitals. And while it can be awkward for parents, rest assured that this behavior is completely normal for toddlers and preschoolers, and common in kids of any sex or gender.
This fixation on private parts often occurs between ages 2 and 5, after toddlers get out of the wearing-diapers stage, because they’re fascinated with the body parts that they now have more access to, they are learning independence and identity, and they are experimenting with what they can do and how it feels. When toddlers “touch themselves,” it can be anything from playing idly with their penis or vulva frequently, to something that looks and sounds like masturbation.
It’s important to note that when toddlers touch or rub their private parts, it’s not sexual in the same way that adult masturbation is. Kids have simply discovered that certain ways of touching their own body feels good or even relieves stress—so of course that makes them want to do it more. Psychiatrist and author Gail Saltz, MD, explained to CafeMom, “Both boys and girls may find masturbation arousing, and they may even be capable of climax. But they do not associate it with the same sexual content as adults. The thoughts associated are toddler-like.”
But because this sort-of-sexual behavior can be so unexpected at this age—and because toddlers really don’t have a sense yet of which things are supposed to be done in public or private—many parents may be embarrassed by their behavior, worried that it’s inappropriate, or just stumped as to how to respond.
According to child development experts, here’s how parents can handle “toddler masturbation” in a way that avoids shaming their child for the behavior, while teaching them what is safe and appropriate:
Stay calm and neutral.
Don’t yell or scold, or use any negative words, when you talk to your child about touching their genitals. Watch your tone and body language so that you don’t come across as annoyed or stressed. Otherwise your child will internalize the message that they are doing something shameful or bad, or at the very least something that riles you up. Also avoid laughing, because you don’t want them to think it’s a silly game either.
Discuss appropriate times and places to touch their private parts.
Let your child know that it’s totally fine and normal to rub their penis or vulva (and yes, use those anatomically correct words) if it feels good or they’re just curious, but that it’s something to do in private. Name a specific place or two where they can feel free to touch their penis or vulva, such as when they’re alone in their bedroom or in the bathroom. You can point out how other activities have a special place: “It’s kind of like how we can’t throw a ball in the kitchen, or go swimming in the car!”
Keep repeating the same message calmly.
If the behavior continues in public or in front of friends or family members, it can easily become annoying, embarrassing, or distressing for parents. But it’s important to continue to stay calm and neutral, and simply give your toddler reminders about what you already talked about. Tell them that they can move to a different location, wait until they get home or dinner is over, do another fun activity instead, etc. If you’re out and they simply won’t stop, then actually pack up and bring them home—again, as calmly as possible—to show them that you’re serious.
Respond with empathy.
If your child is having trouble following these directions when they’re in the midst of pleasuring themselves, understand that it’s extremely hard for them to think logically and practice self-control at this age. Validate that by saying, “I know that feels good and it can be hard to stop and listen.” Offer a toy or fidget to play with instead if you need to redirect their attention, or distract them with a completely unrelated question.
Talk about consent and body safety.
Not necessarily in the moment of trying to redirect their behavior, but at another time soon (and often), be sure to reinforce messages of safety and consent. Remind children that certain body parts have special rules, that no one else should be touching their genitals (with a couple of specific exceptions) and that they shouldn’t be touching anyone else’s genitals. Here’s a detailed script you can follow.
Know when to seek out help.
Just like any other kid behavior, there are times when “toddler masturbation” can turn into a problem that you may need expert help with. Bring it up with a pediatrician or child psychologist if your child’s behavior includes any of these red flags:
- Hurting themselves physically
- Causing themselves or others significant emotional distress
- Simulating adult sexual acts
- Being physically aggressive
- Violating others’ consent or involving other children who are 4 or more years apart in age
- Occurs very frequently in public and you simply can’t get them to stop
- Public masturbation continues beyond the preschooler phase (past age 5 or 6)
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