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Playing with Private Parts

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Interview with Dr. Steven C. Atkins

We know kids are natural explorers, but what’s a parent to do when they start exploring downstairs? According to the famed pediatrician Dr. Sears, about a third of young children masturbate from several times a day to once a week. The Center for Effective Parenting, based in Arkansas, says young children might start exploring their privates as young as 18 months and it tends to peak between the ages of 3-5 (until it picks up again during puberty.) However normal this kind of self-discovery is, some parents can still feel weirded-out when they notice their young ones have a penchant for touching themselves. We turned to Dr. Steven C. Atkins, co-author of Talking to Your Kids About Sex, psychotherapist and school consultant, for answers about how parents should react to their kids’ latest big discovery. — Laurel Moglen, Web Content Producer

What should parents do when their child is playing with his/her privates?

Let me preface that this behavior is not unusual. Our private parts are one of the areas that are hard-wired first. So, to self-stimulate is common in some children. Think of their behavior as self-soothing and not sexual. Just as you would when you see your child picking her nose, you would redirect her to not do that in public. Asking a child to never pick her nose is impossible, but to explain in a matter-of-fact way that if you feel you need to do this, then do it in private. The key here is not to shame.

Remember, it takes time to reinforce any habit or behavior so parents are encouraged to expect they have to repeat, remind, and reinforce when and where it is okay to self-stimulate.

How can a parent guide without making their child feel like exploration of his body is wrong?

Great question. Start early with labeling all body parts (yes, say vagina and penis early.) This will pay off much later when parents worry about the “talk” which occurs late in adolescence. Establish areas for personal actions like touching themselves, just as families do for when they go to sleep, use the bathroom, etc. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just say something like, “Touching our privates (or penis or vagina) is something we do in private, like in our beds.”

Is there anything a parent should be concerned about if their child masturbates frequently and continues even after the parent suggests she do it in private?

I have found in my practice that parents often fear this behavior may suggest their child has been molested or there is something significantly wrong. However, if you develop talking skills with your young child early, as in labeling body parts that include private parts, then you will find you can have clear expectations and open discussions about when and where it is appropriate to do certain behaviors.

Having said that, if a parent finds that her son or daughter continues to self-stimulate in public and will not easily be re-directed, or if there’s a consistent pattern of focus on sexual areas, or there is harm being done due to over-stimulation, then I would encourage the parent to seek out the child’s pediatrician to talk first with them. Having a medical professional in a supportive role can help tease out whether there is a concern for a more significant problem. Sometimes though the child has learned that it is simply an easy way to get more attention from a parent.

How should a parent react when their child seems to delight in touching himself when the parent is in the room – like makes a big deal out of it?

There can be “dances” that develop in a family, where everyone learns their role and how to react/behave/move together as one. If you feel that your child is seeking attention by self-stimulating, then it could suggest that a “dance” or pattern of acting has developed between the child and parent. Focusing on the overt behavior (e.g. the self-stimulating by the child and the disciplining by the parent) will not lead to a decrease in the actions of either part. It is salient that the parent searches for why this pattern is in place and to develop strategies for catching the child when he is doing well. Attention is attention, either negative or positive, and it is reinforcing.

Are there any times when a parent should ignore a child’s masturbation?

Yes, when they are in bed. Provided that’s their private place, touching themselves there should be okay.

Dr. Steven C. Atkins has co-authored several books including the award-winning, Talking to Your Kids about Sex. He is also a psychologist and school consultant based out of New Hampshire. He has a private practice and holds an adjunct position on the Dartmouth Medical School Faculty.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio: The Feeling Show.” We want to be a parenting tool….For you!

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Comments (14)

  1. Jessica

    Hi, my 6 year old son has a very constant behavior og sucking his thumb while also putting his hands down his pants at the same. Doesn’t matter where he is. He does it at school, on thr school bus & while out in public. While we are constantly telling him that it is inappropriate to do this while in public, the problem seems to be getting worse instead of better. And sometimes, he puts his hand down the back of his pants instead of the front. But he is always doing 1 or the other. It’s becoming a real problem as it is embarrassing his siblings at school & he also getting made fun of by his classmates, as well as treating him badly, saying he’s nasty & to get away from them. I have 6 children, with 3 girls in a row first & then the 3 boys after. None of my girls had this problem, except 1 who twirls her hair into knots. But she has massive seizures & has had her right frontal lobe removed & has a lot of issues from the surgery so this behavior could be expected according to her neurologist. But my oldest son, has this issue that we are very worried about. My next youngest son also sucks his thumb & twirls his hair. But nothing like the private part issue.. I don’t believe my 6 yr old is masturbating or really playing with himself as much as he is just holding himself or just putting his hands in his pants. I would really appreciate any insight u may have into this issue & thanks so much in advance!!

    Reply

  2. Salakia

    HELP!!!!I went out for groceries but forgot coat and walk back in. I caught my 9 year old daughter watching porn and then she got her finger and start jabbing her private part how do I react??? I was going to flip but then she starting grunting and moaning and sleep talk or somethings!!! Should I bring this up to my husband? please help

    Reply

  3. Alise

    Help! My son is 12 and he was caught by his grandma “touching himself” and she basically yelled what are you doing with your pants down and he stayed in his room the rest of the day and didn’t talk to anyone… Please tell me what i can do to help him

    Reply

    • Abbie

      Alise,
      Hopefully you’ve spoken to your son from an early age about finding pleasure in his body and how perfectly normal it is to explore, in private. If not, start now. Empower him with information and establish trust without shame or judgement. He’s likely to explore online porn and you should talk about that too (and educate yourself about how common it is for tweens to search that out and how it shapes their sexual expectations in a bad way). Let him know that at 12 you don’t think it is appropriate for him to look at that and why.

      Then talk to his grandma. Tell her you are concerned that she shamed and embarrassed your son – he wasn’t doing anything wrong- but understand that it was uncomfortable for her to walk in on such a private moment. And next time, she can knock to respect his privacy.

      The goal here is to establish trust with you and your boy and to empower him with information as he enters into a new, sexual stage of life. Talk to him about how pregnancy works, how “no” means no, how self exploration is normal. By having this talk now, you’re telling him that he can talk to you when he needs to – and that he can trust you. And feel free to have a laugh together about grandma. Good luck!

      Reply

  4. Neelam

    Hi,my daughter is 16 months old…i have seen her playing with her private part…i have noticed that her this habbit is increasing day by day…im worried how to stop her this habbit

    Reply

    • Abbie

      Neelam,
      Did you read this article? It is normal for young children to explore their bodies. No need to worry unless it is getting excessive (as in ALL the time). Of course you can explain that touching their private parts should be done when they are in private – like in their rooms – and not with other people. This is a great learning opportunity. Try not to make them feel shame – they are not doing anything wrong. The more they know about their bodies, the healthier and more empowered (and safer) they will be. Check out a book called “Amazing You” by Dr. Gail Saltz – it helps children learn about their private parts (and how babies are made) in an age-appropriate way.

      Reply

  5. sem

    I’m so worried about my 6 yrs old daughter behavior she is rubbing her private part with her hand or taddy bear or blankets is her behavior is normal? how I ll stop her behavior can’t understand anything feeling very shock to see…

    Reply

    • Abbie

      Sem – Did you read the article? Don’t try to stop the behavior because it is natural and you don’t want to invoke shame. Just re-direct the behavior by telling the child to do that touching in private – like in their bedroom because that is a private thing to do. And for their safety, you can remind them that no one else is allowed to touch them there. But no shame or shock needed – they’re discovering themselves and it is a great opportunity to EMPOWER them instead.

      Reply

    • Mickey Rigs

      Yes this is very normal my is 4 an his doctor said most if not all children do this an there is no way to stop it but that it should never be done in public that you have to remind theme it is somthing we do only at home nowhere else an that this is completely normal for children to do thank you .

      Reply

  6. Ella

    Hi, my 6 year old daughter plays with herself, mainly at school when she is tired or a bit stressed with the work. Has anyone found the solution to stopping their child, would appreciate any helpful info from methods that have worked. Thank you x

    Reply

  7. Maryk

    Help!, my granddaughter plays with her private, in school, what can I do to keep her from doing this it’s becoming a problem.

    Reply

    • Abbie

      Dear Maryk,
      Assuming that she really is playing with her privates (and not responding to an itch or a medical issue) we suggest you check out the book “Amazing You!” by Dr. Gail Saltz to EMPOWER her about her incredible body – including the parts that need to remain private. No shame involved. Girls who understand how their bodies work (including how to give themselves pleasure), grow up to be more responsible about their own health and depend less on others in sexual relationships – which is a very good thing. The second thing would be to help her understand that she is fine to explore her body – but to keep that exploration to her bedroom or bathroom when she is alone. But that you are here to help her learn more and talk about or answer any questions she may have. (And make sure to check with her mom/parents about his too, if that’s relevant for your family.) Here’s to taking a major step forward in raising a responsible young woman!

      Reply

  8. nolasmileemom

    Re: SALWA

    I would recommend that you discuss with your sister what you are seeing. As this article says, it’s completely normal behavior in children – both girls and boys. Your sister should probably discuss with her daughter the appropriate times and places for such behavior. Do not shame the child for natural behavior, that could cause developmental or intimacy problems later in life (eg. promiscuity, or inability to have a healthy intimate relationship).

    Reply

  9. SALWA

    Hi I caught my six year old niece rubbing n playing private part many times. Please help me si really hate it n don’t know what to do. Should I tell my sister? Cuz I threatened her to tell my sister.

    Reply

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