Playing with Private Parts

Posted By:

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 redirected, 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 is on a mission to Help Parents Raise Good People. We do this with our children’s Emmy-winning television series, Ruby’s Studio, a series of preschool and early educational picture books, free teacher guides, music and more, all about social and emotional learning, and with TellStella, a digital service that connects parents to parenting experts via text and talk for one-on-one support and guidance around all parenting topics for kids 0-18+



For immediate help with a parenting expert that specializes in positive discipline please click HERE and check out our new online parenting support service, TellStella.


TellStella Temp Logo Design

Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Tough Topics

Comments (20)

  1. kopiyo

    mine is not the 21 months old daughter touching herself. but she seems to be much attracted to her parents genitals.
    whenever the mother or dad is naked, she appears to be charged and would want to touch and lough abt it.
    please advise.

  2. Me

    To me, there must be a lasting solution. I can’t continue to tell her it is normal and I feel she has been molested when I see her in the act. I think I shall spray dusting powder or robb there to scare her from next act. I feel ashamed already. It feels horrible and it must stop before she gets another kid involved anywhere. I totally disagree it is normal.

  3. Me

    To me I don’t want this act at all so I’m thinking of quick measures to prevent it. She was caught at 5 and now six, caught tonight and I think I shall apply dusting powder just so she stops. I totally can’t make her accept it is normal this time… will ask her later if she is touched by another. Do you know the feeling… I can’t even sleep as I now think she has been molested. Terrified

  4. Augustine

    My 4 years son he is a thumb suck he likes to touch our private parts when he is busy with his thumb, and I feel uncomfortable with that situation.

  5. 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!!

  6. 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

  7. 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

    • Abbie

      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!

    • Miss 954

      This is normal for a 12 year old to be curious about his body as he approaches puberty. You should be supportive and explain to him what his body parts are and that touching them may feel good sometimes but that if he does so it should be in private.

    • salah

      All what Children do is a reminscent of the dormant id. It’s quite normal though it is annoying if done in public or constantly done even in private. The best thing to do is never to let children on their own. They should be kept his in places where they should be reminded no to do so; giving a role model. this means, let your chlid know that so person doesn’t act in such manner without over reacting or showing that yiu dislike their behavior. do it in a tender lovingly manner. concerning giving a chlid more space for privacy, I think it should be limited for some time to allow for a kind of “the others are going to see me attitude will ward the child off from doing what he/she does. As to the use of internet- if you think it’s the source of more misbehaviour- use software that limits time and content, be it language or graphic, on the pc, iPad,…etc. and always keep the child doing something. idleness is the mother of evil. Personally, I keep my two sons safe from internet harm by applying age filters on their internet explorers. More than that, I can view what they are watching wherever I am using “google remote desktop”

  8. 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

    • Abbie

      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.

  9. 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…

    • 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.

    • 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 .

  10. 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

  11. 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.

    • 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!

  12. 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).

  13. 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.