In the toddler years, it is normal for kids to have a sense of curiosity, and that includes being curious about their own bodies and how it feels and works. They may poke their ears and noses, caress their own head, and ask questions about body parts. They would also naturally discover and touch their own genitals—during play time, bath time, or bedtime. This is common for kids at this age.
The way toddlers touch their genitals is not sexual, in the way adults understand it to be. Their behaviour is simply part of their exploration of their own bodies.
In fact, parents can use these moments as an opportunity to teach their children about their body parts. For example, a parent may say, “Yes, that’s your penis,” then point to another part of the body and say, “What is this? This is your tummy,” and then point and name another body part.
It is important that when parents teach the names of body parts to their kids that they use the factual names for them. Use "penis", "scrotum", "vagina", "clitoris", etc. instead of euphemistic terms, to describe genitals — and in the same tone of voice as you would say “elbow” or “ankle”. We do not want to convey a sense of embarrassment to our children about their genitals.
When kids in the preschool years or older touch or rub their genitals often, parents can find out more from them what may be driving the behaviour. Children often do this because it makes them feel good, which helps them to cope when they feel bored, nervous, or anxious.
We can help them to notice what they are doing and acknowledge that touching one’s private parts does feel good because our genitals are made to have these pleasurable feelings when touched. We can then ask our kids to tell us what might be some reasons they are doing so. It may sound something like: “I see that you are touching your clitoris (or penis). Does it feel good to you? Can you tell Mummy (or Daddy) why you keep doing that?”
Depending on how each child responds, we want to explore with them some other ways to meet the deeper need. For example, if kids caress their genitals because the comfortable feelings they experience help them to fall asleep or feel better when they are scared, parents can provide alternatives, like giving them a special soft toy or blanket or allow them to ask for hugs at night.
If the behaviour persists or if parents sense that something may not be right, it may be worth exploring if the child has learnt the behaviour from having seen something in the media or from someone else. We do not want to immediately assume sexual abuse as the reason, but we also cannot rule it out entirely, especially if we suspect someone has had unwanted physical contact with our child. Explain to your kid that he or she can share with you honestly. Assure them that they will not be punished, and that Daddy and Mummy will still love them, no matter what has happened.
The use of pornography is often accompanied by the habit of masturbation. Therefore, it would be good to start talking to our kids about pornography and how it is harmful to them. The likelihood of them being exposed to it is high, so we do not want them to be unprepared to know how to deal with it and how to turn away from it when (not if) it happens.
Bring up how masturbation can be used as a coping mechanism to deal with stress, anxiety, or other difficult emotions. If your child is using masturbation to self-soothe when faced with unpleasant experiences, then addressing those deeper underlying needs with them would be important.
It is also timely to talk about the purpose of sexual pleasure and how it is meant to be experienced with one’s spouse in marriage. Because sex is what a husband and wife enjoy with each other, sexual pleasure is not something we take for ourselves, but rather, something that we give to our spouse out of our love for them. You may wish to engage your child’s thinking by asking, “Imagine if a person has been accustomed to taking sexual pleasure for him/herself through a habit of masturbation, how do you think this will affect sexual intimacy with his/her spouse in marriage?”
You may want to also talk about your family’s values on self-control and respect, and how masturbation does not encourage those virtues—it can easily lead a person to be addicted to it and to see others as sexual objects, since fantasising about people sexually or using pornography often accompany masturbation. These acts can train the brain to objectify people as sexual objects, instead of treat them as people worthy of respect.
There may also be a need for you to help your teenage to distinguish between masturbation and wet dreams. Masturbation is an intentional act of stimulating one’s own genitals for sexual pleasure, usually to the point of orgasm. A wet dream is an involuntary release of ejaculation during sleep. However, if you think your child’s media diet contains certain content that may more easily lead them to have sexual dreams, take this opportunity to talk to them about and implement healthy media discernment and consumption.
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