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.
As they do so, it will feel good to them to touch their penis or clitoris, because it is normal to experience pleasure when genitals are rubbed. Parents do not have to be alarmed about this. 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.
Parents may also start teaching their child which parts of the body are considered private and should not be touched by anyone else except by Daddy and Mummy.
Another reason why toddlers may touch or hold their genitals is because they need to pee. If they scratch it repeatedly, parents may need to check for any discomfort or infection.
When our children touch their genitals in public, we can seize the moment to tell them that private parts should not be touched in public spaces. Do this with gentle guidance, and not by scolding or slapping their hands away. It is important that we teach our children about the appropriate touch and privacy in a way that does not make them ashamed or feel negatively about their genitals.
If they continue to do so, parents may need to use distraction to help them move their attention to something else.
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 if we suspect something is amiss. 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.
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