Your 5 year old son is constantly ‘adjusting’ his underwear.
Your 3 year old daughter is ‘riding’ the arm of the couch a lot lately.
Your 4 year old daughter seems to ‘dance’ in her car seat and wriggle her hips up against the clasp for the seat belt between her legs.
Your 6 year old son is complaining that when his penis gets big it hurts.
Your 7 year old daughter is ‘itching’ her private parts so much that you wonder if she has a yeast infection.
What all these children have in common is that they are masturbating. I know you are surprised but it is true. Virtually all children, both boys and girls, starting around the time of potty training discover themselves and let’s face it, it feels good. Because it feels good, the exploration continues and some children will find lots of ways to stimulate themselves.
I get a ton of questions from worried parents about this on a regular basis. I think it is a bit of a taboo topic for parents to discuss with each other and sheepishly or with great angst they bring it up with me. Most parents are worried that interest in masturbation at this age means they are going to have a ‘sexpot’ as an older child but this is not the case. Masturbation before the hormones of puberty are contributing is not sexual. It just feels good. It feels good like scratching an itch feels good or having someone rub your back feels good. It isn’t sexual, just satisfying.
I advise parents who are worried that the child will do these behaviors in public that it is important to teach kids at this young age that private parts are private for a reason and if they want to touch them, they need to do so in a private place like the bathroom or the bedroom. Since kids don’t experience this as a sexual feeling (even though they may really enjoy it), the fact that this sort of ‘good feeling’ can’t be done in the kitchen or the classroom makes it that much more appealing for some. Often, parents will find the child will increase the behavior after the parent has drawn attention to it and consistency about the need to be in a private place is important.
Some kids start to ask more pointed questions about their bodies and yours during this time and others will even want to see the private parts of their peers through ‘playing doctor.’ This is a great opportunity for parents to talk frankly and openly with their kids about their bodies and how they differ from grown up bodies. It is a great opportunity to reinforce the rules about who can see private parts and who can’t, who can touch private parts and who cannot. It is also a great opportunity to lay the groundwork for later discussions about sex and sexuality. By talking openly, frankly, and without embarrassment about this, you will start a dialogue that is natural and comfortable and will serve you well as your child grows and matures.
Sometimes, our own past comes back to haunt us when our kids start to ask us questions or explore their bodies. Perhaps you were told you were dirty as a child or maybe masturbation was punished in your household. You may have chosen to be sexually active at an early age or had sexually traumatic experiences as a child or adolescent. Sometimes we were never talked to at all about our bodies and later sexuality. Any of these woud make it very difficult, uncomfortable and anxiety producing to talk to your kids about this natural, normal part of life. I encourage you to talk to your partner or a mental health counselor to work through these feelings and not repeat the past mistakes with this generation of children.
Here are some good books to help open the discussion with your younger children (ages 3-8).
And for older kids (9-12)
Remember for young kids its not about sex, talk openly with your kids, and don’t worry and each day will be your best!
Molly O’Shea, MD Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center