How can I handle a young child who is masturbating?

Diana K. Blythe, MD

Masturbating in young children is very normal, as is parents feeling uncomfortable with the idea. You do not want your child to feel bad about the exploring behavior; you just want them to learn to do it in private. Treat it like you would any other behavior you want to modify. Tell them where and when the behavior is allowed. If you treat it like any other behavior, so will they.

Young children’s bodies are actively developing in every way. As they develop, they learn that their bodies have different kinds of sensations. It’s a normal part of their own self-exploration. Young children do experience immature sexual sensations, and masturbation is quite normal. It does not mean that the child is developing sexually too early.

However, it’s a difficult balance to strike, as parents. We want to send the message that sexual feelings are healthy and normal. But we also want our children to have a strong sense of boundaries and understanding of what is “good touching” and what is “bad touching”. We also want them to know that there are appropriate places for self-exploration. For instance, your daughter can feel free to explore her body when she is alone in her room. But it’s not an activity for the living room, or with other kids. It’s not too early to begin conveying those messages now. You can say, I know it feels good when you do that. But it’s for you to do in private, in your room, okay?

We want them to learn to feel comfortable with their bodies and the pleasurable sensations they experience. But we also want them to develop a strong psychological sense of privacy and safety in experiencing sexual feelings. This is a good time to start mentioning little facts about her body, and who is allowed to touch whom, and where.

The emotional message you send about the issue is at least as important as the words you use. If you feel uncomfortable talking about bodies and sexual feelings, perhaps practice first. You don’t need to give her a big lecture. You should simply mention little facts now and again, such as, “Oh, you’re wearing a bathing suit now. Who is allowed to touch you under your bathing suit? Only you. Or Mommy, Daddy or your doctor, to make sure you’re clean and healthy."

You also need to talk to your daughter’s pediatrician about it, since little girls can have irritation caused by a urinary tract infection or rash. This may cause itching and the kind of behavior you describe. So check that out, too.
Charles I. Schwartz, MD

It is common for boys and girls to explore all their body parts. Children who engage in these behaviors should be redirected to another activity. The actions are normal, and the child should not be yelled at or scolded for these behaviors. Children should be told which behaviors are public or private.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.