When Toddlers 'Touch Themselves': How to Handle It

I've been bracing myself ever since my mommy friends warned me it would happen. "It" being toddler masturbation. Sooner or later, my daughter may discover a certain part of her body that, well, feels good to touch. "My son's hand is jammed down his pants non-stop!" confessed one of my friends. "Mine humps the car seat -- so embarrassing!" admits another.

No matter how comfortable we adults are with our own sexuality, toddler masturbation is bound to make us uncomfortable. Still, since sitting there tongue-tied isn't the answer, here's a primer on how to navigate through this awkward conversation without giving your kids a hangup that'll haunt them later in life.


1. Know that it's common. It often happens right around the toddler stage because they're out of diapers, offering them easier access. "Masturbation is a normal behavior in toddlers -- about one-third of preschool age kids will discover it," says Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, a family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland. "Kids this age are naturally curious, and part of that is figuring out their own bodies. Some of them will discover that they can touch their genitals in a way that feels pleasurable."

On a more Freudian note, Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, points out, "The psychological goal of this developmental phase is that the toddler has to claim him or herself as a separate being from mommy." As in, "This is MY body and I can play with it if I want to!"

2. Rest assured it's not sexual. "Both boys and girls may find masturbation arousing, and they may even be capable of climax," says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist in New York. "But they do not associate it with the same sexual content as adults. The thoughts associated are toddler-like."

Self-stimulation may also provide some kind of tension or stress relief. "Like thumb sucking, pacifiers, hair twirling, or blanky caressing, it’s a way of calming one’s self down when the anxiety rises," Walfish explains.

3. Don't ignore it and hope it'll pass. Of course, you don't want to flip out if you catch your toddler's hands wandering, since this can sow the seeds to sexual hangups down the road. Yet the far more common mistake of parents today is to just ignore it, says Walfish, who's treated numerous preschoolers for obsessive masturbation in her practice. "Parents think that if they just ignore it, it will evaporate and disappear. That’s not true, it may accelerate," she explains. "That's how they end up in my office."

4. Address it calmly. Say something along the lines of, “I see you’ve found something that feels good to you. Those are your private parts."

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From there, "The key is to let your child know in a calm and non-disciplinary way that it is okay to touch them, but only when they're alone," says Saltz. "If they wish to do this, they need to go to their bedroom or bathroom. They need to know it isn't okay to do it in school or other public places or in front of other people."

If your toddler persists at his fun new pastime in a public place, you should calmly pack up and head home to underscore that you mean business. "If parents are willing and cooperative, this is an easy fix," says Walfish. "They just have to keep any heavy emotionally laden facial effects and tone of voice out of it."

Did your toddler masturbate? How did you handle it?

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