You check on your child like any other day, and you catch your child touching themselves. What do you do? This isn’t something you were prepared to deal with.
Your head may start spinning with questions. Should you be concerned? Does this mean something has happened to them? Your mind may go to the worst-case scenario but this is most often not the case.
Assess the Risks
Is this something that occurs frequently or is this a new development?
Think about who has been around your child. Are these people you can confidently trust? Although it may alarm you to see your child touching themselves- this is simply a part of development.
They aren’t being inappropriate in nature as they don’t mentally understand sexuality. They may notice that it feels good to them. This is the most simple answer and if this is the case, it isn’t harmful.
If they are doing it in public and it is embarrassing, you might distract them with a toy or just be silly with them.
Is this normal behavior for a toddler?
Yes, toddlers often touch themselves. Think about it this way: when they were a baby, they discovered their feet. Toddlers have a natural curiosity and they likely never noticed their genitals in infancy.
Toddlers innocently explore their bodies, from their heads to their toes. Their genitals are no different, although it may be embarrassing, it is an age-appropriate discovery and it is more than likely nothing to be concerned about.
Why do toddlers touch themselves?
Many parents notice this change around the time that their children switch from diapers to training pants. This is when it first starts to become accessible to your child.
In infancy, they had a diaper on most of the time. Out of sight out of mind. Once you start potty training they will be more aware of their private parts. They will discover their bodies the same way they discovered their toes, and your child might find that it feels good to them.
This is not masturbation. They are discovering their senses, and they do not have sexual intentions.
What to do if you Catch your Child Touching Themselves?
When your child touches themselves, don’t shame them or tell them it isn’t allowed. This could cause problems for them later in life if they learn to be ashamed of their body and anything associated with it.
If you’re at home when the behavior occurs, you don’t have to do anything. You should ignore it and not bring attention to it. You should, however, teach your child about the difference between “public” and “private.”
If you are in public, you can distract your child with a hands-on activity. Playing a game with them, playing with blocks or a puzzle, or giving them a book to read. You might ask if they need to go to the bathroom, as sometimes toddlers will grab at themselves when they have to pee.
Set boundaries and leave discussions open
When your child begins exploring their body, set a clear boundary of what is appropriate for public settings and what is only appropriate for at home. If your child has any questions, give them honest age-appropriate answers.
Making your children feel comfortable and secure at home is the best thing you can do for their development. Children flourish in non-judgmental environments where they truly feel safe to be themselves and grow, learn, and ask questions.
I’m still feeling concerned
If you for some reason suspect that your child has been molested reach out to a RAINN the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
If you are concerned something is wrong but don’t know who to suspect, it can be very troubling. Ask your child if they have a secret.
Make them feel comfortable and make sure that they know that they aren’t in trouble. Oftentimes children that are being sexually abused are too scared to speak up because they think that they are doing something wrong.
When children are sexually assaulted it is often someone close to them, which would make it easy for the predator to make a game of it or ask them to “keep a secret.” If your child confirms your suspicion, report it to the police immediately and take your child to be seen by a medical professional.
Is there anything I can do to prevent my child from being harmed?
Firstly, I want to say that if this has happened to your child, it is not your fault. You may blame yourself for missing warning signs but the only person to fault for child abuse are predators.
There are things you can do at home with your children to keep them safe, such as teaching them the anatomically correct names for their body parts. Sure, you might be embarrassed if your son shouts out about “his penis” at the grocery store, but knowing what it is called makes it harder for a predator to get away with abusing them.
Predators often come up with innocent-sounding nicknames for private parts. They do this because, for example, if a child says someone touched their “cookie”, your first thought may not be that someone is abusing them.
Another way that you can stop sexual abuse in its tracks is to have a “no secret policy” at home. Again, a predator may ask your child to keep a secret for them, and if it is someone that they care about, they might do what they ask.
If you talk to your child about secrets and give them open space, to be honest with you about anything, big or small, they will feel more comfortable or less scared to tell you.
Kids Will be Kids
At the end of the day, your child touching themselves should be no cause for concern. It is a normal part of childhood development.
It might be awkward at the grocery store if your child starts touching themselves, but this isn’t sexual in nature and they are simply discovering their bodies, much like they’re discovering the rest of the world around them.
Toddlers are extremely adventurous and they love to explore. The only thing you should do as a parent is to teach them to do this exploration in private. Not bringing extra attention to it is the most appropriate response so that your child will neither be ashamed nor engage in this behavior for the sake of a response- as kids sometimes do.