What to do When Toddlers Touch Their Private Parts

2 year(s) ago
What to do When Toddlers Touch Their Private Parts

A dear friend called me after ages. After the initial banter she became serious and said she wanted to ask me something. As a psychologist, I could sense the hesitation in her voice and my mind came up with a dozen unpleasant scenarios in a few seconds. Then finally she told me that her two year old son has recently got this "dirty" habit of putting his hands inside his pants and fondling "it". Even worse, last week her in-laws who were visiting her saw him do it. She was mortified. She was not sure if she should go to her doctor.

My first reaction was of relief because it was none of the things I had thought might be. Then it was her turn to be relieved when I told her there was nothing abnormal in what her son was doing.

What follows is a guide to all parents on how to tackle this issue.

What you Need to Know

Your toddler has discovered a part of his/her body that had gone largely unexplored during infancy.  What's more, he/she's learned that touching his/her genitals produces pleasure. Your toddler's touching of his/her genitals isn't really masturbation. It is fueled by age-appropriate curiosity and is as innocent as his/her exploration of his/her fingers and toes. Yes, it feels good (even comforting), but there's nothing sexual about a young child's intent or emotions.

What to do About it

  • Don't forbid (shame, scold, or rebuke) your child from touching him/herself. Your negative response might make the behavior more tempting, and it will also send the message that he/she should be ashamed of his/her body and feelings associated with it. So try not to make any fuss. In fact, if you're at home, ignore the behavior. Some children do it when they are bored or want something to soothe them at bedtime. If you notice this is the case, you can distract them or find substitutes to soothe them.
  • In semi-public settings, such as playgrounds or extended family gatherings, simply pick your child up for a cuddle, or distract your child with another hands-on activity, such as drawing with crayons or building with blocks. If he/she can't be persuaded to change course, abandon and look away. Other toddlers won't care and your friends and family will understand.
  • Begin teaching your child the difference between "public" and "private." If he/she starts touching him/herself while you're out in public, quietly tell him/her that some things are okay to do in private but not in public where there are people around. Take his/her hand, give it a gentle squeeze, and distract him/her. Don't forget to also praise him/her for being able to wait until he/she's home.
  • Ask if he/she needs to go to the bathroom. Some toddlers hold their genitals when they have to pee. If you suspect yours is one of them, make a habit of asking.
  • In some cases excessive touching could be a sign of an infection, possibly a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). It could also be thrush, which can be a side effect of taking antibiotics. These can be tricky to spot in toddlers, as they might have trouble verbalizing discomfort, but parents can look out for signs. Check if they are scratching, or whether they appear to be uncomfortable passing urine. If you are still worried, the best thing to do is visit your GP/pediatrician.

Though such behavior is a taboo, and can be quite embarrassing to parents, remember that it is quite normal and harmless. Soon enough your toddler will outgrow this habit and find something else that will make you cringe!

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Manjiri Gokhale
Manjiri has a masters in clinical psychology from Mumbai University. She has been practicing with the Institute for Psychological Health (IPH) since the last 12 years. Manjiri is a practicing academic and has taught students at the undergraduate level. She has written research papers and her clinical work includes psychometric testing, counselling and designing workshops for normal children as well as those with special needs. She has 2 daughters, a 6 year old and an 8 month old!

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