This Sexual Behavior Is Part of Natural Development

This Sexual Behavior Is Part of Natural Development

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Four-year-old Grace is lying on the couch in the living room with her hand in her pants. Mom and Dad are very uncomfortable and are not sure what to do. On one hand, their discomfort makes them feel like yelling at her to stop. (Sometimes, this has to do with early childhood associations or prohibitions.) At the same time, they want her to grow up with a healthy approach to sexual pleasure. What can they do to handle the situation with care?

It’s important that parents understand that this behavior is part of natural development. When babies begin to explore their bodies as a part of their self-discovery, they quickly experience that touching themselves feels pleasurable. So, they repeat the behavior, and it continues throughout childhood. Sometimes a child masturbates for pleasure, but sometimes it is a self-soothing mechanism to cope with anxiety when they are tired or feel worried or insecure. The goal is to teach children how to manage this behavior, like other actions, without inspiring guilt or shame.

Set a limit

If your child is masturbating in the living room, you can start by acknowledging his feelings. You can say, “I know it feels good to touch yourself, but touching yourself is something that people do in private. You can do this in your room, in the bathroom, or when no one is around.”

Be patient

Keep in mind that for younger children, masturbation can become a habit like sucking your thumb or biting your nails and is often done unconsciously. That is why it is very hard for a child to stop the behavior on a dime. Ultimately, children become more self-aware, and with your guidance, learn to masturbate only when they are alone. This is along the same line as learning to close the door for privacy when you’re in the bathroom.

Use distraction

It is often better to avoid confronting your child about her behavior too much. It can make a child anxious and even increase the behavior. Instead, you can distract her by redirecting her to another activity, such as playing a game or setting the table. Sometimes parents find that a combination of ignoring the behavior and engaging the child in another activity works very well.

Cover the bases

As I mentioned, a child may engage in masturbation as a self-soothing mechanism when he is anxious. This can happen when there is a new baby in the house, when he’s about to take a test, or even when he’s fought with his best friend. Therefore, it is important to talk with him about his feelings. For example, you can ask, “Is anything happening that is making you feel angry or worried? Let’s talk about it, and I will help you.” Helping children express their feelings verbally rather than through behavior helps them get the help they need and feel better.

Avoid shaming your child

Criticizing a child for masturbating gives the child the message that sexual pleasure is bad. This can cause children to feel guilty whenever they experience bodily pleasure and create problems later in their adult relationships. Once more, it can even cause an individual to feel guilty when experiencing other forms of pleasure, such as receiving a gift or buying a new car. Instead, helping children build a positive association to pleasure will give them a more joyful life.