Parents often want to know if their child’s sexual behavior is a cause for concern. Is genital play part of typical childhood development? Is it normal for kids to be fascinated with nudity? How common is it to find preschoolers showing each other their genitals?
Young kids are curious. They’ll touch, poke and rub their private parts as they develop an understanding of this part of their body. This exploration is natural. Kids are building an understanding of their private parts just like they’d gain an understanding of any other thing — through exploratory play.
So what is normal? And what is not?
It’s common to see a toddler or a preschooler with a hand down their pants. They could be adjusting something that feels uncomfortable, itchy or tight. Kids also engage in genital play absent-mindedly, especially when they are bored or tired.
This touching may be embarrassing, frustrating, or concerning to some parents. It’s also a hygiene issue. And while parents often react to this touching in exasperation or disgust, it’s important to recognize that your reaction to your child’s touching is actually a great time to teach them some important things.
First, you want your kids to connect healthy and positive thoughts and feelings to every part of their body, not feelings of shame or wrong-doing. The genitals are part of their body just like any other part, so try not to overly react with strong disapproval, disgust, or embarrassment. Just keep your reaction matter of fact and simple. “We always wash our hands after touching our private parts. Let’s go do that now,” would be an appropriate response.
Second, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about privacy. Tell your child that her genitals are a private part of her body. If she feels like something feels funny or her clothes need to be fixed then it’s best to do it in a private area, like a bathroom or bedroom. Explain that adults do the same thing.
If it happens often, it’s also reasonable for parents to set a limit for this behavior by simply suggesting that their child take two quick minutes in the bathroom to adjust himself if needed.
Problematic genital play
If you find that your child’s touching is becoming compulsive, unhealthy, or is interfering with normal life, it would be wise to investigate. There could be a number of things happening:
- It could be a hygiene issue, especially for kids that are using the toilet and bathing independently. They may feel itchy or irritated. Make sure you help them understand how to keep their private parts clean. Include it in your after bath questions (Did you wash your face? Your genitals? Your feet?).
- A child may be touching herself as a way of self-soothing when she’s feeling anxious or scared, similar to when a child sucks her thumb or plays with her hair. You can help her identify and encourage other behaviors to self-soothe.
- Excessive touching and other uncharacteristic behaviors may also be a sign of sexual trauma. 1 If you wonder at all if this is a concern, you should see a professional.
You may also see kids press or rub this part of their body with their hands or an object because it feels good. Masturbation is touching the genitals for pleasure.
Young kids are naturally curious about their bodies, and genital play is one way of exploring. This exploration is innocent, especially in toddlers and preschoolers. As these young kids get a little bit older, around ages 5 and 6, many parents ask, “Is it ok for kids to engage in this behavior?”
There is a wide range of expert opinions on this topic especially when talking about young kids. Generally, experts feel that it is not going to cause physical harm. But there are other questions that are not as easily answered. Will they outgrow it? Is it hurting them emotionally or mentally? Will it lead to other sexual behaviors? Does a parent step in or should parents let their child figure it out on their own?
So, the answer is “it depends.”
It depends on what your personal definition of “ok” actually means — you are your child’s parent so ultimately you need to decide what you feel is appropriate. To help you determine what “ok” actually means to you, here are some questions to consider:
- Is this behavior becoming a mental or emotional crutch in response to a stressor the child is facing?
- Could it change the way your child comes to think or feel about sexual intimacy as they get older?
- Do you feel that masturbation in youth may lead your child to engage in other behaviors (pornography, sexting, oral sex, premarital or uncommitted intercourse) that you feel strongly about?
- What messages about sexuality and sexual intimacy do you want to give to your child? Is your opinion of masturbation in line with these values and messages?
After identifying your personal opinion on masturbation, it’s time to have a conversation with your child. Be clear and kind and engage your child with thinking words during these conversations. Share your thoughts and ask your child what they think about it too. Your child will react in a much more positive way when they are given the opportunity to make their own decisions on how to change behavior.
Showing the genitals and looking at or touching other’s genitals — playing doctor — is a common sign of natural curiosity in young kids. Remember exploratory play is natural, especially in preschool aged kids.
Don’t be surprised if you come across kids acting in this way. Do be prepared to take this opportunity to react in a way that teaches some wonderful concepts like privacy and consent. Check on kids regularly when playing with siblings and friends since this behavior is common in both groups.
The following would be considered normal for young kids:
- Being curious about naked bodies
- Touching their own genitals
- Looking at or touching another child’s private parts, especially in the context of playing doctor or playing house (the actions are spontaneous, unplanned)
- Engaging in these behaviors with kids of a similar age
- Readily responding to adult intervention
On the other hand, harmful sexual behaviors 2 between kids generally would include at least one of the following:
- Behavior is between kids at least two years apart in age
- Resembles adult sexual behavior
- Does not respond to adult intervention or continues secretly
- Behavior is forced or causes physical or emotional harm
If you are concerned that your child is engaging in harmful sexual behaviors, talk to your pediatrician to be connected to the right resources for help. You can also visit the Parent section at the National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth for more information.
- “Warning Signs for Young Children.” Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), https://www.rainn.org/articles/warning-signs-young-children.
- “What is Problematic Sexual Behavior?” National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth (NCSBY), https://www.ncsby.org/content/what-problematic-sexual-behavior.