Q: My toddler has been fondling his genitals a lot. I’ve caught him at it several times at home, and once it even happened in public. What should I do?
A: Relax. You’ve no reason to be overly concerned. This behaviour is a normal expression of early sexuality. If you respond calmly and in an age-appropriate way, the habit should pass as soon as maturity and social pressure begin to take effect.
Many parents are surprised to learn that genital fondling does not produce a sexual “charge” with small children. Instead, they do it because they find it self-soothing – often as a way of dealing with boredom, anxiety or nervousness. If you want to curtail it, start by saying something like, “I’ve noticed you touching your penis (or vagina) a lot lately.” Be frank and open and ask questions — for example, “Why have you been doing this? Does it make you feel good?”
Determine the emotions that are driving the behaviour and then redirect it by encouraging your child to focus on something else. Point out other ways he can soothe himself or feel more secure. Offer alternatives, like a teddy bear, a pillow or a special blanket.
Depending on your child’s age, you can explain that there are some things we don’t do in front of other people (it might be helpful to use the analogy of using the toilet). These things aren’t bad, just private. If we do them in public, they can make others feel uncomfortable. Your purpose in speaking this way is simply to sensitise your child to the social implications of their behaviour. Throughout this conversation, your tone should be firm and confident, not shocked or embarrassed.
In the final analysis, it’s important to remember that children are not asexual. Your child’s behaviour is merely demonstrating that he’s properly wired. So relax and give your child — and yourself — a break.
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