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Sexual Feelings and Curiosity

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Q: Our almost 4-year-old daughter is an active, happy child. But we are concerned about her tendency to fondle herself whenever she is tired or not feeling well. It happens when she is alone and resting after a busy day. Should we be concerned?

Q: My 5 year old complained about itching in the area of his genitals. A visit to the doctor diagnosed a minor rash. It's cured now, but our son continues to complain of itching. He lies face down on his bed, pressing on his genitals, straining hard. This happens only in the evening, but we are upset to think that he may be masturbating. Will you please advise us what to do about it?

Q: Is it normal for a 4 year old to masturbate? Should I worry about possible sexual abuse?

Q: We are worried about our 5-year-old daughter. She sucks and chews her clothing, bites her nails and sucks on her hands a lot. She picks her nose, rocks in her bed and puts her fingers in her panties, moving rhythmically. All these habits and more seem to send her into her own world; which she prefers to the real world of playing with other kids.

A: I know it will surprise some adults to learn that it is normal for young children to have sexual feelings. Most enjoy exploring their own bodies from late infancy on. Sexual curiosity is normal too for preschoolers and kindergartners. Their discovery of masturbation is a natural part of growing up. It typically takes place at quiet times and is accompanied by thoughts of being close to loving parents. So it serves as a form of self-comfort when a child is alone or anticipates being alone. Masturbatory behavior in a young child is rarely cause for alarm. As to what to do about it, children should not be admonished. But some may need a gentle reminder that this is a private matter.

The second question, about the boy who complained of itching, offers an opportunity to point out that some children who sense strong disapproval from their parents may experience itching. In the child's mind, the itching could justify the natural urge to touch himself. His parents need to come to terms with the fact that their son's inclination is expectable in a healthy child. This is not easy for every parent to believe without some counseling from an expert in child development.

The best response to this behavior: Make sure children have regular opportunities to express their thoughts through play with parents. Keep home life calm, respect everyone's right to modesty and privacy, and take children's questions about anything at all in stride.

Sexual Abuse and Other Reasons to Worry
There are children who have been sexually abused, and who may masturbate — often at inappropriate times and places. But, unless there is a reason to suspect abuse in a particular situation, it is not a likely explanation for masturbation.

In contrast to the first three parents' questions, the last one paints a rather worrisome picture of a child who is apparently spending much of her time trying to cope with unusual levels of anxiety through numerous self-soothing habits. Her "fear-drive" behavior leaves little time or energy for ordinary activities. Instead, she is compelled to engage in perpetual self-soothing of many sorts, which leads me to conclude that this child may need expert help.

Fear of bodily harm can lead other children to keep checking to be sure their body parts are intact. If you sense that your child's masturbatory behavior is a way of managing worries or fears, seek the help of a child psychiatrist or psychologist. But such situations are the exception, not the rule. Young boys and girls with full, rich lives are still inclined to explore and enjoy their own bodies at quiet times.

About the Author

Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.

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