It’s hard to know how much exploration of private parts and sexuality is appropriate for preschoolers. A little curiosity is perfectly normal, but many Circle of Moms members wonder where the line between normal and concerning lies. To ease your mind, here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers on the subject.
Q: Is it normal for my 3 or 4-year-old to be curious about his body?
Like many young boys, Circle of Moms member Amara O.'s 4-year-old son has started to wake up with an erection in the morning. What worries her is that he gets excited about touching it. She asks, “Does this mean my 4-year-old is masturbating?”
Answer: Exploration of the body is a normal part of preschooler development. Once children notice their private parts, they’re likely to be curious about what those parts do. A number of moms chimed in to help Amara, any many are express the opinion that what her son is doing isn’t exactly masturbation.
“He's just figuring out his body,” counsels Michelle N. In answer to a similar question, Sarah T. points out “(S)he has no idea that what she is doing could be sexual. (S)he doesn't even know what sex is!”
The Mayo Clinic, while not necessarily in agreement that this behavior shouldn’t be referred to as masturbation, agrees that this exploration is part of the normal developmental process.
Q: Is self-stimulating a developmentally appropriate way to self-soothe?
Circle of Moms member Crystal S. says she catches her 3 ½ daughter “rubbing her privates on her pillow and bear” because it “tickles.” Crystal doesn’t think she should be doing it, doesn’t know whether it’s normal behavior, and isn’t sure what to do about it.
It’s worth noting that renowned pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene prefers the term genital stimulation, as he says masturbation is an act accompanied by sexual fantasy. Dr. Greene (and many moms) agree that self-stimulation is a normal soothing behavior.
Answer #2: Others moms, including occupational therapist Christine C., look at the issue from a different angle entirely. As she points out, “It might be a sensory issue. Kids sometimes rub and touch things to stimulate themselves. It acts as a way to soothe or calm themselves.” Christine suggests that Crystal give her daughter other ways to tickle herself, like holding a beanbag or using a feather on her arm, to reduce the concerning behavior.
Pam and Deidra M. spoke up to remind moms that sometimes young children use the words “tickle” and “itch” interchangeably, and that the behavior could be a response to a itchy rash or infection from soap or detergent. “Little girls who take bubble baths are prone to yeast infections,” said Pam. Deidra M. agrees, adding, “Check her genitals just to make sure she doesn't have a rash or hasn’t developed an allergy to the detergent you are using.”
Q: What should I do when I notice my child touching himself?
Answer: The general consensus is to talk to your child about privacy and good touches vs. bad touches without making him feel as though he’s done something wrong. Jennifer R., a Circle of Moms member who is also an experienced early childhood teacher, suggests encouraging your child to to talk with you about it.
Carrie M., a mom of two boys, says her sons have both been very curious and unashamed. “I don't want them to feel shame, so I just accept it as a normal part of growing up,” she says.
Colleen E. takes a similar approach, using such incidences as a conversational springboard to remind her son that it’s natural to explore, but that exploring that nice feeling is not appropriate to do in public. “Don't make a huge issue of it and keep it lighthearted,” she recommends.
Q: Should I worry that my preschooler wants to “play doctor” with her friends?
Answer: When Danielle D., mom to a 4-year-old, expressed concern that her daughter plays doctor with neighborhood children she was flooded with moms relating similar stories about their own children or from their own childhoods, reminding us all how normal this is. One of the moms who chimed in, Theresa, suggests that this would be a good time for Danielle to begin educating her daughter about "the differences between boys and girls," and recommends using a kid-friendly anatomy book to help the conversation along.
Q: What behavior isn’t normal?
Answer: Mom Vanessa S. pointed out that if any of this exploration is accompanied by other significant changes in your child's behavior “there may be reason to worry that her curiosity is stemming from something else.” Experts agree with Vanessa; Stop It Now!, a child abuse and protection agency, lists the following constellation of signs as possible symptoms of sexual abuse:
- Regressive behavior
- Refusing to be (or to get) undressed
- Initiating games or play that mimic adult sexual behavior
- Changes in appetite and difficulty swallowing
How have you responded to your young child's curiosity about his or her body?
Related Reading: How to Respond When Your Kids Start Masturbating
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.