“My 5-year-old boy keeps touching his private parts kahit nakikipagusap siya sa amin. Parang unconscious niyang ginagawa. If I ask him why he does it, he only answers ‘nagdidikit po kasi’ kahit kaka-wash niya lang. Natural lang ba sa mga kids 'yon? I know na 'di naman sya na e-expose sa mga R-rated things. Bothered lang kasi ako. Single parent po ako at di ko alam kung anong gagawin.”
We've received messages similar to this one, and we thank the moms for reaching out to us. A child’s sexual exploration is a part of his development, much like his physical and emotional growth.
When kids touch themselves A child’s exploration of his private parts starts at around age 3 to 4 years old, explained Dr. Mary Daryl Joyce Lindo-Calleja, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at The Medical City.
“Children are normally very inquisitive. Meaning, they are curious about themselves, which includes their bodies and their environment. As young as 3 years old, some may show interest in their genitals by touching them or showing them to other children or adults. They may also be curious about the sexual differences between boys and girls.”
Dr. Marcelino G. Reysio-Cruz, III, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Capitol Medical Center, agrees and points out, “This is typical behavior for a child of his age. Preschoolers are generally curious about their environment and question, explore, and imitate behaviors concerning their private parts. Their self-touch is probably related to their curiosity and desire for pleasure.”
Even in infancy, a parent might already notice a child’s natural curiosity towards her private parts. You might see your baby holding her genitals at bath time or when you change her diaper. A 2-year-old may be interested in watching mom or dad use the bathroom or undress, said Dr. Lindo-Calleja. “Sexual behaviors in young children, which are part of normal development, are usually easily diverted, spontaneous and seemingly out of curiosity.”
“At preschool age, a child may play with his own genitals or have an interest in the genitals of other children,” said Dr. Reysio-Cruz. Again, try not to be alarmed. At this age, kids learn that touching or rubbing their genitals feels good, but there is nothing sexual in his action.
Dr. Lindo-Calleja does say, “Some of the sexual behaviors they manifest may not be the same. It will depend on a child's age group, his or her level of inquisitiveness, some family factors, exposure to social media, etc.”
What to do when your child touches himself The important thing is not to overreact, both pediatricians stress. While it is common for most parents “to feel some emotional distress whenever they would observe sexual behaviors in their children,” says Dr. Lindo-Calleja, don't snap at your child, raise your voice, or get angry. It will only send the message that he needs to feel ashamed of his feelings and actions.
Instead, Dr. Reysio-Cruz suggests, “Downplay the incident. At his age, there is no need to [go into] details why he shouldn't do it, but he should feel free to ask you about it.”
Your child may have questions about her genitals. She will not yet be able to grasp a complicated lesson on reproduction, so answer honestly using words she’ll be able to understand.
“Talk to your child in simple but correct terms. Avoid lengthy explanations and do not appear embarrassed as you discuss these matters with your child,” said Dr. Reysio-Cruz. You want your child to feel comfortable approaching you about sex and sexuality. If as a preschooler she already feels she cannot do so, it is possible that when she grows up, she will seek answers on the internet or peers who may misinform her.
This is also the perfect time to teach your child about body safety as well. “Take the opportunity to discuss the parts of one's body and which parts we usually keep private,” said Dr. Lindo-Calleja. “Help your child differentiate between an appropriate and inappropriate touch.”
For example, hugging and holding hands to show you care for someone is okay. But, touching that makes him feel scared or uncomfortable is not okay. It can include hitting, kicking, or someone else touching his private parts. Say that it’s important to tell a trusted grown-up, like mom, dad or a teacher, if this happens.
WhattoExpect.com also has an excellent tip how to begin teaching your child the difference between "public" and "private."
"If she starts touching herself while you're out in public, quietly tell her that some things are okay to do in private but not in public where there are people around. Take her hand, give it a gentle squeeze and distract her. Don't forget to also praise her for being able to wait until she's home."
When to worry “Sexual behaviors that are persistent, not easily diverted, and increasing in duration and frequency could already be a cause for concern,” said Dr.Lindo-Calleja.
Assess the severity of the behavior as well. Behavior that can be a cause for concern includes extensive knowledge of sex and sexual practices, taking off clothes persistently in public, and masturbating in public.
Dr. Lindo-Calleja added, “Look into other symptoms which may increase suspicions of possible sexual abuse in children such as irritability, increased aggression, sleep difficulties or have nightmares, refusing to socialize when previously it wasn't much of a problem and decreased performance in school.”
For any concerns about your child’s behavior, sexual or otherwise, seek to consult with his pediatrician or any child mental health professional.