What to do with Your Twiddling Toddler

You’re changing your son’s diaper.  Your daughter is sitting in the bathtub or on the potty.  And his or her hands creep, creep, creep their way to… oh no…  his or her genitals!  Take a deep breath, don’t panic.

First, recognize that our discomfort is a cultural thing.  Western society is under the misconception that we are not supposed to be sexual until we hit puberty.  There is no puberty fairy that suddenly changes us from asexual to sexual beings overnight.  Other cultures recognize that we are sexual beings from birth to death.  In fact, ultrasound images show that even in utero, boys experience erections.

Recognize that touching is normal.  Toddlers are curious creatures and they live to explore.  As infants begin to explore their bodies, they are bound to find their genitals.  And when they do, they will next discover that touching their genitals feels good.  A common time for such touching is nap-time and may serve as a form of self-soothing.

Masturbation as an infant does not mean your child will be a sex-addict. It’s healthy, and your 2 year old is not a pervert, nor will he or she necessarily grow up to be one.  Once your child is a toddler and can more likely understand, teach him or her that while this behavior is not a problem, he or she should feel free to enjoy in his or her bedroom, and not the living room.

Is there a doctor in the house?  Children at 2-3 years of age begin to explore each other “ it’s normal.  Johnny and Sally are not planning to fulfill your lifelong dream of grandparent-hood…yet.  These are more exploratory, curiosity-based behaviors than sexualized ones.  Research indicates that sex play in the toddler years does not increase likelihood for sexual deviance at older ages.

James has a penis and Sally has a vagina¦.. GASP!!!!  Yes, I said those words.  And so should you.  Teaching proper names for genitals is essential for their safety.  If Timmy can’t identify his penis, how can he tell you that someone touched it?  Children should be taught to be alert to and report strange behavior, as opposed to merely identifying strangers.  It is important to note that most children who are abducted or sexually victimized know the perpetrators of these crimes.

Let’s face it, some of us are more liberal than others, but, even if you do have a nudist colony functioning in your home, skinny-dipping on the front lawn is not acceptable.  And the grocery store does require shirt and shoes… and pants.  We typically start teaching our children about modesty when they are toddlers.  Maintaining a family bed, nudity in the home, and co-bathing for example, do not eliminate our responsibility as parents to teach that those behaviors are unacceptable outside of the family and the home.

“Mommy, why is that lady so fat?  We know you dread hearing those words as you select produce at the store, but when answering questions, be sure to do so in a straightforward manner without being overwhelming.  If Rebecca asks you how the new baby got in your tummy, please don’t tell her you swallowed a baby pit and it grew.  You also don’t need to give a college-level lecture in ovulation and the travels of the sperm.  A simple explanation should suffice.

Call it a hot flash, claim you have a fever, but please, do not let your child know you are embarrassed by his or her behavior.  Walk away for a moment if you must to collect your thoughts.  Educating yourself first will be helpful.  The more you are informed about the normalcy of toddler sexual behavior, the better you will be able to address it when you observe it in your child.  And you will observe it in your child.  And it will not be as horrifying as that time you walked in on your parents.

As parents, our job is to make sure that our children can engage in age-appropriate, normal sexual behavior so in a healthy way, without anxiety or fear.  Your neurosis and anxiety will become your child’s neurosis and anxiety.  Keep it to yourself!

Houston we have a problem… If the behavior continues outside of private domains, if the behavior happens excessively, to the exclusion of other activities, or aggressively, speak to your pediatrician.  Your child could have a skin condition such as a rash or a urinary tract infection.  Or your child may have a different issue that would require professional assessment and intervention.


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