At this stage of my life and my career, I’m getting a lot of questions from friends and colleagues about touching “down there” as a lot of us have toddlers, yet I’m usually the only sex educator people know. Here are some common concerns I’ve been getting lately:
The short answer to all of these fears, is: “Relax, your kids are completely normal!”
Why do young kids touch their genitals?
Young children love exploring the human body, whether it be their own or their mom’s or siblings', etc. Babies start out touching eyes and noses and move on to other parts as they discover them. And you know what that means? Genitals are no different. So if your toddler is feeling her vulva during a diaper change or stretching his penis in the bathtub, it is all about figuring out what those parts do.
Up until recently, parents and even the medical community did not recognize genital exploration among infants and young children as masturbation, it was treated as a disorder and lots of money was wasted on very expensive tests and treatment (1, 2). Don’t worry, genital exploration among young kids isn't sexual per se. There are just millions of nerve endings that make genitals more sensitive than other body parts (3). During infancy, toddlerhood and early childhood, genital arousal is recognized by the brain as comfort by releasing endorphins (3). It’s not triggering the sexual response cycle. However, at some point during childhood and certainly during puberty, genital arousal does trigger the sexual response cycle to prepare the body for orgasm. In short, if sexual abuse is not in the picture, you don’t need to worry about your child being ‘too sexual too soon’ because they are exploring their bodies. If you do suspect sexual abuse, click here for resources. If not, just know that your child is perfectly normal and here’s what you can do to respond to the curiosity:
What to do about it?
(1) Finkelstein, E., Amichai, B., Jaworowski, S., & Mukamel, M. (1996). Masturbation in prepubescent children: A case report and review of the literature. Child: care, health and development, 22(5), 323-326.
(2) Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics, 116(6), 1427-1432.
(3) Beier, K. M., & Loewit, K. K. (2013). Basic Understanding of Human Sexuality. In Sexual Medicine in Clinical Practice (pp. 9-17). Springer New York.
(4) M. Adams, Donald W. Robinson, K. (2001). Shame reduction, affect regulation, and sexual boundary development: Essential building blocks of sexual addiction treatment. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 8(1), 23-44.
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1/8/2015 02:28:56 am
Thanks, great article!
1/9/2015 10:02:04 am
I certainly fall into that category of not having had feedback, and it's so important to open this discussion at a young age. Thank you for outlining how to broach a topic many often are confounded by!
1/20/2023 07:34:47 pm
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I'm here to help us discuss sexuality, gender, and media by integrating information from academic and mainstream sources. I hope this resource produces more sexually competent people who raise sexually competent kids.
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