Moms Columns & Blogs

When children touch themselves

From Parent-to-Parent

Q: My daughter developed a habit of self-stimulation when she was 4. I discussed this with her doctor, and she told me that my daughter would grow out of it. Now she is 7 and still self-stimulates. She does this whenever she is bored. I provide her lot of activities, but still she does it. I need help in resolving this issue – A mother who recently returned to Pakistan

Parents need to explain that while masturbation is not shameful, it's also private.

The goal: teach your child discretion without expecting to stop the habit completely.

Tips from a mother of four: “Most importantly, don't make the girl feel she is doing something wrong. Be casual but firm in explaining to her that, like toileting and bathing, touching oneself in her personal area is to be done in private. Inform the child that she can self-stimulate anytime she wishes to, but must always do so in the privacy of her bedroom, or in the bathroom.”

An education consultant in Atlanta agrees:

“I've always dealt with young children's self-stimulation the same way I've handled nose-picking or bottom-picking or similar behaviors,” she says. “When I notice a young child doing one of these behaviors, I say softly and matter-of-factly to the child, ‘I see that you need some privacy. Please go to the bathroom where you can have privacy. You may come out when you're done. Thank you.' Such words, when spoken with firmness and without a judgmental tone, give a child the responsibility to seek out privacy for private behaviors.”

One reader recalls hiding under her family's coffee table to masturbate while everyone watched television. “I didn't understand why it embarrassed my parents or why it should be shameful. I wasn't bored, had lots of friends and attention from my family,” she recalls. “Frankly, it just felt good… In my opinion, nothing good could come of focusing on it as a problem.”

But parents do need to be aware of the possible worst-case scenario – sexual abuse, as one mother describes: “My daughter exhibited the same behavior at ages 6 and 7, even doing it in school. Come to find out she was sexually abused by her grandfather.”

Masturbation is considered a developmentally normal behavior but can be an indicator of sexual abuse if a child self-stimulates to the point of injury, inserts objects into the vagina or anus, and masturbates several times a day while making groaning sounds, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Barton D. Schmitt, M.D., author of “Your Child's Health” (Bantam Books, $21, 2005), suggests these tips. Call your health-care provider if:

Your child continues to masturbate when other people are around.

You suspect that your child has been taught to masturbate by someone.

Your child tries to stimulate others.

You feel your child is unhappy.

You cannot accept any masturbation by your child.

You have other questions.