My almost 2-year-old son loves to touch himself. How do I handle this without making him think it’s wrong?

This is a question many parents have about their toddlers — both boys and girls. From the way you asked it, I think you already understand that this is very typical and normal toddler behavior. However, it is also part of your responsibility as a parent to help children understand that some behaviors are appropriate in some settings but not in others. Toddlers are well known for taking off all their clothes, self-exploration and other similar behaviors that may be okay at home in their bedroom or bathroom but not out in public.

Moreover, toddlers also crave attention — positive or negative. So, they are prone to repeat behaviors that get attention, even if that attention means that they get in trouble. If you act bothered when your child touches himself and express that to him in a way that might bring shame, you can actually reinforce that behavior by providing the attention that he wants.

Finally, some parents are concerned that these behaviors are a sign that their child may have been abused, but self-exploration or self-stimulation are most often just part of typical development. Engaging in sexual acts with other children at a young age or specific concerns regarding a situation with another individual would warrant further evaluation.

My approach with families is to first normalize the behavior as something common among toddlers and then work with them to come up with strategies to limit the behavior in public spaces. Because toddlers love your attention, you can use that to purposefully shift them to a more desired activity when in public. If your child starts fondling himself, ignore the behavior, but direct him towards something fun you can do together. If the behavior persists, parents can tell their toddler that they should only touch private parts in private and provide suggestions for more appropriate behaviors (playing with toys, swinging legs, etc.). For younger kids who may not be ready to understand that concept, parents can put their children in onesies that limit access. If the behaviors don’t respond to conservative strategies, older children (4+) may benefit from working with a psychologist, who may use a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy called habit-reversal training. Children with autism or other developmental disabilities may need a more intensive applied behavioral analysis approach.

The good news is that for most toddlers, this period of self-exploration is limited and resolves with mild redirection from parents. I think your underlying concern about not wanting to shame your child is really helpful, and I suspect that you will come up with strategies that help your child understand that this behavior isn’t wrong but just something that should be private.

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Daniel Felten Daniel Felten, MD, is a complex care specialist at Children’s National.

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