What is an appropriate way to handle toddler masturbation?

I really appreciate your blog. It is thought provoking and insightful. Thank you for providing this space for LDS theology to co-mingle with psychology. I am LDS, married, and a stay at home mom of a 2 year old son. He’ll be 3 in October. My concern is about his increasing interest in masturbation. I’m frustrated by the lack of guidance I’ve found on parenting websites, where pediatricians do not deem early masturbation a problem and simply encourage parents to not let their children do it in public. I know that my son doesn’t connect this behavior with sexuality. To him, it just feels good. So far, I’ve just tried to redirect his behavior, which is mostly successful; but yesterday when I tried to pry him off of a ball, he took the ball, ran into a bedroom, closed the door and started masturbating on the bed with the ball. I took the ball from him and put it away and engaged him with a different toy. Today was even more difficult because he also needed a diaper change (bowel movement) at the same time he was having an erection. He giggled a little as I was trying to wipe off his penis and then asked me for a baby wipe, which I gave him and which he used to rub his testicles; it actually seemed to help decrease the blood flow to his penis, but I must admit I wasn’t sure what was happening physically. After he was finished (this lasted about 30 seconds) he handed me the wipe and I put a diaper back on and spent some time holding him and reassuring him that everything was okay and then he bounded off to play. My husband and I have what I consider to be very healthy attitudes toward sexuality and use correct terminology with our son and want him to grow up to love sex as much as we do, within the bonds of a loving marital relationship. How can we help foster a healthy attitude toward sex at this early age and what is an appropriate way to handle toddler masturbation? My fear is that he will have negative associations with sex when I prevent him from masturbating at this stage, but I don’t feel that he should be allowed to masturbate either.

Incidentally, I have a friend (also LDS) who has a daughter that is a year older than my son (turned 3 last December) and they are having the same problem, so I imagine that others are facing this also. My friend constantly reminds her daughter to “not play with her privates.” Is there a reason, other than the fact that it feels good, that she has seemingly already developed an unbreakable habit? How can this behavior be stopped before it becomes damaging? At what age is it linked to sexuality in the child’s mind? Thank you so much for helping us to be better parents!

This is an excellent question and I want to commend you for asking it. So many parents struggle with knowing what is “normal” versus “alarming” behavior when it comes to their children’s sexuality. And ALL children are born with sexual organs, sexual drives and sexual curiosity. That means that ALL parents are dealing with these issues. For whatever reasons, we just don’t talk about it. Making sure that we don’t look at our children through the lens of adult sexuality is pivotal in dealing with our sexual parenting styles and ideas. Here is some direction:

  • The first item of business is how exactly are you defining masturbation? The definition I like to refer to from Merriam-Webster is: erotic stimulation especially of one’s own genital organs commonly resulting in orgasm and achieved by manual or other bodily contact exclusive of sexual intercourse, by instrumental manipulations, occasionally by sexual fantasies, or by various combinations of these agencies. The fact that this definition includes the word “erotic” pretty much disqualifies our toddlers from even falling under the category of being able to masturbate. I would challenge you to change your own perception of this behavior and not call his natural exploration masturbation.
  • One of my favorite gospel principles is the doctrine regarding the natural and God-given innocence of children. There is no capacity for sexual sin or transgression for our children. The age of accountability in our church begins at age 8, which actually coincides with what the psychological world also deems as an age (7-10) when children naturally begin to better understand their behavior and the consequences that go along with it. However, at the ages of 5-10, even 11 our children do not have the sexual maturity or capacity to enter the realm of “erotic.” This is part of why we naturally struggle to educate our children about sexuality to begin with. Therefore, teachings regarding abstaining from masturbation really need to wait until the ages of 11, 12, 13 (when our children are ready to enter the next stage of young men’s and young women’s). I have a great testimony in how our youth and primary programs are organized. The ages in which they move along to new classes, deeper doctrine and new programs are incredibly inspired and in adherence with correct developmental order.
  • You may be surprised, with as strict as the church seems about the teachings regarding masturbation, that the church actually agrees with me on this point. “A Parent’s Guide” has very accurate and developmentally appropriate guidance for parents as to when and how it is appropriate to broach the many subjects related to sex education. It specifically states: One of the first things (the child) begins to discover is his body. Male and female children will naturally discover and explore their genitals just as they do the rest of their bodies. The male infant’s genitals are very sensitive to touch. His penis responds to his diaper and to his parents’ touch as they bathe or clothe him. He will often touch and rub his own genitals. A little girl may also explore and handle her genitals. Your reaction to these natural explorations will influence the way a child later feels about his procreative powers. Do not either worry about or encourage the child’s explorations. Remain neutral, and the child will accept that these parts of his body are good, just as all the other parts are. The fact that your son found a wipe soothing makes perfect sense. There is a lot of blood flow in the genital area and I’m sure it felt cool and comfortable. Erections for boys start at birth (even in the womb), are not controllable and obviously draw their attention to their penis. Both boys and girls, but girls in particular, use rubbing against objects as another way to stimulate their genitals to satisfy what maybe started as a natural itch and also just because it feels good. None of this is damaging. It is perfectly appropriate for you to ignore this behavior, not draw attention to it and not worry about it. The only guidance I would offer a child at this age is to redirect when in public. I do recommend reading A Parent’s Guide. It is available right off the Internet on lds.org
  • Although the following information is in regards to older boys, I want to include it in this conversation. This is what A Parent’s Guide says about what is know as “wet dreams”: In the boy, millions of sperm grow in the testicles within spermatic fluid. When the fluid and sperm fill the tubules and testes, they are automatically released or ejaculated. This usually happens during sleep and is called nocturnal emissions or “wet dreams.” Sexual dreams are not always present, but they can trigger a nocturnal emission or ejaculation. In either case this is not masturbation. Boys who are reaching puberty need to be educated about this process and taught to not have feelings of shame or guilt regarding this natural body function.
  • The best way to foster healthy attitudes towards sex at an early age is the positive and reinforced focus on his gender roles as a boy. Celebrate his “boyness” and all of the strengths that go along with this (“You are such a smart boy!”, “Look at you go! What a fast boy!”). Make reference often to the same gender parent (i.e. “Look how strong you are, just like Daddy” or “Your dancing is so graceful. Mommy loves to dance too”). Another very powerful way of fostering healthy sexual attitudes is to be cognizant of the type of affection and marital role model you are providing for your child. Being comfortable kissing and being loving with your spouse is extremely important for your children to see. Showering your child with verbal love and physical affection is also paramount.
  • I notice that you are a first time Mom and with that comes a lot of natural anxiety and unneeded worry. As a Mom of several I can tell you that I have come across all types of sexual exploration in both my male and female kids: from rubbing up against anything and everything and innocently calling out “I’m tickling myself!”, to having certain ones seemingly living constantly with one of their hands down their pants, to boys proudly showing off their erections, to calling out in any public place they can embarrass us in “I want to have a big penis like Daddy!” We try to respond in easy-going and relaxed ways: “That’s great honey” “Ok” “Yup, that’s your penis” “That happens to all boys or girls” “No worries.” I am happy to report that all of this passes. It’s a phase they grow out of. And you will be able to tell when they are ready for a more mature discussion regarding sexual matters.
  • Parents who have children with different developmental disorders such as autism, mental retardation, Downs Syndrome, etc. can expect these sexual explorations to continue at older ages. That is because their children do not grow out of their “innocence” at the times we deem age appropriate. This becomes awkward especially when these children do not understand that they should not act out sexually in public settings. These situations require compassion and understanding by all who come in contact with these special spirits.
  • There are times when sexual acting out by children can be a red flag pointing towards the possibility the child has been sexually abused. This has less to do with natural exploration and more to do with acting out what would be deemed adult themes of sexuality (i.e. humping other children, mimicking sex with dolls or toys, touching other children’s genitals, etc.). Not just because a child has done these things does it mean that they have been sexually abused (some of this can fall under normal sexual play and curiosity or even mimicking something they’ve seen on TV). However, if enough of these red flags keep occurring, it may be worth looking into and getting a more extensive assessment. Always follow your gut in these situations. It’s better to err on the safe side than to do nothing at all.

It can be difficult and extremely anxiety-producing to see our children act in what we deem sexual ways. That is because our adult brains have a hard time wiring the word “innocent” and “sex” in the same thought wave. So don’t worry – you are perfectly normal. And it sounds like you are on your way to raising a wonderful son who will have loving parents willing to teach him correct and positive principles regarding his sexuality. What a gift you will give him, his future wife, and his posterity in general!
Thank you for your comments and good luck on your wonderful yet challenging journey of parenthood!

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