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What To Do About Child Masturbation (Hands Down The Pants)

Sometimes our kids do things that really push our buttons. And walking in on your child, with their hands down their pants busily having a fiddle, can be one of those moments.

So what should we be doing when we find our child masturbating?

Is it masturbation?

Technically, it isn’t really masturbation.

In young children, it is just about touching. They are exploring their body and discovering a part that feels nicer when they touch. It is usually just a vague fiddling that may become more purposeful later on when they discover that it can feel quite nice (a different ‘nice’ to what an adult feels as kids don’t climax or reach orgasm until puberty).

Why do they do it?

Some kids do, and some kids don’t. Either way, it is just another normal, age-appropriate behaviour. It can be random or become a routine for some children at bedtime, when they are watching tv, of if they are bored, stressed and tired.

They do it because it can soothe and relax them, just like thumb sucking and hair twirling does. So it is just another way that kids manage their feelings.

Should I be worried?

The only time that you should be worried, is when:

  • it becomes compulsive
  • begins to interfere with normal life
  • or stops your child from doing other things.

If you’re unsure, the Traffic Lights App by True Relationships & Reproductive Health is a fantastic tool that you can use to work out whether you should worry or not.

What to do when they are ‘fiddling’?

It might be ‘normal’ for kids to have a ‘fiddle’, but that doesn’t mean that we need to ignore them and just let them go for it! We need to start teaching them that there is a time and a place for it (and that isn’t whilst watching a movie on the lounge with Grandma).

Just remember that it can take many reminders for kids to understand that touching their genitals is a private activity and even longer for them to understand the concept of privacy. Privacy for them may be ‘fiddling’ in the corner at daycare.

So what should you be doing?

  1. Take a deep breath – don’t panic and get angry. Shaming your child can negatively impact their self-esteem, body image and adult comfort with sex.  2.
  2. Set limits – remind them that this is a private activity that should happen in a private place (like their bedroom). It can take many reminders for them to understand the concept of private. ‘I know that this is something that you like to do, but we don’t touch our vulva/penis/private parts when we are in front of other people. That is a private activity. Where is a private place for you?’ 3
  3. Distract them – if you are in public or it is too hard to send them to a private place, see if you can discretely distract them from what they are doing. You could try something like ‘Look how nice it is outside, let’s go and jump on the trampoline’. Try to ignore it if it is at sleep time.
  4.  Send them to their room – if appropriate, send them to their room if they can’t be distracted. Gently remind them – ‘Hey, I know that that can feel nice but where do we do private activities? Do you want to go to a private place now? If not, what else can you do?
  5. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Kids enjoy any attention, good or bad, so you could end up encouraging the behaviour. Approach it as you would approach any other annoying habit that they have.

What next?

You need to start talking to your child about what privacy means (ie private activities and private places).  This is a tricky concept for kids to understand so be prepared for an ongoing conversation.

The easiest way to start is with a book and there are some fantastic books that will help you to introduce this concept. You can find a list of suitable book in this parent resource – Sex Education Books for Children: The Parent Guide, over at Sex Ed Rescue.

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