“My 3-year-old daughter started touching her sensitive area. She sleeps face down on the pillow and starts doing strange movements. No matter how much I try to distract her and explain that it is inappropriate, she never stops. Is she masturbating?” asked countless moms on parenting groups.

We know that any mother in a similar situation may feel a sense of anxiety, tension, and embarrassment. What you need to know is that children in their first two years – as they learn to walk, run and discover colors, shapes, and places – discover their body parts and their growth.

When the child starts discovering her sensitive area, it comes in the form of a touch or friction with her hands or the tip of a sofa or bed or even the ground. During such movements, the child is very focused on what she is doing, her face looks red and sweats a lot, then she relaxes or sleeps. That is when parents begin to worry and start asking how they can stop their children from touching their bodies.

According to many studies, around the age of two to four girls start touching themselves. It is more frequent in girls than boys, also many studies claim that a large percentage of them stop around the age of five to six.

Image source: Think Stock

Why does my daughter constantly touch her private parts?

Exploration
This is one of the most important and widespread reasons. The child is exploring everything around her in addition to every part of her body.

Imitation
The child may see something and start copying it, which is possible if the father and mother are not careful or secretive with their sexual relationship or have no television parental control. Parents need to be aware of cartoon videos with characters introducing behaviors that are not perfectly suited for children.

Stress relief
Some children resort to it as a kind of stress relief or to draw attention which makes them feel comfortable and hence repeat it.

Sexual assault
This is the most alarming reason for touching one’s private part. Either a person assaulted the child or an assault happened in front of her and in all cases this defined is as sexual abuse.

Vaginal infections:
While infections cause inflammation, itching or burning sensations, they do not cause the kind of self-touch behavior that parents fear.

When does this behavior turn into a habit?

1- When it is enjoyable and makes the child feel relieved.
2- Self-soothing in cases of anxiety, stress and sleep disorder.
3- Lack of interest in others and attempting to draw attention.

How should I handle the situation?

The most important thing is to be calm and aware that child’s body exploration is a natural need and avoid over-reacting which might cause your child to get more attached to the habit.

1- Distracting from the act while neglecting the act itself, such as grabbing her attention and asking her to help you in something and keeping her hands busy all the time.

2- Naming the genitals with their clear names so if the child complains for any reason to any trusted adult, they understand her immediately.

3- Spend time with your child, give her the attention she needs and hug her a lot.

4- Limit screen time and anything watched should be under the parents’ supervision.

Finally, we advice you to seek help from a child psychologist if you notice the following signs on your child:

  • The child repeats the behaviour for more than a month regardless of the parent’s advice.
  • Child turns the behavior into a violent or potentially harmful act
  • If you are not able to deal with this issue without stress.
  • If you suspect that your child is sexually assaulted or witnessed an assault.
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