Dear Stop It Now!,
My 6 year old daughter has been masturbating since she was a baby. Now that she is 6, she rarely has a problem with doing this in public, or around other people. She is doing it privately, and is sometimes conscious about it, but often seems to just do it without even thinking about it.
I don’t feel comfortable with sleep overs regardless, but even leaving her home with a babysitter, or a grandparent, I feel like this sort of behavior is something I’d really rather not have happening. both for her sake and whomever happens to walk in on her. I’ve talked to her in the past about how it does feel good and that that is normal and ok, but that because of these sorts of scenarios, it is probably best to find other ways of self soothing and relaxing before she goes to bed.
I’m just not sure where to go from here and rather than grow out of it, it seems to becoming more and more of a locked in habitual practice. I don’t want to give her some sort of complex about her relationship with her body or do something that will negatively effect her sexuality down the road, but I feel like continuing this behavior and having people find her doing this could be damaging and difficult to deal with as well. What should I do?
Dear Concerned Parent,
It certainly can be confusing and concerning when we think about children’s sexual behaviors and how to keep them feeling both safe and confident as they grow. I’m glad you’ve reached out to us.
What’s Age-AppropriateAs she has been doing this her whole life, please know that it is normal and age-appropriate for young children to touch their genitals and experience pleasure. This includes using objects to rub against. Masturbation is part of a child’s exploration of their body and how it works. And, these behaviors can stick around when a child prefers this method for self-soothing. You’ve noticed a pattern with your daughter, and you’re right that the “locked-in, habitual” aspect of this activity is concerning. There are so many avenues to try when teaching your daughter other ways to calm herself.
Checking-In with ProfessionalsA good next step would be to schedule a visit with your dental or behavioral concern involving your child it is a good idea to bring them to the doctor. Also, as this behavior can persist in other times of stress, or when there is an underlying physical concern, a doctor’s visit can rule out any medical condition (like a bladder or a urinary irritation).
The article, Sexual Development and Behavior in Children, from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network talks about some of the common sexual behaviors in childhood for School-Aged Children (ages 7-12) as: “A purposefully touching of private parts (masturbation), usually in private; Wanting more privacy (for example, not wanting to undress in front of other people); being reluctant to talk to adults about sexual issues”. It’s great that in the past you’ve talked to your daughter about how this behavior was totally okay, and as a private activity she needs to do it in her room or the bathroom. For now, start to knock on her bedroom door when she’s in there to see if it’s okay for you to come in. If you open up her door and this is what she’s doing, it’s important to close the door and give her some privacy.
Other Ways to Self-SootheYou’ve mentioned talking to her about finding other ways to calm down when she is tired, and that’s also great. Now, give her some alternative tension releasers. Ideas like counting sheep, reading a book, slowly swaying to soothing music, or even aromatherapy are all easeful pre-bed activities. You could even establish a “calm time” 10 minutes before bedtime where you do one of these soothing activities together. There is no need to talk about these activities as “alternatives” to masturbation with her, though—just frame these as tranquil, healthy ways to prepare for a good night’s rest. For another family’s story of introducing alternative tension release strategies into their child’s routine, see, Masturbation: Six Ways To Manage It, from the parenting website Ask Dr. Sears.
Involving Caring Adults in Safety PlanningYour concerns about a babysitter walking in on her are valid, and this is why it is essential to have a babysitter with whom you feel comfortable. Explain to the sitter that there a few ways your daughter prepares for sleep and this is one which comes up frequently. Talk about how in your family adults always knock on doors before entering, as this respects privacy and teaches children about appropriate boundaries. And, tell the babysitter to leave the room if this behavior begins while they are in it. If they do notice your daughter engaging in this behavior in a common space make sure they are confident in gently reminding her that this is a “private activity for her bedroom or the bathroom”, and encouraging her to take space or to change her behavior. This kind of conversation can be helpful with her grandparents if they are watching her as well. Making sure all caregivers are in communication with each other, and are able to communicate appropriate messages to your daughter about the value of privacy, is important.
Having clear, easy-to-follow family rules about consent, respect, and body boundaries, as well as privacy, are all a part of what we call Safety Planning. Other safety planning measures you can take could be giving her access to age-appropriate resources so she can learn about her body. You may want to know more about Why Healthy Sexuality Education is an Important Part of a Safety Plan, and how to talk to your daughter about it effectively. And, for further access to information and expertise take a look at our Healthy Sexual Development resource page.
Finally, if after trying these strategies nothing has changed, you may want to seek the advice of a professional. A therapist specializing in child sexual development and behaviors would be best suited to speak with you. They can give feedback around alternate strategies, help you with implementation, and can assist you in deciding whether your daughter may also benefit from an evaluation. A health insurance company, doctor, or local mental health agency are all places to seek an initial referral.
It’s great that you acknowledge how important it is to raise children with a healthy relationship to their bodies and their sexuality. Know that this love and care are key in keeping your daughter safe and healthy.