PARENTING DILEMMA: “My toddler is touching herself. What should I say?”

Most parents expect their kids to start exploring their bodies when they hit puberty, as a normal part of self-exploration. But how would you handle it if you saw your pre-schooler doing it?

That was the situation that a listener put to Mamamia‘s parenting podcast This Glorious Mess.

Sarah, from Western Australia, said:

“My two and a half year old daughter has been lying on the couch on her belly with her hands in her underpants and wriggling around.

“I ended up saying something to my husband, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, she does it all the time’. I asked him, ‘What do you do when she does it?’, he said ‘I tell her to stop it.’

“I don’t want to embarrass her, so I don’t know what to do. I think it’s fine that she’s doing something that feels good for herself.”

What’s a parent to do if their two-year-old is humping the family couch? We ask an expert.

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Sarah did firmly believe “it’s something she needs to do in her own room” but needed help on the language to use, worried about giving her child a complex on what she feels is natural behaviour.

So TGM hosts Andrew Daddo and Holly Wainwright called Dr. Fiona Martin, of Sydney Child’s Psychology Centre, to seek professional advice.

Dr Martin confirmed that as a psychologist, she’s come across this issue many times in her practice, and it’s common for parents to differ in their approach.

But while each parent’s perspective is understandable, Dr Martin emphasised it’s very important to communicate to children that what they’re doing is normal, and “not to make a big deal about it.”

“Essentially, they’re just exploring their bodies and from a young age, how you respond and react to that will create the foundation for how they will internalise their feelings about their behaviour, and their thoughts about any kind of pleasurable association that they have about it.”

So whilst parents are often loathe to consider their children as people who will have sexual feelings later in life, it’s vital they consider it when addressing any behaviour, and they should especially avoid shaming or punishing the behaviour, which could affect the way their children relate to their bodies for years to come.

So, what can or should parents say?

“Don’t say they shouldn’t explore their bodies. The best approach is to put boundaries around the behaviour,” advises Dr Martin.

The most appropriate boundary is to make it clear that self-exploration should be done in private. She acknowledged that such a boundary can be hard to enforce for a two and a half year old – but not impossible.

Dr Martin used the example of a client who noticed her three-year-old exhibiting similar behaviour, and the mother’s response was perfect. Whenever she noticed her daughter exploring herself, she called it “stretches” – and asked her to “do her stretches in her bedroom.”

Holly Wainwright loved that matter-of-fact-suggestion, “Just give it name and say do it in your room.”

It was a simple approach to what’s a potentially complicated issue for many parents. As Andrew Daddo pointed out, the discussion was a great example of why parents should keep talking to each other when they face a dilemma, as they’ll find out that they’re not alone.

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