Sitting nervously in a chair, a young mother is having difficulty formulating the issue that brought her to the clinic. “See Dr. It’s embarrassing and I do not want you to think we are bad parents.”, She starts hoarsely whispering “my 3-year-old keeps humping her pillow it is almost like she is masturbating! We did not teach her that nor has she ever seen anything sexual”. Talking about masturbation makes people uncomfortable in general so imagine the difficulties people have with the topic when it comes to childhood masturbation.
So, is it normal? Does it happen?
The answer is yes.
In 1905 Sigmund Freud published his theory on the five psychosexual stages of development. This theory suggests psychological implications at a later stage of life if any of the phases were to be interrupted. These theories have long proven not to be applicable in psychology or psychiatry. However, they do give a good insight into the sexual development of humans. Each erogenous zone at a certain point in life serves as a source of pleasure. We will talk about the Freudian theories briefly to shed light on our stopic:
- Oral stage from 0-1 year: the infant mainly finds pleasure and discovers the world orally by suckling, swallowing, etc…
- Anal stage from 1-3 years: the child discovers pleasure in defecating and learning how to control it and becomes potty trained.
- The phallic stage lasts from 3-6 years: the child becomes aware of anatomical sex differences and their own genitalia. During this stage, they can start touching and exploring their genitalia. They can also develop a curiosity about the genitalia of other children.
- Latent stages from 6 years to puberty: the libido is dormant, and the child mainly develops new interests at school, hobbies, friendships, sports, etc…
- Genital stage from puberty into adulthood: in this final stage of psychosexual development adolescents start experimenting and their genital pleasure is more directed towards having pleasure with a partner.
Masturbation in Children
Returning to our nervous mother. Most children start touching and discovering their genitalia around the age of three. Around 50% of girls and 40% of boys discover some sort of pleasure or comfort given by touching or rubbing their genitalia. Girls usually do this by humping a pillow or a stuffed animal and/or wiggling on a chair. Boys mainly just put their hands in their pants. If an orgasm occurs, it is a coincidental finding, it is not something they aim to reach as adults do. It is also not something sex-related at all. It is merely done as a form of soothing when nervous or before they fall asleep.
Children usually outgrow this stage as they come more aware of their surroundings and the fact that such behavior is not socially accepted.
What to do as parents?
It is frustrating and embarrassing if your child does this and especially in public. However, by all means, do not shout and do not make them feel their genitalia are disgusting areas not to be touched. Between the ages of 3-6, children can be given simple instructions which they usually understand the reasoning behind. You can address that you understand that the touching of the genitalia can be a source of comfort and good feelings but it should not be done and certainly not in public just like you don’t urinate or defecate in public. You can also distract them with an activity when you notice it happening. Moreover, you can figure out a time when it is usually done to soothe them. If your child insists on continuing this behavior, it is best to make an agreement on where and when this can be done and then ignore it.
It is a developmental phase that they outgrow and is not at all a source of alarm.
If your child starts masturbating incessantly accompanied by behavioral changes like being aggressive or withdrawn, not sleeping well, bed wetting, and losing control over defecation continuously, keep sexual abuse in mind and consult a specialist. Less than one percent of children that masturbate have been sexually abused. However, if accompanied by any of the symptoms mentioned above it is always better to be safe than sorry.