It’s normal for children to show an interest in their private parts, but is there such thing as too much interest?
It’s a question many parents have but a situation that can be difficult to address. While parents want to enforce appropriate guidelines for their kids, they also don’t want to instill shame about a natural curiosity.
Dr. Georgia Michalopoulou, the chief of staff for child psychiatry and psychology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, says sexual development starts at birth and even infants can be observed touching their genitals between diaper changes.
“A more purposeful interest in sexual parts is evident between the age of 2 to 4 during the time that toilet training takes center stage,” says Michalopoulou. “Children start to recognize that genitals have a special function and they show much curiosity and fascination with them.”
Toddlers, for example, often enjoy being naked and have fun playing with their body, she says. As they explore, it’s also normal for children to find that it feels good to touch their private parts.
“Curiosity and exploration about body parts are part of normal development,” Michalopoulou says.
But it’s not surprising that this presents a tricky situation for many parents, who often feel unsure how to react. Responding with sensitivity is key, she says.
“Parents should react tactfully and without criticism when they see their little boys or little girls touch their genitalia,” Michalopoulou says. “They can tell their son or daughter that this is a private behavior, which can take place in their room when they are by themselves but not in public.”
Teaching kids about private parts
Parents are encouraged to use real names to label private body parts to help communicate openness and acceptance of the body, Michalopoulou says.
“It tells children that private parts are OK and they too are part of the body,” she says.
It’s also important to teach children that the areas of the body that are covered by underwear are private and shouldn’t be exposed in public, she says.
Teaching accurate names for private parts also gives parents the opportunity to introduce the topic of “good touch” and “bad touch” to their children as a safety measure.
“Parents should start this discussion as early as possible and let children know that ‘good touch’ feels comfortable, comforting and soothing. For instance when mom and dad caresses them, gives them a hug or a kiss or tickles them,” Michalopoulou says. “‘Bad touch’ feels uncomfortable, wrong or painful.”
Parents should tell their children not to allow anyone to touch them in their private areas and to tell a trusted adult if they experience an uncomfortable touch by someone, even if that person is a family member or friend, she says.
When to be concerned
If a child’s interest in their genitals or touching seems excessive, there are a few considerations parents can keep in mind. Whether or not professional help is needed depends on the child’s age, developmental stage, and the frequency and intensity of behavior, Michalopoulou says.
“The degree and intensity of sexual touching and self-stimulation can be an important factor that differentiates normal genital curiosity and play from abnormal preoccupation with genitals and possible sexual abuse,” she says.
She says behaviors that generally require a professional evaluation include the following:
- Excessive preoccupation with sexual play, sexual acts or words
- Repetitive, secretive sexual play with other children
- Reenactment of sexual acts
- Display of private parts in public
- Imitating sexual acts by using toys or other objects
- Change in behavioral patterns (sleeping, eating, mood)
Parents might also be concerned that a child’s frequent touching could cause a medical problem. Parents should consult a pediatrician if their child has genital pain, bleeding or discharge, pain during urination or bowel movements, or wetting/soiling accidents after toilet training has been established, Michalopoulou says.
This post was originally published in 2015 and is updated regularly.