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Is masturbation inappropriate for four-year-olds?
by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
See Aletha Solter's books, The Aware Baby and Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), for more information about masturbation in young children.
My four-year-old seems to use pillows and blankets (balled up) to put under her and rock back and forth on, like she is getting somehow stimulated. How can I break this habit, and should I be worried about it? Is this normal?
Your daughter's behavior sounds like a form of masturbation. This is often a concern for parents, but it is usually nothing to worry about. Some children discover the pleasurable sensations from rubbing their genitals, while others don't. In either case, it is quite normal.
In the past, children were severely humiliated and punished for masturbating. Nowadays, most psychologists (myself included) think that it's important for healthy sexual development to let children know that it is okay to feel pleasure from self-stimulation. However, it is also necessary to teach children that this behavior is something to do in private.
You can say to your daughter, "It feels good to rub yourself like that. But it's something that people do in private, just like going to the toilet." If she forgets, and stimulates herself when you have visitors, you can gently draw her attention to her behavior (privately), acknowledge that it feels good, and remind her of what you said. Try to avoid making your daughter feel that she's doing something wrong. It is inappropriate to punish her or send her to her room. A gentle reminder should be sufficient, just as you would remind her not to pick her nose in public.
Even though masturbation is quite normal, it can also be an indication of stress or sexual abuse. I will briefly discuss these two possible underlying causes.
Children who are stressed sometimes develop self-stimulating behaviors such as thumb sucking, self-rocking, or masturbation. These can be an indication that a child is holding in painful emotions. If you think that your daughter is using masturbation in this way, it would be useful to look for possible sources of stress in her life, and to reduce stress, if possible. She would also benefit from being allowed greater freedom to release painful emotions, as described in my books.
Another possible cause of masturbation is sexual abuse. Children who have been sexually fondled develop a precocious awareness of their genitals, and often begin to masturbate. If you notice other symptoms of sexual abuse (such as an increase in fears or nightmares, regression in toileting habits, social withdrawal, or reluctance to stay with a specific person), then you should consider the possibility of sexual abuse.
If your daughter is otherwise happy, outgoing, and healthy, however, you probably don't need to be too concerned about her self-stimulating behavior.
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Cooperative and Connected (a revised edition of Helping Young Children Flourish), Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.