Sexual Curiosity in Young Children: An A-to-Z guide for parents

Most children experience sexual curiosity at about the same time they begin to look more like little boys and girls than like babies.


Introduction to sexual curiosity in young children:

When a parent catches a boy playing with his ears, questions may arise about ear infections, but when a parent catches a boy playing with his stiff penis, subterranean concerns, anxieties, guilts, shames, questions, and regrets often rumble and stir within — even if we believe that it’s normal behavior.

What is sexual curiosity in young children?

Babies will often tug on the genitals in much the same way they tug on the ears or toes. Toddlers will begin to recognize that the genitals are special. They are far more interesting and more fun than toes. For some children, playing with the genitals becomes a comforting behavior not unlike thumb sucking. For a few, this settles into a time-consuming habit that takes them away from other important play and development.

If we take a step back, we can see that it makes sense that kids would want to explore their own bodies. When toilet learning becomes a focus of interest, we might anticipate that kids would also be curious about those parts of the body that have in the past been largely hidden under the diapers. Many kids will reach down every chance they get. This exploration produces pleasurable feelings, as we are well aware.

This behavior is usually called early childhood masturbation, but the term is misleading. This is not genital stimulation accompanied by sexual fantasy – that will be another challenge to face years down the road.

Toddlers just do it because it feels good. Unselfconscious delight!

Who gets sexual curiosity in young children?

Most children begin to explore their genitals at about the same time they begin to look more like little boys and girls than like babies.

Most, if not all, two-year-olds will engage in some degree of this behavior.

What are the symptoms of sexual curiosity in young children?

Just when we are beginning to adjust to their not being babies anymore, we are confronted with the sight of our little boy fondling his erection or our little girl moving her hips up and down on top of her pillow.

Boys will play with their penises. Girls will finger their vaginas, and sometimes even try to insert objects.

Is sexual curiosity in young children contagious?


How long does sexual curiosity in young children last?

Some degree of genital exploration can be present throughout childhood (and beyond). Young children often lose interest for years at a time.

How is sexual curiosity in young children diagnosed?

Genital play is usually discovered when parents, relatives, day-care providers, or parents of friends observe the behavior. If the behavior seems to be an obsession, or otherwise out of balance, discuss this with your pediatrician. Further evaluation may be needed.

Genital play is a normal part of development, but in some children the degree or nature of genital play can be a sign of developmental difficulties or sexual abuse.

How is sexual curiosity in young children treated?

Directly trying to get toddlers to stop touching themselves is a battle you cannot win. You can’t just put the objects of their attention up on a high shelf out of reach. If you actively discourage kids from self-exploration, or if you punish them for “masturbating,” then genital play becomes a forbidden fruit.

Two things happen when something becomes a forbidden fruit. The fruit will be tasted when the opportunity arises, and people will hide what it is they have done. They will learn to hide their exploration from you. This shameful hiding is the one outcome you don’t want to produce.

If you feel that the genital play should be reigned in a bit, then I recommend that when you see it happening you pretend to ignore what he is doing. Try to distract him with some new engaging activity. Be as nonchalant as you can manage to be. (Rushing over out of breath is not subtle!) You want to communicate by your actions that he and his body are okay, but that there is also a whole world out there to discover and enjoy.

If the genital play becomes and remains a consuming passion, I would look for and address underlying reasons, rather than just trying to stop the behavior. Is the child tense and in extra need of comforting? Are people overreacting and thus reinforcing the habit? Is there a chronic, low-grade urinary tract infection or yeast infection? Is the child overstimulated and needing to soothe himself to withdraw? Is she under-stimulated and bored? Dealing with the cause will bring the behavior back to a level of enthusiasm that doesn’t take away from other interests.

How can sexual curiosity in young children be prevented?

My advice is not to try to stop this normal part of development.

One of our important responsibilities as parents is to teach our children about healthy sexuality. Of course, the many parents reading this will have wildly different ideas as to what constitutes healthy sexuality. They may even have different ideas than they did fifteen years ago. Whatever your values, you will want to communicate them to your children as the years go by. You will want to teach them that healthy sexuality is not dirty, nor is it cheap.

The key to passing on your values effectively is keeping the lines of respect and communication open.

All too quickly, our little ones will launch out on the turbulent seas of true adolescence. Only if we have maintained open communication and mutual respect can we offer any effective guidance during those critical years.

Genital play, Toddler masturbation

Last medical review on: January 12, 2014
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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