Self-pleasure is a comforting behavior. Regardless of age or sex, it releases the same feel good chemicals in all our brains, and becomes a natural urge that most children feel at some point or another. Very often, the first time happens by accident. A child will discover that certain movements or activities cause a tickling sensation, they discover that this makes them feel good, and might repeat this behavior whenever they need comforting or stimulation. For children under the age of around 10, this behavior does not hold the same sexual meaning that it does for us as adults. For the vast majority of children, self-pleasure is just that, a way to make themselves feel good. Some children do it to help themselves sleep, while others might do it out of boredom.

Another behavior that is extremely common, and also tends to distress many parents, is children playing with other kids in ways that adults interpret as sexual. Very often, children are simply exploring their own bodies and the bodies of their friends, realizing that boys and girls have different parts. Kids often like to expose various body parts to each other, sometimes touching, or sometimes playing games like “Doctor”. To them, these are all games that feed their curiosity and help with social bonding.

Parents can easily lose sight of this, especially in an era where sex is everywhere and children are being exposed to more and more, at a much younger age. There is also the issue of harassment or abuse, which is now something many parents are constantly on the lookout for, so any sexual activity becomes a potential red flag. While it may be understandable that there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the topic of sexuality and self-stimulation in children, this anxiety tends to transfer over to the children, and could potentially cause problems later in life. All this is magnified if you’re living in the Middle East, where any overtly sexual behaviour is culturally unacceptable. So while most parents may not want to allow or encourage such behavior, few want to do something that could lead to their children having an unhealthy relationship with their body, or an unhealthy understanding of their sexuality.

So, what is the correct way to deal with this? Here are a few tips that any parent can use if they find out their child is self-stimulating or playing inappropriately.

Keep your cool
Be careful not to overreact, which will only distress your child and discourage them from confiding in you in the future. You don’t want to shame them or make them feel guilty, you want them to understand what is and isn’t appropriate, and remaining calm is essential to that. It’s important that other caretakers, like grandparents or aunts, understand this too.

Try not to pay too much attention to the matter, as this can sometimes lead to the behavior reoccurring. Don’t forget, most children enjoy any extra attention they can get, and many children will engage in behaviors they know will get a reaction out of the adults around them.

Talk to your child
Instead of telling your child that this is “bad” and that they shouldn’t do it, ask them why they are doing it. How does it make them feel? Encouraging open and honest dialogue with your child will benefit both of you in the long run. It is also important to rule out the possibility of infection, which is common in young children and often causes them to itch uncontrollably.

Teach them good hygiene
Realistically, you only have so much control over what your children do while you’re not looking, so it helps to provide them with the necessary information so that if they do engage in any self-stimulation, they are at the very least able to protect themselves from bacterial infection, which is especially common in young girls.

Teach them about privacy and boundaries
A big concern for many parents is that their child will engage in these behaviors in front of others, whether at school or around family. Explain to your child that certain activities are best done in private, or only around very specific individuals. You can use going to the toilet or showering as examples of this. For children that are exposing themselves or touching other children inappropriately, the “Bathing Suit Rule” is a great way to teach them that certain body parts are to be kept private. Any part of our body that is covered by our bathing suits is a “private part” and is only to be exposed in specific situations, such as when we are in the bathroom, or in front of very specific people.

Teach your child to say no
Teach them that their body belongs to them, and that they can and should say “No” when someone wants to touch them in one of their “Bathing Suit Parts”, and especially if a stranger tries to touch them.

While most of the time sexual behavior in children is normal and can be dealt with using the above mentioned strategies, there are a few things to look out for. Pressuring or forcing other kids into playing secretive games, repeated exposure of body parts in school age children, and an excessive pre-occupation with sexual parts, words or activities can all be an indication that there is something that needs addressing. It could be that the child has been exposed to something sexual in nature, or it could mean that they are distressed and have resorted to self-stimulation as a way to cope. If you notice any of these excessive behaviors in your child it is best to seek the help of a professional. Similarly, if you have tried the strategies discussed in this article and your child still persistently engages in inappropriate behavior, a professional can help you determine the underlying cause, as well as appropriate interventions that can be used.