‘Ever since she got out of nappies, my daughter has her hands in her pants whenever she gets the chances, I know that’s supposed to be normal, but it bothers me – specially when she does it in public places.’
Up until now, your daughter’s private parts have been largely out of her reach – under wraps, so to speak. With the switch to training pants, they have become much more accessible. The potty-learning process has also made them a focus of attention, heightening her awareness of her body.
For the toddler, explorations of all kinds are normal. Her exploration of her genitals is no less innocent than her exploration of her fingers and toes, her belly button and her ears. While curiosity generally prompts the initials round of genital exploration, the toddler usually note that touching her genitals feels good, and it is that discovery that brings her hands back there again and again. This may look like masturbation, but in toddlers it isn’t (not even in little boys, who experience erections when they handle their penis). The feeling may be pleasurable but it is not sexual.
Keeping after your child to keep her hands out of her pants will only make the activity appear more enticing. It will also give her the idea that the good feelings she’s discovered are wicked or forbidden, instead of normal and healthy. The best approach? At home, ignore the behaviour.
If her hand begins meandering into her pants at play group or on a play date and this makes you uncomfortable, try to tempt her into another hands-on activity, such as shape-sorting or building with bricks. If her head remains steadfastly at its station, give up and look the other way.
Touching in more public settings, however, should be discouraged. Not because there’s anything wrong with the behaviour but because it’s considered inappropriate in public – and because it could trigger dangerous impulses in a paedophile viewing it. So begin early to explain to your toddler the difference between ‘private’ and ‘public’, and that some things that are fine to do in private are not okay in public. If she forgets your admonitions, and slips her hand into her pants when you’re on an outing, quietly remind her. Take hold of her hand, give it a squeeze, distract her, and praise her for being ‘big enough’ to save her touching for home.
Some children hold their genitals when they have to urinate, as if they think this will help them to ‘hold it in.’ If your toddler’s genitals handling seems related to potty accidents, routinely ask her if she has to go to the potty when you see her hand wander.
Occasionally, a child will spend most of her waking hours fingering her genitals. Like any other comfort habit that interferes with day-to-day functioning, this behaviour could be rooted in fear of anxieties. But just as often they are related to others kinds of stress (a new baby-sitter, moving to a new home, a parent going off to work, and so on). Only rarely, it may be related to sexual abuse. If your child seems obsessed with her genitals, consult with her doctor.