There are few things more likely to embarrass or shock you than seeing your three-year-old rub her private parts or your four-year-old touch himself, because you associate that sort of manual stimulation with sexual activity.
And what’s more annoying is that your child ignores your disapproving glare and simply continues with the rubbing motion.
Yet this form of physical stimulation is comforting for your kid, not sexual.
As far as your pre-schooler is concerned, touching himself is relaxing and soothing, in the same way that stroking his cheek might bring him a sense of ease.
A young child does not have the same sexual feelings as an adult. Rubbing himself in “that embarrassing little place” is a common action at this age, and he doesn’t realise the implications of this behaviour for an adult.
Nevertheless, you are right to be concerned. After all, such self-stimulation could create an adverse reaction from others around him, such as his friends, family and other adults.
The sight of an older child rubbing himself that way is more disturbing.
That’s why it is best to gently discourage the habit at this age, before it becomes too resistant to change.
Don’t make a big fuss, however. Your little one senses when he does something that really annoys you; he reads your body language and spoken language very well.
And if he knows that touching himself like that gets you wound up into a frenzy, then you might find this actually encourages the habit instead of diminishing it.
So resist the temptation to shame him or to angrily pull his hands away from that area of the body – that could create unnecessary confrontation and resistance. Don’t rush over, don’t pull furiously at his hands and don’t shout at him.
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Instead, take a more planned approach. The more effective strategy to stop your child is to gently say “no” and then immediately distract him with an unrelated activity.
For instance, bring out his favourite toy or game. You’ll find that he spontaneously stops rubbing himself, and that he becomes so absorbed playing with it that his hands don’t return to self-stimulation.
Any activity that engages his attention for at least a couple of seconds distracts him from the original activity.
This avoids battles between you and junior, and turns a potential source of conflict into an ordinary leisure activity.
If you find that he doesn’t reach for the toy even though he is fascinated by it, then simply place it in his hands.
Look for alternatives
Another strategy to discourage this behaviour is to re-direct him towards a different activity that provides the same emotional satisfaction.
Since his rubbing actions make him feel soothes and relaxed, think of other ways he could achieve the same effect and encourage those alternatives.
For instance, you could give him his favourite cuddly toy to hold the next time you notice he rubs himself between his legs. Both activities provide the same sensations.
You’ll find he willingly wraps his arms around the teddy, forgetting entirely what he was doing a few moments before.
Or, you could lift him up in your arms and give him a reassuring cuddle yourself. Your child’s instinctive reaction when he sees your arms stretching out lovingly towards him is to put his own out to meet you.
He does this spontaneously, without thinking about it. So the anticipation of a comforting hug replaces the sensations he gets from rubbing himself.
True, you need to be careful that you don’t inadvertently encourage other comfort habits that prove equally irksome for you, but this is unlikely to occur.