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Why is my toddler touching himself in public?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

I am writing to you from India. My 2 and a half year old boy is touching his genitals and anus in public. Why is he doing all this? Is it curiosity or abnormal?

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

Children’s sexual behavior can be confusing, alarming, or embarrassing – especially when it happens in public. But your son’s touching sounds like it might be Age-Appropriate Sexual Behavior

Why It Happens
You’re right - this starts as curiosity. When children are young it is natural and healthy for them to explore their bodies, and in the process they may learn that touching certain parts of their bodies feels good. Because this is natural, they may not think of it as a “private” activity. So they repeat this, even in situations where it may not be appropriate.

Children sometimes also touch themselves for comfort when they’re anxious or stressed, or to release energy when they’re overstimulated. Maybe it’s very exciting or overwhelming when your son goes out in public and this is how he makes himself feel better. 

What You Can Do
You can talk with your son about this behavior and help him learn where is okay and not okay to touch himself. You can start to teach him that touching his penis is only for private, and not for public. You can also try giving him other outlets for his excitement or restlessness (like a toy or activity), or redirect him when he starts to touch himself in public.

If your son won’t stop touching his genitals even when you redirect him or he touches himself so often that he doesn’t take part in other play or exploration, it may be time to see his doctor. You can explain your concern and your doctor can examine him for any possible underlying conditions. His doctor can also be a great source of information about child development and healthy behaviors.

Sex Education For Parent and Child
It may help you to take a look at What To Expect’s When Toddlers Touch Themselves. The Lucy Daniels Center’s Protecting Children from Overstimulation also does a good job of explaining children’s natural excitable nature, although we understand not all of the suggestions in this article may be culturally relevant outside of the US. 

This is a good time to start learning and teaching about Healthy Sexuality in ways that meet your son’s age and understanding. While our resources are geared to the US, some of the information may still be helpful in understanding your son’s behavior and how to respond.

Preventative Steps
Now that your son is expressing sexual curiosity it’s also a good time to start Safety Planning – please see our advice column, What preventative steps can I teach a 3 year old

It’s great that you’re paying close attention to your son’s behaviors and reaching out for help when you have questions. I hope this information was helpful and wish you the best in growing and learning with your child.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: March 20th, 2017