Is my 3 year old's sexual behavior normal?
Dear Stop It Now!,
My son is 3 years old. Yesterday he called his friend into his room and asked him to lie down on the bed to look at his body part. I am so worried what should I do? And two days before he was touching his own part and it was becoming hard. Why is he doing this? Can you please help me, what should I do?
Dear Concerned Parent,
As a parent, it can be very surprising to see your 3 year old son acting sexually with his friend. I’m so glad you’ve reached out to us to make sure that your son grows up healthy and informed.
Normal Curiosity or Concerning Behavior?
Children are in fact sexual beings, and even at his young age there are developmentally expected and Age-Appropriate Sexual Behaviors that you may recognize in your son. Even young toddlers can experience erections, and often they will start to explore with what feels good to them which may include exhibiting some self-stimulatory behavior.
The interaction between your son and his friend sounds like it was within the realm of normal exploratory behavior. A child his age may be curious not only about his body, but about his playmates’ bodies too. Experimenting may occur between same gendered or opposite gendered children, and could include touching, looking, or even showing their genitals to one another.
There are also a number of Concerning Behaviors Between Children that would signify that there may be something more serious going on. Behavior that is not worrisome generally occurs between children who are close in age and is spontaneous, and when discovered the children may be slightly embarrassed but not experience intense shame. After being corrected, these behaviors should diminish and then stop; interactions involving force, coercion, threats, or any mature activity would be concerning.
Everyday Moments as an Opportunity for Discussion
Any caregiver can use a question about sex or a child’s own body, or even an incident of normal curiosity – like your son wanting to see his friend’s penis – as a Teachable Moment to educate their child in a caring way about appropriate behavior. Your son is growing, and even at his young age, it is important to be giving him accurate and age-appropriate information about his body and sexuality. His own curiosity means that now would be a great time for you to start this important conversation with your son about your own values as well as the rules about physical interaction, space, and other privacy guidelines.
Talking About His Body and Body Boundaries
For example, you may choose to talk to your son – and perhaps your son’s friend as well – about what body rules everyone needs to follow, like:
- Everyone needs to keep their hands to themselves when playing: both children and adults.
- No one should ever ask you if they can touch or see your genitals, and no one should be showing or touching theirs in front of you either.
- The places we cover with a bathing suit are private. Unless you need help in the bathroom from your parents, or if you are at the doctor’s office getting a physical exam, no one should touch or see your genitals but you.
- If someone is asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, it is important to talk to a trusted adult.
Now that you know your son is exploring with his own body by touching himself, it would be helpful to also discuss when and where this is appropriate; touching himself in public is not okay, but you may catch him doing so every once in a while. React calmly and redirect him by letting him know this is a private activity. You may have your own values about masturbation, so I would encourage you to have a discussion with your son about them. For more information about this topic and how to start that conversation, please read: Helping Children Develop Healthy Sexual Behavior and Attitudes (Psychology Today).
It is also essential to teach your son the correct names of his anatomical parts. Sometimes children have different names for their vagina or penis, like their “cookie” or their “bird”. Why is this important? If your son is at school, and he tells the teacher that someone touched his bird, the teacher may brush it off because she assumes he’s talking about his pet, not his penis. This will help him communicate effectively about such an important topic: his body.
Prevention Through Safety Planning
Doing all that I’ve described above is what we call Safety Planning, which is a great proactive measure to help keep children safe. Understanding appropriate boundaries and Healthy Sexual Development helps kids know what is okay and also helps them recognize when something is not okay; they know what the rules are, what to call their body parts, and who to talk to – a trusted adult like you – whenever they feel scared or unsure, or if anyone ever breaks a rule with them. It fosters trust between you and your son, helps him grow up with good information, and also identifies you as someone who he can talk to about any difficult matter. Below I’ve also included some additional resources for you and your son on this topic that you may find useful.
- When Toddlers Touch Themselves: The Best Way to Handle a Touchy Situation (What To Expect): Article on why toddlers masturbate and how to address it.
- The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 (The Good Men Project): Blog post listing action items and teaching tools for parents and educators to help minimize sexual assault by teaching consent, empathy, and empowerment.
- Early, Open, Often: Videos emphasizing the need to talk about sexual abuse and body safety, and how you can start that conversation.
It sounds like you are a vigilant parent who is committed to your child’s wellbeing. I encourage you to continue to talk to your son about these vital subjects so he can be informed and stay safe.
Stop It Now!
Last edited on: November 8th, 2018