My three year old daughter has a fascination with her genitals and I recently witnessed her masturbating. Should I be concerned with this behavior? I am worried that she will be an overly sexual teen/adult.
Worried Mom in America
A: Masturbating is normal at any age. It feels good. It’s actually a good idea.
There are certain ages where this behavior will peak. You can guess which ages those are if you think about the ages at which kids are most self-involved. The preschool years and the young-mid teen years are the true heights of existential existence. So for your 3 year old (and for a 13 year old), they live by the precept “If it feels good, do it.”
Should you be worried? No. Should you guide your child? Sure! This behavior is private. This is OK when you’re alone, in the bathroom or your bedroom. This isn’t something to do with other people around.
The important point here is to teach your daughter discretion without teaching her shame. Learning about her body, what feels good and what all the parts are for, is an important step on the road to being a healthy young adult. You want her to someday be an adult who does not let someone else touch her in a way she doesn’t like. Teaching her both privacy and pride directly affect her ability to protect herself and advocate for herself in the future.
Will she be “overly sexual” later? Masturbation does not lead to promiscuity. Earlier I said it’s a good idea. Why? Teens who (on anonymous surveys) give high scores for masturbation and comfort with themselves often delay sex with others. Perhaps this is because they can explore these feelings alone, perhaps it is because they can better communicate what they do and don’t want to do. Maybe it’s because sex for teens tends to be messy, embarrassing, often terrifying and about 17 seconds from start to finish. The kids who can achieve orgasm alone may realize how much better it is!
All kids have sexual and sensual feelings. We each have a drive to explore these feelings (or we would never have kids). Consider this: would you rather your tween or teen try to satisfy these urges alone or with a friend? Many kids respond to their sex drive with experimentation. Having the knowledge and skills to satisfy their sexual hungers on their own can give them extra strength to avoid sexual situations they aren’t ready for. Pretending our children don’t have an inborn sexual drive will only increase their risk of bad outcomes later, like STDs and teen parenting.
Worried Mom, you are at the perfect spot for growing a girl who has healthy respect for her sexual appetites and also connects the ideas of privacy and limits to her exploration. Congratulations for already starting to think critically about what your daughter is doing and why.
Dr. Doom disclaimer: Children who suddenly become much more sexual at any age may be a victim of sexual abuse. This behavior usually represents itself in more than one way. Masturbating alone is not usually such an indicator. Children in this situation will often show behavior change as well, some becoming withdrawn or aggressive, behaving suddenly different towards men/teen boys. If you have ANY concerns about this, speak to your child’s doctor or seek out advocacy in your area.
Remember: Good parents can end up with a child who has been sexually abused by someone. Good parents ask and listen. Good parents look for the truth even if it is hard!
Some resources if you are worried about sexual abuse are:
What to do if you feel your child has been sexually abused.