Sexpert Q/A – Genital playing in public

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Naughty toddler
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Reader question:

I have spoken with my 4 year old son about not playing with his genitals in public but if I’m not there to take his hands away, he keeps doing it. Recently he’s been doing it at school, in assembly! Is this normal? I don’t understand why he’s doing it and I also don’t know what else I can say, I don’t want to give him a complex but it’s just not appropriate.

Mother to a 4 year old boy, Western Australia

Sexpert response:

Sexpert, Desiree Spierings BA (Psych) MHSc (Sexual Health); Sex Therapist; Relationship Counsellor; Director of Sexual Health Australia and Editorial Advisory Board Member of Virtual Medical Centre and Parenthub responds:

Desiree SpieringsIt is important to know that we are a sexual being from birth to death and a person’s sexuality will develop gradually throughout life. Depending on a child’s stage of sexual development they will display different kinds of healthy sexual behaviours. These behaviours can include asking questions, touching, displaying an interest, talking about it, and so on and is not just about actual sex.

Parents need to monitor whether the sexual behaviour their child displays is within the normal range for their age and development or whether it is not. A traffic light system is normally used to identify whether the behaviour is either within the red, orange, or green category. Red sexual behaviours are inappropriate behaviours for the child’s age and stage of development. These can be excessive, compulsive, secretive and extreme, and indicate a strong need to provide immediate action, protection and follow up.

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Then we have the orange behaviours, which are less extreme than red ones but are still a risk to the health and safety of the child or others and are a cause for concern because of their intensity, frequency or duration of behaviours. These sexual behaviours signal the need to monitor and provide extra education and support.

And then we have the green behaviours, which are the healthy normal sexual behaviours appropriate to the child’s age and development and might be spontaneous, light-hearted, derived out of curiosity, exploring and learning.

It is important to note that when children are displaying inappropriate sexual behaviours for their age and development, it is caused by two factors, either experience or exposure. So they have either had an inappropriate sexual experience or they have been exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Also it is important that we try to understand the behaviour, as all behaviours have a function and reflect a need. When we address the need, the behaviour might change.

When looking at your four year old boy, it is within the green category to be touching and holding his own genitals and to display unselfconscious masturbation. When he does this take this as a wonderful opportunity to talk, explain, and foster learning.

If we then try to understand the actual behaviour, it may be out of curiosity or exploration that he is doing it, or simply because it feels good. A suggestion could then be to explain in more detail to him that it is a private behaviour and that it is okay to touch and feel when in a private space, such as his room or the bathroom, but not in front of others. However, it can also be caused by boredom and then giving him more interesting activities to do may solve the issue.

Please keep an eye out on the behaviour though and if he starts to masturbate in preference to other activities it means it starts to move into the orange category and it signals a need for additional monitoring and extra support.

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Date Created: January 30, 2014 Date Modified: May 19, 2017