Touching genitals is a totally normal thing for kids to do.
Sometimes it can feel like young boys can't stop their hands gravitating down their pants, and that can be less than ideal on your weekly grocery trip. You don't want to shame your child for doing something that feels natural, but at the same time, it might feel as though you need to put limits in place.
Knowing how to handle boys playing with their penises can be a strange and tricky thing to navigate as a parent, and is probably one of the challenges you weren't expecting when you signed up to having a kid. Get some advice on what to do here, and check out our articles on discipline versus punishment and dealing with an emotional meltdown for more advice.
Why Do Toddlers Play With Their Private Parts?
There are tons of reasons why boys play with themselves, and on the whole, they are totally normal.
Just like grown-ups, boys might just be rearranging their genitals for comfort, or because they are scratching an itch. Unlike grown-ups, young kids haven't learned where it is and isn't acceptable to do these things, so you might get a shock when they start fiddling around down there in the middle of the grocery store.
You might have started noticing your child playing with their genitals when they started potty training. This is because they suddenly have easy access to that part of themselves. Toddlers are used to wearing a diaper and are now getting to grips (quite literally) with the different parts of their body.
Kids will start to learn that touching this area feels more pleasurable than other parts of their body. It's very common for boys playing with themselves to experience a natural erection when touching their penis too. We might feel shocked or worried if our child is constantly touching his penis or holding his penis because we associate arousal with adult sex. It's important to remember that a child doesn't understand that context. We need to tread carefully around the subject so that we don't create shame around certain parts of our children's bodies. A lot of the time, the touching is completely unconscious, or your child will be doing it as a way to feel comforted.
Should I Be Worried About It?
Most of the time, a child playing with their genitals is just their way of exploring their own body. However, if you notice that your little one has started touching their genitals more frequently it might be a good idea to check for any underlying health or medical issues, like a fungal infection or dermatological condition. Check for bleeding, flaky skin, swelling, trouble urinating, redness or skin discoloration, and any pain that your child is complaining about, and contact your child's doctor if you notice these to get some more information.
Even though we might feel uncomfortable when our kids do certain things, that's usually just because of our adult perspective. If your child touches their genitals in public, uses objects to touch their genitals, or shows them to others, these are all normal toddler behaviors.
There are times when your child might cross the line from normal behaviors to something that needs more serious attention, and that usually arises when children are playing together. If you notice one child trying to force another into sex play that feels inappropriate, or there's an age difference of more than three years between kids, and if these kinds of things happen on multiple occasions despite careful intervention, it might be time to seek professional help or terminate a friendship. If this is happening between siblings, it's a good idea to seek professional help.
What Should I Be Doing About It?
If your child keeps playing with his penis in public and you'd rather he didn't then there are a few things you can do to stop it from happening while making sure your little one keeps a positive relationship with his body.
If you're out in public try not to bring too much attention to what they are doing. Instead, distract them by redirecting their hands to something new, like a toy or book. You can also ask them to point at something to change their focus.
Start talking about what times and places are appropriate and inappropriate for touching that area. Be clear and concise and make sure you aren't using shameful language, just tell them that school or out at the shops are not places to touch your penis, but that doing it in private is perfectly OK.
If your child is touching their penis at home and it's bothering you, it's important not to shame them into stopping, as this could cause them to carry those feelings into adulthood. This is something that feels good to your child, so it is confusing if you tell them it's wrong. It can be a much better tactic just to offer them something else to play with.
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