Keeping Privates Private
Q. My son is 2 years old and often will fondle his genitals in public. I don't want to make him feel ashamed of his body by reprimanding him, but I'd also like to help him break this habit. How can I handle this with care?
A. At 2 years old, your son is at the age when children begin exploring their bodies, including their genitals. You're wise to avoid attaching shame to this perfectly normal developmental phase. This is an opportunity to teach your son when and where it's appropriate to touch his body.
Bodies are God's beautiful creation. It is important to convey to your son that God made our bodies and that they are beautiful and pleasurable to touch. But teaching your son about the boundaries of touching in public is just as important. Explain to your child that touching his private parts or genitals should be done in private or when he is alone. I have found that Stan & Brenna Jones' book, How and When to Tell Your Kids About Sex (Navpress) is an excellent Christian resource on children's developing sexuality.
Check for self-soothing. If he continues to touch himself in public, your son might be struggling with anxiety. If so, touching his genitals could be a form of soothing himself. The next time you notice him touching himself, observe the situation and determine if he is anxious about something. Talk to him about his feelings. If he needs some form of comfort in public situations, suggest he bring along a favorite stuffed animal or blanket to hug or ask him to hold your hand instead of touching himself.
Check for attention-getting. While this behavior is more likely to occur in older children, be sure your son isn't feeling left out. Is this happening when you're out with other family members? If so, give your son a special job such as holding on to the stroller or keeping an eye on the baby's bottle. If it happens while you're out shopping or with other adults who are taking your focus off your child, make sure to check in with him often so he doesn't feel ignored.
Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy.
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