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Is My Grandaughter's Behavior Normal?

"We are raising our 3-year-old granddaughter and I'm concerned about something. Sometimes when I lay her down for her nap, she starts to masturbate. Sometimes she does it when she's experienced a stressful situation, but other times that's not the case. Is this normal?"

A. Between the ages of 3 and 5, young children discover all the parts of their bodies and what they do. They also discover the pleasurable sensation connected to touching their genitals. If your grandchild touches herself on an infrequent basis, it is normal and there is no cause for concern.

If, however, the masturbation seems frequent and seems connected with increased anxiety in your granddaughter, or if she is using masturbation as her primary means of self-soothing, then you need to check into things further. Ask her parent(s) or other adults who spend a lot of time with her whether they have noticed any masturbation. You'll also want to find out if she has been exposed to any new babysitters, male cousins, or provocative movies that might overstimulate a young child. If so, do what you can to keep her away from these influences.

If her touching seems connected to stress, teach your granddaughter other rituals and strategies for self-soothing before her nap. Read a story, play soft music, and find a tactile replacement (such as a soft stuffed animal) that she can pet to soothe herself.

In talking to your granddaughter about this, strike a balance between normalizing the touching while providing alternatives in a calm, neutral way. Gently explain that God made her body and it feels good to touch it, but that touching her private parts is something only to be done in a private location. She may be too young to verbalize why she masturbates, but if she is a good communicator, you could ask her why she likes to touch her body at naptime. Her answer may help guide the steps you take next.

I'd also recommend a book called All About Me (NavPress) by Stan & Brenna Jones. It offers solid, biblically based information about our bodies as God's creation, and on sexuality (in a broad sense) as a gift from God.

This is a delicate area of a child's development, so you are wise to put some thought into how you deal with the situation. Children who are punished for masturbating, especially at this tender age, often internalize on a deep level that sexual pleasure is bad and that God is not pleased with us when we enjoy it. As adults, these children may experience sexual problems in marriage. So tread carefully and lovingly.

Karen L. Maudlin, Psy.D., is the mother of two and a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in marriage and family therapy. She is the author of Sticks and Stones (W).

Winter 2002, Vol. 15, No. 2, Page 60

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