My friend's 6 yr old appears to be masturbating - should she be worried?
Rest assured that masturbation is a healthy part of growing up. The practice can start in infancy and continue right through adulthood.
Young children masturbate for the same reason that older children (and adults) do: It feels good! Body exploration and masturbation is normal in babies, toddlers and children.
Masturbation is a completely normal thing to do. It doesn't cause physical harm, pose a health risk, or mean your child is going to turn into a sex maniac. Masturbation in young children isn't sexual (as it is for adults) because young children don't know what sex is.
And although explicit sex play in older children is often a tip-off to sexual abuse or exposure to inappropriate sexual material, this is extremely unlikely to be the case with young children like this 6 year old. They simply don't have the imaginative skills for this kind of behavior. (A young child who's been sexually abused is more likely to become withdrawn or suddenly have trouble sleeping.)
That said, young children masturbate because it feels good, and the good feelings can be as pleasurable for her as they are for adults. A child may masturbate herself to orgasm complete with panting, red face, and a big sigh at the end. But it's absolutely not something to be worried about.
Of course, just like anything else, when it comes to masturbation too much of a good thing may indicate a problem. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if a child masturbates constantly or excessively it may be a sign she's feeling anxious, emotionally overwhelmed, or isn't getting enough attention at home
Why does she masturbate?
Up to a third of children in this age group discover masturbation while exploring their bodies. Often they continue to masturbate simply because it feels good. Some children masturbate frequently because they are unhappy about something, such as having their pacifier taken away. Others are reacting to punishment or pressure to stop masturbation completely.
Masturbation has no medical causes. Irritation in the genital area causes pain or itching; it does not cause masturbation.
How long does it last?
Once a child discovers masturbation, he or she will seldom stop doing it completely. Your child may not do it as often if any associated power struggles or unhappiness are remedied. By age 5 or 6, most children can learn some discretion and will masturbate only in private. Masturbation becomes almost universal at puberty in response to the normal surges in hormones and sexual drive.
Will masturbation cause problems later in life?
Masturbation does not cause any physical injury or harm to the body. It is not abnormal or excessive unless it is deliberately done in public places after age 7 or 8. It does not mean this child will be oversexed, promiscuous, or sexually deviant. Only if adults overreact to a child's masturbation and make it seem dirty or wicked will it cause emotional harm, such as guilt and sexual hangups.
Most parents stop their children when they catch them playing with themselves. That reaction's okay, but how the parents react to this behavior can be very important to their children's sexual development.
Teaching children that our society frowns on enjoying any form of sexual pleasure in public is fine. Try to pass along this information without giving children the idea that masturbation (or sex) is bad, per se. If you yell at your children when they play with themselves or slap their hands, they're going to get the wrong message: that sexual pleasure, in and of itself, is bad. As a result, when these children become adults, they may not allow themselves to fully enjoy sex.
You can teach children not to pick their noses in front of others without giving them a complex, so you should be able to do the same thing about touching their "private parts" by saying, "We touch our private parts in private places." Probably the reason that many parents have difficulties in this particular area is that they were made to feel ashamed when they were little, and they still haven't overcome those feelings themselves. So parents end up passing on these feelings of shame to their children.
How can your friend help her child?
1. Have realistic goals.
It is impossible to eliminate masturbation. Accept the fact that this child has learned about it and enjoys it. The only thing you can control is where he or she does it. A reasonable goal is to permit it in the bedroom and bathroom only. She might say to the child, "It's OK to do that in your bedroom when you're tired." If you completely ignore the masturbation, no matter where it's done, your child will think he or she can do it freely in any setting.
2. Ignore masturbation at naptime and bedtime.
Leave the child alone at these times and do not keep checking on her. Do not forbid her from lying on the abdomen and do not ask if her hands are between the legs.
3. Distract or discipline your child for masturbation at other times.
First try to distract the child with a toy or activity. If this fails, tell your friend to explain to your child: "I know that feels good, and it's okay to do it in your room or the bathroom, but do not do it in the rest of the house or when other people are around." By the time children are 4 or 5 years old, they become sensitive to other people's feelings and understand that they should masturbate only when they are alone. Younger children may have to be sent to their rooms to masturbate.
4. Increase physical contact with your child.
Some children will masturbate less if they receive extra hugging and cuddling throughout the day. Try to be sure that your friends child receives at least 1 hour every day of special time together and physical affection from you.
5. Common mistakes.
The most common mistake that parents make is to try to eliminate masturbation completely. This leads to a power struggle which the parents inevitably lose. Children should not be physically punished for masturbation, nor yelled at or lectured about it. Do not label masturbation as bad, dirty, evil, or sinful, and do not tie a child's hands or use any kind of restraints. All of these approaches lead only to resistance and possibly later to sexual inhibitions.
I hope this has answered all your questions and has eliminated your fears and concerns.