Advice from parenting expert and clinical psychologist David Coleman on how best to deal with a five-year-old daughter's masturbation.
Q. My five-year-old daughter was constantly "grinding" on her chair in school last year and I had numerous meetings with her teacher. She has done this grinding since she was a baby. I can remember her doing it in her high chair and she also does it in her car seat. She can't seem to stop herself and I can only assume she enjoys the feeling it's giving her. I don't want the other kids to start noticing her doing it and start picking on her. Can I, and should I, try to stop her doing it or is it something she will grow out of?
David replies: For your daughter, as with any child, the sensory experience of touching her genitals against different surfaces (or for other children with their own hands) is pleasurable. Occasional masturbation, like this, is also completely normal. What might make it problematic is the frequency, intensity or public nature of her "grinding".
For most children, engaging in such self-gratification is an occasional tension release, a response to boredom or a need for some comfort. Some young children will be entirely unselfconscious, like your daughter, and some will be more discreet.
By age five, most typically, children will have learned to keep any masturbation private. This is due to their own growing self-consciousness and because their parents have probably been reminding them of the need for privacy for some time.
Your daughter either hasn't received this message, or has ignored it because the stimulation she receives from the "grinding" is so pleasurable that it overwhelms her. It may also be something that is so habitual that she just isn't aware enough to be able to consciously stop or distract herself.
I do think, because of her age, that you would be wise to intervene.
You do need to help her to become aware of her behaviour. You will need to be clear with her that the masturbation itself is not a bad thing, but that the public nature of how she engages in it is problematic.
It will help to know why she masturbates so frequently. Is it to do with pure habit? To do with comfort at times of stress? To do with filling in time when she is not engaged or focused on anything else? Or, is it mainly to do with seeking out the intense pleasure of the physical experience?
There are two key aspects to helping her change her behaviour. The first is to raise her awareness of what she is doing. So, every time, she "grinds" you need to let her know that you notice it. Then she needs to be steered to a more appropriate time or place.
Linking the "private" nature of her genitals to the need to keep any touching of these parts equally private will help your daughter to understand a consistent message. Again, you are explaining that rubbing those private parts is not a bad thing, but it is only okay to rub them in private.
It will also help to find a way to distract her, or to engage her in a more appropriate behaviour. This is where understanding the main reason why she grinds is helpful as it might indicate the best kind of distraction.
So, some other comforting behaviour, like getting a foot rub, or back massage might help. Or, she may just need to get up and start moving, or get focused on some other task that will keep her mind from drifting.
You don't mention how she is getting on in school this year, but you definitely need to talk to her teacher again this year as he, or she, also needs to understand the plan and have some way to adapt it to the classroom.
Creating some kind of signal, that the teacher and your daughter are aware of, will allow the teacher to alert your daughter to the fact that she is masturbating.
Then, like at home, you and the teacher need to find some creative ways to distract her or divert her attention.
Hopefully, the repeated awareness-raising and distraction will help your daughter to become discreet and private such that she keeps her "grinding" to moments of secluded contemplation, reducing the frequency and intensity to a more appropriate level.