I am concerned about my 4-year-old daughter who will lie on the floor or couch very regularly and rub herself against her hand until her face is red and she is out of breath. If I play, or do an activity, with her she won’t do this but if she is left to free-play, she will often resort to this habit. It’s like she goes into a trance. It is clear to me that she gets comfort from this habit. Is this normal? Is there anything I can do?
It can be quite normal for small children to discover that touching themselves on their genitals can be very pleasurable. As you describe for your daughter, with the “trance” she seems to be in, it can become something very comforting and soothing, and children can rely on it in the same way that they use a “blankie” or other soother, when they are tired, bored or just want to zone out. With the Covid-19 restrictions it has probably become even easier and maybe more attractive for her to zone out and she may be less occupied now that she isn’t in school or preschool.
Even though she won’t have a conscious understanding of the sexual nature of her behaviour, she will still enjoy the physical pleasure that touching herself will create. As adults we see the sexual nature of it, but from her perspective, it is simply a behaviour that she can do that feels really good.
Needless to say, being able to easily access this kind of pleasure can be fully absorbing and intensely reinforcing, so children can end up stuck in a very strong habit. Try not to let your own sexual mores influence your response to her, as the masturbation itself is not wrong or bad. You don’t want her to develop some kind of sexual taboo related to her genitals or her self-touching. Your daughter simply needs to learn that there is a time and place for masturbating, and that time and place is somewhere private where it doesn’t disturb anyone else.
You do need to be realistic that your goal is to reduce the frequency and public nature of her masturbation not to stop her masturbating entirely. That is why the message she needs to get from you always needs to be about being in private.
That means that at any other time, when she is in public areas of the house, you need to interrupt her behaviour, acknowledging that it might feel good to touch herself, but that she needs to be private about doing it. So, the very clear and firm verbal message is that rubbing herself like this is not okay right now, because she is in the sitting room, or kitchen or wherever.
Perhaps you can say something like, “It looks like it feels really good to be rubbing yourself. It is okay to do that alone in your bedroom or the bathroom. However, you may not rub yourself like that in other parts of the house or when there are other people around.”
Since you know that distraction is effective in keeping her otherwise occupied, you can then just draw her attention to doing something different.
There is no need to try to police her behaviour when she is in private. So if you know, for example, that she will masturbate in bed before she goes asleep, you don’t have to interrupt her, or check where she has placed her hand while she lies in bed.
If you are still struggling to help her learn that she needs to be private, when we all get back to normal and she is back in preschool or school, it will be important to talk to her teacher, as it will be helpful if the preschool or school give her the same message that you do.