Finding your child touching himself or herself can be disturbing, but there’s no need to overreact. He or she has every right to feel like doing this and to satisfy this desire. Your role is simply to explain to your child about the importance of privacy and decency.
Fortunately, the days of telling little boys that “your willy will fall off if you play with it” and similar horrors are long gone. Nevertheless, seeing your child touching himself or herself can still be troubling. Yet they need to hear you give words to what they’re doing and feeling. By doing this you’ll help them learn to accept their body and their identity as a boy or girl. By giving a name to this pleasurable feeling, you’ll reassure your child about the new sensations he or she is discovering. You’ll relieve their anxiety and ambivalent feelings and they’ll realise that there is nothing abnormal or shameful about it.
Don’t prevent your child masturbating. By touching themselves, children are able to discover their own body and also to relax. At this age, there is nothing erotic about such activity, it is simply a way of self-soothing. But children must learn not to do this in front of you or other people. It’s not that it’s dirty, but it is a private thing and only for times when the child is on their own in their bedroom or in the bathroom. Make this clear and repeat it firmly but without scolding and as often as necessary. And take this opportunity to remind your child that only he or she has the right to touch their private parts.
If your child is doing this more and more often, or if it’s becoming an obsession, it may be that he or she is going through a difficult time and experiencing a lot of anxiety. It may coincide with the arrival of a new baby in the house, the loss of one of their grandparents, moving house, etc. So it’s up to you to help your child find other ways of expressing their worries, through play, drawing, or simply by talking about them. If you feel at a loss, don’t hesitate to talk to your paediatrician about it.