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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Frequently Asked Questions: 2 Years

My child has started touching her genitals in public. What do I do?

Children are naturally curious about their bodies and discover their genitals in the same way that they discovered their fingers and toes. Toddlers often reach down into the genital region during diaper changes and when they are undressed for a bath. While touching their genitals, children often feel pleasure and may continue to touch themselves for pleasure or self-comfort (masturbate).

Occasional masturbation is very common and part of normal sexual development. Self-stimulation does not mean that a child has been sexually abused or that a child will become promiscuous in later life. Many toddlers masturbate when they are bored or tired, so consider ignoring masturbation at bedtime or naptimes. At other times, try distracting your child with other activities.

Children don't have a sense of modesty until about age 3 or 4, so it's not embarrassing for them to touch themselves in public. However, as masturbation in public may be embarrassing for you, it is appropriate for you to set limits for this behavior. When your child masturbates in public, gently remind her that touching herself is OK in private (for example, in her bedroom or the bathroom), but it should not be done in front of other people. This idea must be consistently shared with your child by all of her caretakers.

If your child's masturbating seems compulsive or is interfering with her regular activities, you should discuss this with her pediatrician. Otherwise, approach the situation casually — self-exploration is a normal part of development.

How should I handle my toddler's temper tantrums?

Almost all toddlers have at least occasional temper tantrums: episodes of crying, pouting, whining, screaming, feet-stomping or head-banging that occur when they are angry or frustrated. Tantrums also may include breath-holding, or more aggressive behaviors like hitting or kicking. Tantrums typically begin at around 1 year of age, continue through the toddler years, and are usually gone by age 4.

Tantrums are considered a normal part of development. Toddlers are trying to develop a sense of self and independence, while not yet being able to express their feelings in words using their relatively small vocabularies. When she cannot do something for herself, or cannot get what she wants, her frustration with the situation can lead to a tantrum. Sometimes she may become upset enough to feel out of control, such as when you take something away from her. Tantrums are often more frequent when children are tired, hungry or uncomfortable because they are finding it difficult to communicate feelings or control their emotions.

During a tantrum, it is important to keep calm. Shouting and losing your temper only teaches your child to do the same. Since many toddlers have tantrums to get attention or to get something they want, it is generally best to ignore them, whenever possible. Changing her environment may also help. For instance, if a tantrum occurs when you are in a public place, simply pick her up and leave. If you are at home, you may want to move her into a different room or take her outside. If she is in a rage and you feel she is a threat to herself or other children around her, move her to a quiet place and hold her securely until she begins to calm down. As you already may have experienced, reasoning with her will not help — toddlers aren't yet able to reason.

It is important to be consistent during tantrum episodes. Do not give in to demands. Try not to laugh — this will only encourage the behavior you are trying to eliminate. Your toddler must learn that you will hold fast to your decisions and will not change your mind.

Remember that tantrums are part of normal development and are not a result of poor parenting.

Last updated December 3, 2009




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