- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

My just-turned 3-year-old daughter started masturbating about six months ago, seemingly to calm herself when she was upset. That didn’t bother me, but she’s doing it more and more frequently now, and I’m beginning to get concerned. How can I get her to stop?

A: It’s not all that unusual for little girls as young as 3, and sometimes younger, to discover masturbation and become somewhat obsessed with it.

Masturbation is more common in girls this age than it is boys, which may have something to do with the fact that boys are generally more active than girls. In any case, it’s nothing to worry about, not in and of itself. (I should mention, however, that excessive masturbation, if not the result of early attempts at self-pacification — as is the case here — may be a marker of sexual abuse. Parents with suspicions or concerns along these lines should contact their child’s physician.)

A child this age is very much a pleasure-seeker, with a limited sense of what adults generally consider right versus wrong, which is why a toddler keeps climbing up on the counter for the cookie jar, no matter how many times he is reprimanded. My point here is that just as you can’t punish or persuade a young child to stop wanting to eat chocolate-chip cookies, you can’t punish or persuade a young child to stop masturbating. Needless to say — I hope — shaming the child definitely is not the answer.

So, what to do? Tell your daughter that children are not allowed to do “that” — give it a neutral name or just call it “rubbing” — anywhere except in a certain bathroom (or any place in the house that isn’t awful, just boring). Furthermore, if caught doing “that” anywhere except in the bathroom, the child will have to go to the bathroom and stay for five minutes. It’s the rule. Period.

Now, it’s important that you do not make a big deal of it when you apprehend your daughter in the act. Just say, “You know the rule. You have to go to the bathroom for five minutes.”

If she promises to stop, say, “That’s OK, but you still have to go to the bathroom because it’s the rule. You can stop in there.” It’s important that you not make this seem like punishment, which it isn’t. It’s simply a gentle means of helping her begin exercising some control over something she’s probably going to continue doing for a while at least.

Once a little girl finds this particular button, she’s going to keep pushing it, and the more attention she gets for it, the more adult hand-wringing that ensues, the more she’s going to push. You can get your daughter to limit her masturbation, but she probably won’t stop completely until she finds a sufficient number of other things and activities with which to occupy her time.

Along those lines, if she’s not already involved in a preschool program, enroll her in one. Don’t let her watch much television, if any. Keep her as active as possible, but don’t run yourself ragged in the process. This is not a test of how good a mother you are. In the final analysis, where your daughter puts her hands has nothing to do with you. Keep that perspective, please.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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