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Is My Child’s Behavior Normal?

It’s a touchy subject for families: How should you react when your lovable toddlers suddenly can’t seem to stop touching or showing off every part of their body in ways that make even the most well-adjusted adults blush.

The experts say it’s completely normal for little kids to explore their bodies, but it’s also natural for parents and grandparents to wonder what lines to draw, and when. Following is a guide to everything you ever wanted to know about naked toddlers but were afraid to ask:

So what exactly is “normal” for young kids?
Infants as young as a year old begin discovering their genitals. And far from being an indicator of sexual awareness, it is, like thumb-sucking and hair-twirling, a completely normal self-soothing behavior, says Dr. Jennifer Shu, an Atlanta pediatrician and coauthor, with Dr. Laura Jana, of Heading Home with Your Newborn (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2005). This kind of physical touching is generally not sexually-related until puberty approaches.

Why do my grandchildren insist on parading around naked?
Those naked kids might just have the right idea: They probably feel cooler and more comfortable in the altogether. “Children do not sense a stigma with nudity,” Shu says. Instead, they may see it as a way to get rid of confining clothes. For many kids, of course, streaking may be a reliable way to get adults’ attention.

What’s appropriate where, at what age, and in front of whom varies from family to family, and within families. You may be less tolerant of nudity than your grandchildren’s parents, or more relaxed about it than they are. But it’s important to be consistent with the rules the parents set, especially in their own home, says Dr. Charles Shubin, director of Pediatrics at Mercy Family Care in Baltimore.

My grandson just staggered by in my high heels. Why this sudden interest in cross-dressing?
Small children don’t associate gender rules with clothing. To them, dress-up is dress-up, and dress-up is funny, whether it’s a boy in a tiara or a girl in a tie. Adult shoes, especially, are endlessly interesting to little kids, and your heels may simply be more intriguing than your sneakers.

My grandchildren are starting to ask me some delicate questions. How should I answer?
Until their adolescent hormones begin raging, children’s interest in sexual organs or behavior is usually nothing more than innocent curiosity, and your responses should be simple. If your granddaughter asks why her little brother’s body is different from hers, don’t give her a college-level anatomy lecture; if your grandson asks where babies come from, don’t give him a dissertation on intercourse. “Look at it from the point of view of the kids, not ours,” Shubin says. A straightforward answer that girls are different from boys, or that parents who love each other know how to make babies will likely send the kids happily on their way.

What if they have follow-up questions?
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents and grandparents a guide to talking with young children about sexuality. According to the academy, kids from 18 months to 3 years are learning about their own bodies and expressing some curiosity. Around age four or five, children begin to express interest in basic sexuality. This may include asking about where babies come from, as well as touching their own genitals or showing curiosity in those of other children. As children reach school-age, questions continue as they talk to friends and hear confusing references in the media. Always use their questions as teachable moments, don’t overreact or criticize children for being curious, and stay in sync with the parents’ preferences.

When should we be concerned?
Simple touching and exploring are normal, Shu says, but if children begin acting out sexual scenarios beyond their age, such as intercourse, or mentioning interactions with an adult, those may be red flags.

How should we react when kids act inappropriately?
Young children often test adults’ limits in a number of ways. Running around naked or shouting the names of certain parts of their anatomies over and over again are typical ways for kids to test limits. The best thing to do at first is simply ignore it, Shu says. Most children will drop the behavior, but if your grandchildren don’t, restate the rules in a firm, matter-of-fact way: “Touching yourself is a private activity. If you are going to do it, you need to do it in your room.” An angrier response may backfire. “Becoming too emotional about a behavior may blow the situation out of proportion,” Shu says, “possibly making the child want to do it even more.”

Originally published on Grandparents.com

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