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Child Abuse

Understanding Children Touching Themselves

02/25/2000

Question:

I think that a little girl that I have in class is being sexually abused. She has been caught touching herself in her private areas telling other kids to watch. I don`t know what to do about this. Can you give me some advice?

Answer:

Although touching the private areas, or masturbation, can be a sign of sexual abuse, there are other reasons that your student may be displaying this behavior besides abuse. Masturbation is common in children, beginning as early as age 3-6 years old when children are curious about their bodies and others`. Masturbation can also be due to genital itching caused by skin irritation. The irritation can be caused by skin conditions (such as dry skin) or by chemicals found in soaps and bubble baths. Irritation can be diagnosed on a physical examination done by a pediatrician or family doctor. Having other children watch as she touches herself is not appropriate and will probably stop after a friendly talk with the girl. If the behavior seems more aggressive or more imitative of adult sexual behavior, there may be reason to suspect sexual abuse. Your options include talking with the child`s parents about your observations and concerns or making a report to the appropriate child protection agency. In most states teachers are mandated reporters of suspected child abuse. Asking the child yourself about sexual abuse would probably not be appropriate. If your student were to tell you about sexual abuse on her own, you should listen and then report what you have heard to the local children`s protective agency.

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Response by:

Kathi L Makoroff, MD
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati