Masturbating Preschooler: Cause for Concern?

I have a concern about our four-year-old daughter. She has recently started masturbating while at home. This is usually done while resting, while watching television or before falling asleep. It seems to have become more and more frequent. When we find her doing this we give her a warning to stop. If she does not we ask her to go to her room. If she still continues we physically take her there. We've explained that this is a personal thing, that others do not want to watch her do this, but we get no where. She continues on. We've discussed this with her pediatrician and his answer is to tell her to stop and put her in time out. Are we doing the right thing? Is this a phase? What are some realistic limits?

By the way, its fair to mention that she has 1 year older quadruplet siblings. She has shown no signs of regression or anger. Is this her way of coping? Is it normal?

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You may have hit the nail square on the head! Being the youngest to four siblings one year older than herself could leave her feeling outnumbered and overshadowed. And her frequent retreat into masturbation could be an attempt to stimulate herself out of a depression.

Especially because the spacing is so close between herself and her siblings, she could also be experiencing low confidence in her abilities to "do" in the world, as her group of four siblings could be quite intimidating to her. She may be withdrawing from relationships that she feels unable to compete with. She is too young to understand that developmentally she should not expect herself to compete. And let's face it, a group of four children of the same age can easily dominate a family's atmosphere as well as resources of time, money and attention. And your four-year-old needs to feel "special" herself! Through no fault on anyone's part, it would be inevitable that your youngest would need special attention in her unique position in the family. It is not a question of "normal" because your daughter's position is so highly unusual from the start.

Keep in mind that your four-year-old has never had an opportunity to know herself outside of the context of her group of immediately older siblings. It is difficult enough when two siblings are two years apart and there are only two of them. Sibling rivalry can increase the closer the spacing between children and the larger the number of children. Your daughter is the fifth child in a family where all four sibs are only one year older. She may be much like a small sapling whose light is eclipsed by the grove of trees towering over her!

Let me use language development as an example of what "being eclipsed" might feel like for the youngest in any family, particularly a large family. Verbal skills take time to develop. A child benefits from being listened to, completing sentences slowly at first and being mimicked and encouraged. However, when a child experiences 6 older people who are talking more fluidly to one another, even finding a place to jump in can be difficult. If the child is naturally aggressive, he or she may learn to jump into the conversation, but still feel pressured to speak quickly. even resorting to short cuts in communication in an attempt to get most of the point across. Youngest children often feel "hurried" in their communication and my adult clients (who were youngest siblings) often learn later in life that they can slow down and give themselves time to express their needs to others. It is easy to feel less significant and literally not get a chance to get a word in edgewise when your own verbal skills are not as well developed as the rest of the speakers in the family. Does your daughter talk at least her share in the family? Do others listen to her, or talk over her? Is she encouraged to share her feelings and views or do her siblings dominate because they are simply older and louder than a 4 year old can be?

It is likely in your daughter's case that the reason you have not seen her anger is because she cannot even begin to compete with 4 older siblings... so why even try? Her continual masturbation may be a sign of withdrawal from the playing field altogether. Perhaps if she had enjoyed a year or two of singular attention as an oldest sibling, she would know what she was "missing" and therefore be capable of showing anger about it! But these four siblings have been there forever and always. So she may virtually have no avenues of coping or drawing attention to her needs other than persistent masturbation.

It is not your job to mindread your children, but to respond to their needs as proactively as possible. Begin by talking with your husband about a plan to help your youngest feel a secure and special place in the family. Encourage her to talk and require others to listen! Help her feel a sense of her uniqueness in the family. Spend time alone with her and protect her toys, help her to develop separate friendships and activities from her sibling group. Try to identify what her special talents might be and help her to explore these. When she is sleepy, offer to hold her on your lap. Read her a bedtime story and tuck her in for the night. Soothing attention from you may replace her need to masturbate to sleep.

And perhaps after you read this you will say, "With what time? I have 5 children!" But do not despair. Once your daughter's needs are addressed, patterns of interaction can develop in the family that reinforce awareness. And when your availability is established, she can better express her needs and become more of a "squeaky wheel" on her own behalf. If giving her more attention, (in addition to setting limits around privacy) does not result in decreasing her masturbation, seek a consult with a child psychologist to assess your daughter's particular needs in her unique family constellation.

As a parent of quads and another little girl, you can use all the help you can get! Do not be shy in reaching out for help yourself.

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