You’re not alone if you’re a parent who just doesn’t know what to do with a child putting hands in pants. It is a common concern for many parents, especially those with boys. Just talk to any parent’s of boys, and I can guarantee that they will be more than willing to sympathise with you!
So what should you be doing about it? Without psychologically scarring your child (or yourself) in the process? And without having to resort to an anti-masturbation suit that will stop any child putting hands in pants. And yes, luckily the suit I just linked to, is a bad-taste joke!
This article focuses on boys, from babies to tweenhood, but the information is still relevant for girls who are touching (or holding) their genitals too.
Before we even look at why your child is putting hands in pants, we need to be clear on what they are actually doing with their hands.
So what is actually happening down there?
Not a lot!
9.999999 times out of ten, your child is just resting their hands down there. They might be holding their penis but there is usually more inactivity than activity.
And the times that they aren’t just resting their hands? We’ll get to that later on in this post!
So why is your child putting their hands in their pants?
Because they can! Just like you might pick at a pimple that is on your chin or flick the hair out of your eyes, your child will just put their hands down their pants.
It is a subconscious action ie it is something that they do without even thinking about it.
You could even call it a habit as it is a behaviour that they are usually unaware of doing until you point it out to them.
They aren’t masturbating. It isn’t sexual. And the chances are, that their dad (or any other significant male in their life) does it too! It’s just a male thing!
Usually, there isn’t anything to worry about. A child putting hands down pants, is more like an annoying habit that your child has. You might be sick of them having really smelly hands. Or you keep asking them to not do it, but their hands keep on finding their way back down there.
Sometimes it might be something that they do when they feel insecure. Little boys will hold their penis when they are in a new social environment or when they are feeling uncertain about something. Both boys and girls will touch their genitals when they need to go to the toilet.
Depending on their age, there might be a reason for doing it. For a 6 month old baby, they are trying to learn about their body by exploring it with their hands. So every time their nappy is off, they will touch their genitals.
Or sometimes, they might be masturbating ie touching their genitals because it feels nice. You can learn about child masturbation here.
Or there might be a medical reason. Maybe they have an infection or dry skin or chafing. Or their clothes are rubbing their genitals. Or their underwear is uncomfortable. Or they have worms.
But sometimes, our ‘gut instinct’ says that there is something going on. In this situation, I would suggest that you trust your ‘gut’ and download the Traffic Light app. This easy to use app will allow you to quickly work out whether to worry (or not) about your child’s behaviour. It will also provide suggestions on what your next steps should be.
A large part of parenting is to guide our children as to what is (and isn’t) socially acceptable behaviour. Just like picking your nose and eating it, a child putting hands in pants is one of those socially unacceptable behaviours!
And if you don’t want your child to be teased about this behaviour, then you need to teach them that it is a behaviour that they shouldn’t be doing in public.
The challenge though is in doing it in such a way that your child doesn’t grow up ashamed of their body or confused about what they can do with it.
So as a parent, it is your role to teach your child that they shouldn’t be touching their genitals in public.
As to what you expect at home, well every parent is different. Some parents are okay with their child touching genitals at home whereas others aren’t. Some are okay with them doing it anywhere in the home (as long as there is no company) whereas others expect their child to go the bedroom. So you need to decide what you are comfortable with. Just try to remember though that they aren’t masturbating and that it is just an age-appropriate behaviour that they do without thinking.
So how do you teach a child to not put their hands down their pants?
The main thing to remember for managing this behaviour is for you to stay calm and to not make a big deal about it or to discipline your child about it.
So we go slowly and gently so that your child doesn’t get a ‘hang up’ about their body or feel ashamed. And so that it doesn’t become an attention-seeking behaviour or something that they keep doing more of.
And don’t expect them to stop doing it overnight. It can take years for the ‘no hands in your pants’ message to sink in safely!
So what do we do when it comes to babies and toddlers. In this age, it is more of a hassle because they may be waking up with wet beds because they are either removing their nappy or pulling their penis out over the top of their nappy. Or they are removing their nappy and leaving puddles of urine (or even worse) all through the house.
So you may need to devise a way to keep their nappy on. parents have successfully resorted to duct taping the front of the nappy closed (so that they can’t open it as easily), putting a onesie or sleepsuit on them so that they can’t get their hands in underneath) or even putting it on back-to-front (so they can’t unzip it). They even make a special sleepsuit now that has a zipper at the back which will stop your child putting hands in pants. As they get older, you can even resort to putting shorts on them with a zipper and button or even using a belt.
When changing their nappy, you can let your child grab their genitals and explore this part of their body. Child touching genitals at this age isn’t going to awaken any sexual feelings or start any future problems as they get older. They are just touching their genitals because they are curious about their body and they learn best by touch.
This is a great age for starting to name the different parts of their body to them, and you can learn how to start naming the private parts in young children here.
Once they are toilet trained and capable of understanding the difference between public and private, you can start teaching your child that it’s okay to have their hands down their pants in private, but not in public.
There are a number of ways to start this discussion.
Some parents will use distraction to get their child’s hands busy doing something else. For example, you might suggest that they start playing with their blocks, or see if they can click their fingers together, or some other age-appropriate task that is readily available.
You will need to start teaching your child the difference between public and private. We have public and private places where public means that there are people around and private means just you. Parts of our body can be private too, and they are the parts that are usually covered up by our private clothes. They include your penis, bottom and mouth or vulva/vagina, mouth, bottom and breasts. A great book that will help you with teaching your child about the difference between public and private is Hayden-Reece learns a valuable lesson that private means ‘Just for you’ by Holly-ann Martin from Safe 4 Kids.
Sometimes it can be helpful to ask your child why they are doing it. Maybe their underwear is uncomfortable or they are pushing their penis down because they have an erection. By asking, you may find that there is a reason for their behaviour, and possibly it is something that you can help them with. Try casually saying ‘ Hey, I’ve noticed that you often have your hands down your pants. Why’s that?’, and see what they say.
If you don’t want your child to be touching their genitals at all in public spaces in the home, you can introduce a family rule about touching their genitals. You could try saying something like ‘It’s okay to touch your penis but because it is a private part of your body, you should only touch it in a private place, like your bedroom. So if you want to put your hands down your pants, you need to go to your bedroom.’.
You could use a similar explanation to explain why your child shouldn’t be touching their genitals in public. You could try saying something like “It’s okay to touch your penis but because it is a private part of your body, you should only touch it in a private place, like at home (or in your bedroom). When we are in a public place, like at the shops or visiting your friends, it is bad manners to be putting your hands down your pants in public. So I would like it if you would try hard to not do it.’. It also doesn’t hurt to let them know that some kids will tease them. This won’t act as an incentive to stop but it does inform your child that there will be some consequences from their peers if they do it in public.
Your child will need reminders to remove their hand as it does take time for them to remember to not touch their genitals. You could try a subtle reminder where you discretely says ‘Hands’ and pointedly look to their groin. Or in a light-hearted voice say ‘Hands out of your pants please’. Or you can even joke about it. My favourite line to my son is ‘ What are you playing with down there? A toy car?’. He’ll laugh and the hand will come out.
Try to use your everyday voice when reminding your child as you don’t want them to think that they are in trouble or to feel ashamed. So remind your child in the same voice that you might use when asking them if they can go and have a shower.
Oh, and you may want to add in that they will need to wash their hands after touching their genitals.
If you have got this far, I am hoping that you will have some ideas on how best to manage your child who has a thing about touching their genitals.
The trick is to be patient, and eventually (with lots of gentle reminders), they will outgrow it. Oneday………..
There are also some fantastic books that will help with talking to your child putting hands in pants.
DISCLAIMER: I am the mother of a 8 year old boy who is often found with his hands down his pants. But he is reformed because he usually always remembers to keep his hands out of his pants when we are out in public or when he is at school. I do have to watch him though because now he will just put his hands in his pockets instead. Or sometimes he'll have a grab through the outside of his pants. He knows that it isn't a 'socially acceptable' behaviour (like nose-picking) but sometimes he just reverts back into the habit when out in public.
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.