A Very Difficult Topic: Child Self-Stimulation

Posted February 15, 2011 by

Today I received a call from my daughter’s school counselor.  She informed me that my daughter’s teachers had noticed this week that she was rocking in her chair, self-stimulating.  I have to tell you I wasn’t really expecting this call, but that I wasn’t shocked either.  It wasn’t the first time I have had this issue with her.  My daughter is an amazing child, but every December before the holidays… that excitement combined with her energy always creates some type of challenge.  Honestly though, I still I got off of the phone and cried.  This is one of the hardest issues to deal with in school or to write in this blog, but I know it needs acknowledgement.

My daughter started rocking or wiggling in her highchair since she was probably around 6 months old.  When I noticed, I would simple take her from the highchair and start another activity.  It took me a while to figure out what she was actually doing, probably kindergarten when her teacher asked me about it. That is when I began my research.  So over the years, I have talked to my daughter about this very carefully as not to scar her sexually in any way, but also manage this behavior at school.   I have told her that she can wiggle in her room, but not in front of others.  I told her this was private.  But like anything else we tell our children they need reminders along the way.  She also needs outlets for her boundless energy.  Getting a trampoline when she was four years old was a lifesaver!

At the end of 3rd grade after being questioned by her frequently and viewing a great Oprah show on “how to talk to your kids about sex”, I decided to tell her how babies were made.  She is so gifted and curious about everything.  She just couldn’t figure out why she looked like her daddy!  I kept it simple and it satisfied her curiosity.

So, back to my call today…my first reaction was just a reaction of tears, but as a mother I knew I needed a plan.  The problem has presented itself again and I need to deal with it.  So, when my daughter arrived home we had a long private talk.  First I told her about the phone call and explained that her behavior was distracting to others and to the teacher.  Then I let her talk and tell me what was going on from her perspective.  A month earlier we had talked on the topic and she assured me that she wasn’t wiggling at school any longer…so I reminded her of that and asked what was going on this week that made her start.  She told me that she was frustrated because this week she didn’t have outdoor recess with the weather turning so cold.  It seems to be an issue after lunch when she doesn’t get outdoor recess.   I really think the self-stimulation is completely related to the hyperactivity she shows.  She needs some type of outlet to this crazy energy.   We have been working so hard to keep her emotions intact, that this is how the energy was being channeled.

Then I took my turn talking and I told her in much greater detail this time, about sex and our animal instincts.  I explained all about girls and boys using all of the proper words, as always.  Then in the best way I could, I tied the two topics together.  I wanted her to be aware of what she was doing so that she could understand when and where it is appropriate.  Self-stimulation it is a normal behavior, but obviously should not be done in her 5th grade classroom.

Where others may think she is slightly lacking in self-control at school, I think she is doing an amazing job keeping it all together.  I see, hear, and feel her energy everyday as she exuberantly tells me of her day, details of a book, her countless ideas, or watching when she can’t sit still as she eats her dinner.  I could have totally overreacted to the phone call today, but instead I thought it through and hopefully I have helped and not done any harm.  She will need more reminders, but that’s okay.

In conclusion, I wrote an email, similar to this blog, to my daughter’s teacher asking if she could bring a stress ball to school for moments when she feels that energy.  The teacher responded very positively and is also going to allow her to get up to get a drink from the water fountain when necessary as well.  I know with Megan’s intense energy, fervor for life, and accelerated knowledge, she will grow up doing whatever she chooses well.  Don’t let an embarrassing topic keep you from speaking openly and honestly with your child.  I believe it can really help preserve their self-confidence.

About

Parent Blogger Amanda Lane is the mother of an 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. Amanda has been married for 16 years and works as a Clinical Systems Analyst in the hospital in her rural community. She hopes to give hope and confidence to others as she writes about her journey through parenthood.

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  1. Helen R Report

    I work with a high school student with physical and cognitive disabilities. I noticed he does “the chair dance” when there are girls around. I try to have him sit still and focus on what is going on in class but there is just so much I can do! In the cafeteria he sits with peers and I’m sure they must know what he is doing. I have spoken to his teacher and he will speak to the team about how to handle it. I just need to know what to do for the next three weeks!

    Reply
  2. KBmom Report

    This is a wonderful article on a tough subject. My daughter has been doing this since she could sit up (6months). She has seen Psychologists, Neurologists…all with different advice….which makes it even more frustrating. Last year, she was diagnosed with severe ADHD. She is now in 3rd grade and more self aware. She has had other kids comment about why she is rocking. I don’t want her to be ashamed and to be confident. The rocking continues to be a struggle….some days are better than others. She has a wonderful teacher who has worked so well to redirect her, accommodate various chairs…all of which has been a learning process…but not all teachers are this great. I think it is time to incorporate the American Girl books about the body and changes…my daughter has no idea why this is inappropriate. It seems from previous comments below, that once this is understood better then the kids are less likely to do it inappropriate places. I will update anything that has helped. Thank you all for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Kristy24 Report

    I am so happy to find this article!  Our daughter has been self stimulating since she was a baby.  We have had discussions with her about the appropriate places to do this, but we received a call from the school nurse regarding her wiggling in her chair.  She is now 9, so we discussed how this is not appropriate behavior for the classroom.  She does it because it feels good, at least that’s what she says.  I have emailed the teacher and talked to the school nurse, but I wasn’t sure what else we could do.

    Reply
    • TaraKay Report

      My daughter had it effecting her school work in 3rd grade. She had sessions with the school psychologist who worked with the teacher and us. The teacher would have a secret signal to my daughter to letter her know to stop and use the training her psychologist taught her. Also they had her sit on a ball instead of a chair which made it harder to do and tried stress balls and such. After one year of that, my daughter has been excelling in 4th grade because she is now more focused in the classroom. The psychologist recommended books like American Girl books about body and changes.
      You are not defeated! You got this! It will just take sometime.

      Reply
      • Kristy24 Report

        TaraKay Thanks!  I’m not sure what the issue is.  It doesn’t  affect her school work, in fact she in the gifted program.  It could be anxiety I guess.  Because it hasn’t really been a problem, I have not taken her to see anybody about it.  Not sure if I should or not.

        Reply
  4. rory Report

    Late to comment, but this is a good article and an appropriate way to handle the situation. I did the exact same thing up to around your daughter’s age – I had ADHD and found school to be stressful, boring and frustrating so I self-stimulated as a habit to relieve that stress. I hadn’t made the connection that what I was doing was sexual, and as I got older I looked back on these memories and felt really ashamed that I had ever done it.

    Reply
    • Suzanne3 Report

      What made you stop doing it? I’m terrified my daughter will get bullied over this… She is in therapy weekly, we have a rainbow chart if she makes the right choice to do it only in her room she gets a color which leads to a prize. School has her using a ball chair but she has figured out how to still do it. Any advice?

      Reply
      • Nat Report

        Hi how old is your daughter suzanne . Im having the same issue with my baby daughter since 6month and now she is 9month i distract her but then she does it again, its somehow frustates me seeing her do that all the time and im not quite sure how to deal with it. She is too young to talk about and i dont want jt to grow with her and end upbhaving issues later. Any advice ?

        Reply
        • Suzanne3 Report

          Mine is 6yrs old and started around 1yr old! It is extremely frustrating. I wish I could help but so far I have failed to find a long lasting solution:(

          Reply
          • hailey101 Report

            Suzanne3 My daughter just turned 5 and her school keeps complaining. I am so scared she will be bullied. have you found answers? I need support!

            Reply
          • Nat Report

            I know you cant imagine how frustrating it is too me and the only advice from my pediatrician was to change her position when she does , i manage to do tht during the day but she seems to do it when she wants to sleep to put herself to sleep and i struggle alot wondering if I should stop her or keep her but what if it grows with her as a habbit 🙁 my country is not to open about such issues and i do not know whom i can speak with about its such a relief knowing that my daughter is not the only one ! You have mentioned in one of yous posta that your daughters doctor mentioned a few things to do but they didnt work , like what ? Can you please tell me ill try them in hope they work !! My daughter is tooo youngbl to have a talk with 🙁

            Reply
  5. Lu Report

    Thank you for this article. There seems to be little research into this topic. Reading about other children and parents struggling with how to handle it is a huge relief. I am the mother of a bright, articulate six year old who has been doing the same thing since she was 3 months old. I recognized the behavior instantly. I myself also had the same behavior as a young girl and remember being called in to the counselor with my mother several times up through 3rd or 4th grade. I recall not caring at all what anyone thought, it felt good. The social cues were hard for me to understand. My mom eventually took me to a psychiatrist who helped me understand when and where it was appropriate. Although my mom tried her best teaching me it never sank in. I wish I could remember what did the trick. My mom never shamed me, thank goodness. I was also never sexually permiscuious. If anything I think it is related more to ADD. I hate that label, but I am the classic female example. I’ve learned to cope and use my different way of thinking to become a successful adult.
    My daughter is my mini me. She started self gratifying in school to a point it became distracting in Prek 4. I was able to meet with her teacher, and sharing my own experience helped the teacher understand. The principal and teachers were honestly amazing at working as a team to teach her when it wasn’t appropriate. This was a small catholic school too. The more Prek-3rd grade teachers I talk to the more I realize it isn’t all that uncommon. Teachers who have been around a while have usually had a few students who just couldn’t stop.
    I began early- 3 yrs old explaining that it was something to do only in private, like getting dressed. Reinforced it was perfectly okay to do it, it did feel good but only when done in a room by hersf. A stress ball did help when things got bad.

    Reply
  6. TaraKay Report

    Thank you so very much. I have a 9 year old that has this behavior starting to return as she is starting 4th grade. Please tell me your daughter is much better at controlling it and that there is hope. I am feeling defeated at the moment.

    Reply
    • Suzanne3 Report

      Sorry but I am defeated! Mine just started first grade and it’s worse than ever. To the point her teacher has not only emailed and called from her cell but had me come in for a meeting with guidance… I am so frustrated and feel completely defeated at this point. Started her with a therapist last week and they hit it off great so I’m hoping we can find a way to just teach her boundaries on where and when she can do the behavior… I just want her to realize there is a time and place because I’m terrified she’s heading down a road of being bullied. I welcome any success stories that we might be able to mirror…

      Reply
      • MommaLof2 Report

        Defeated is the perfect word for how I feel. My daughter started moving around in her car seat at 5, my fault I kept her in a 5 point harness too long, when she started moving around in her car seat I asked what she was doing, she said “tickling my pee pee” my first reaction was “ok time to get her in a booster”! Well then she started kinder and I remember the day I got a call from the counselor telling me my daughter was “moving” around in her chair, she assured me it was completely normal and to just talk to her about it being a private thing. Well nothing helped and as summer approached I was so happy cause I could put a stop to it if I ever saw it (which I didn’t) she never moved around at home. 1st grade started and I never got a call… Ahhh thank god it stopped, until end of school year night came and her teacher told me about it, I couldn’t believe she never called all year, her progress reports were great and she was learning so much. Now we are in 2nd grade and a week into school and this teacher has already talked to me about it. Tears and stress is my everyday, we have talked and talked and she says it feels good and just can’t stop. I never shame her, I encourage new ideas but at the end of the day I can’t sit in her class her whole life and stop her. I just pray she stops

        Reply
  7. cno Report

    Thank you so much for writing this article. It is something we have been dealing with since before my little girl was a baby, she just turned six and it has gotten worse. She always hated riding in a car seat and realized at a young age that she can self sooth by pushing on her car seat buckle. I couldn’t wait till she was able to get out of a five piece harness! It unfortunately didn’t stop the behavior. Luckily it seems to be only in the car, however I noticed her doing it at home once. I am worried about her figuring out she can wiggle at school also. I have thought about talking to her about sex, but afraid she is stop young. I’ve tried to tell her it is something she should do in private and I try my hardest yo ignore her, but it really bothers me! My husband will get on to her and tell her to stop. She doesn’t understand why, she says it’s her favorite thing to do. I think she just gets bored in on car rides. Thank you for putting your story out there, it has made me feel a bit better knowing I am not alone in this struggle.

    Reply
  8. Mom of 2 Report

    Thank you for sharing. My daughter has been doing this since she was 3-5 months. It started out as lying on her tummy, butt in the air, hands under her belly, and rocking back and forth. She never took a pacifier or sucked her thumb as a way to self soothe. She discovered this before she fell asleep. Over the years it turned into rubbing her genitals while lying on her tummy before naps and bedtime. She is now 5 and my husband and I tried to redirect her to her room and let her know it’s something to do in private. She goes through phases where she won’t do it at all and they its non stop. In the past year I feel as though the intensity has grown. She also continues to do it in inappropriate places. We talk about it over and over again. I have contacted child psychologists about it. I just don’t know how to handle it further. It’s really out of control. Anyone have suggestions??
    Thank you

    Reply
    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      @Mom of 2
      Using self stimulating behavior as a way to self soothe is
      not uncommon among children. A parent wants to be mindful s/he is not
      addressing the behavior in a way that may cause shame for the child. It also
      wouldn’t be effective to consequence the behavior either. From what you have
      written, it sounds like you are using re-direction as a way to help your
      daughter learn there are times when that behavior is not an appropriate coping
      skill to use. This re-direction is something that will have to be used repeatedly
      as sometimes it may take a while for a child to understand the concept. You
      mention your daughter possibly uses self stimulation as a way of coping with
      anxiety. It may be helpful to talk with your daughter at a calm time about
      other things she might be able to do instead when she starts to get anxious or
      frustrated. It could also be helpful to touch base with her doctor or primary
      care provider. S/he would know your daughter and would be in a better position
      to makes specific suggestions. We appreciate you writing in and wish you all
      the best of luck moving forward. Be sure to check back if you have any further
      questions. Take care.

      Reply
  9. klc103 Report

    This article has been very comforting at this time in our “what is going on with _____” journey.  We have just completed a battery of test (all with no answers/everything normal), and are now just waiting to see what the next steps will be.  Having a daughter with ADHD and aggressive behaviors has been most challenging.  And alienating.  Just like the author, my little girl is sweet, kind, intelligent, and very coordinated/athletic.  Our school is quite in a fuss about her self-stimulating behavior currently but do not offer any suggestion or advice other than advising us to seek a Psychiatric for help.  She is in 1st grade people!  Just wondering if the author has any other advice to help lead us down this ADHD path?  (Or anyone else who is reading?)

    Reply
    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      klc103
      Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. It can be
      difficult to know what approach to take in regards to self stimulating
      behaviors until you have a better understanding of what is actually going on
      for your daughter. As explained in the blog, as well as the comments below,
      this type of behavior can serve many purposes, from self soothing, trying to
      expend excess energy, boredom, to simply doing something because it feels good.
      One way of moving forward is by having a private talk with your daughter about
      the behavior. Try to get a clearer picture of what is going on when she engages
      in the behavior at school. What time of day does it usually occur? What
      activity is she involved in? Is she alone at her desk or with a group of other
      children? This may help you to suggest other things she might be able to do in
      place of self stimulating. One thing the author did was have her daughter bring
      a stress ball with her to class and also take some time to get up and move
      around by going to get a drink of water. The most important thing to take away
      from all of this is that the behavior is normal, so, there should never be any
      shame expressed about this behavior. Instead, help your daughter to recognize
      there are appropriate and inappropriate times for engaging in self stimulation;
      school would be an inappropriate time. You might consider talking with her
      pediatrician or primary care provider about this situation as well. He or she
      may be able to offer you other ideas for confronting this situation. I hope
      this information is helpful. Be sure to check back and let us know how things
      are going. I wish you and your family the best of luck moving forward.

      Reply
  10. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “mom3”: Thank you for writing in to Empowering Parents. This can be a difficult topic to broach with a child. From what you have written it seems as if you believe anxiety may play a role in this behavior. It might be helpful to talk with the school counselor for some ideas on how to talk to your daughter about this as well as ways it can be addressed at school. Perhaps the two of you could meet with the classroom teacher and discuss interventions that have worked in the past and come up with a plan of how it can be addressed this year. Another thing you might consider is having her seen by her pediatrician or primary care provider. There could be an underlying issue that is prompting this behavior. Her physician may be able to give suggestions around addressing this situation as well. We wish you and your family luck as you work through this challenging situation. Take care.

    Reply
  11. mom3 Report

    Thank you all! Same, 6months and on. Thought it was under control at home (only in her room if necessary) Sitting on foot in Kindergarten circle time prompted teacher to have everyone ‘sit on floor properly’ to redirect. Thought that was it. Learned of the problem being pervasive and multiple times a day (almost continual) at the end of grade 2 (new teacher came in and brought it to my attention). It had been happening every school day – too many times to count for Grade 1 and 2!!! The teachers had shared the redirection to ‘sit in the middle of your seats’ to redirect my daughter without alerting the others in the class as to what was going on! Her Grade 3 teacher was very helpful in dealing with some anxiety issues that seemed to accompany the behaviour. Now in Grade 4 there are less causes for anxiety in the class the but the behaviour has returned as bad as in previous grades perhaps because the teacher is less aware or inclined to intervene (male teacher). I’m at my wits end! I know she can do better, the kids are good not to notice, but it is very odd behaviour and they are sure to notice soon. I’m tempted to take time off work to do behavioural intervention in the new year (sitting near her and interupting the behaviour)We’ve done some ‘worry workshops’ and had some child psych assessments, but nobody has been very helpful in making a difference so far. She turns 9 in a few days, and I need help! Aside from taking away her classroom chair, I can’t think of anything else! Please continue to offer suggestions! Many thanks!

    Reply
  12. OT Report

    If your child exhibits other signs of difficulty with sensory integration, I would recommend an evaluation by a pediatric OT.

    Reply
  13. Kristen Report

    My best advice to anyone is to talk to your child gently about the topic. Then ask your child if a stress ball or getting up for a drink of water in class would be helpful. Then discuss the options with their teacher. When the teacher notices the behavior the teacher could ask the student to get a drink of water or run an errand in the classroom. As a parent we can manage the behavior at home, but I think it is important to meet with the teachers and give them a plan since they are managing so many children. Follow your instincts on what is best and don’t overreact to this behavior. Each child is different so try listening to their possible solutions as well.

    Reply
  14. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    To ‘Help!’: It sounds like you are pretty concerned about your son’s behavior. We do suggest working with local supports when this type of behavior reaches the point that it is causing distraction in the classroom chronically and frequently. You could discuss his behavior with his pediatrician or give counseling another try. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the behavior and from there you can come up with a solution. It’s important to remember that he’s been doing this for 3 years and it will take some time to change the behavior pattern. Sometimes it does take a while to see a change when working with a therapist. James Lehman suggests that you ask any therapist for an assessment, a treatment plan based on the assessment, and a timeline. For example, you can ask what changes you can expect to see after x number of weeks. Have patience. Changing behavior is a tough process.

    Reply
  15. Help! Report

    I have been experiencing the same problem with my seven year old son. He has been self-stimulating since he was four. We can’t recognize the cues that precede the behavior, they simply seem to come up randomly. We explained to him that this is a private thing and it should be done in his room and are constantly reminding him of this at home when he does it, but is now becoming a problem at school. He is doing in his class room (rubbing against chairs and wiggling on the floor) and now we’ve learned that he is also rubbing on a pole at recess. His teacher helps to remind him not to do it but it doesn’t always work. The office has have several reports of this behavior from several people so it’s becoming huge distraction. He has seen a counselor very briefly for this but it obviously stayed unresolved – we didn’t really feel that he helped us. My husband and I don’t know what to do or how to handle it from here 🙁 If anyone has any insight, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Reply
  16. archie Report

    So relieved to see this blog. My 5 year old daughter has done this for as long as we can remember. It started in the highchair, as an infant she would push herself against the bar in the middle, quickly thereafter she started “flexing” against the belt in her car seat. We thought the behavior would stop when she transitioned to a booster car seat with nothing in the “middle”, but she discovered that crossing her legs and rocking or flexing does the same job. She often holds her breath when she does it. It seems a little better lately, when she was 4 it seemed like everytime she sat down no matter where she was, her legs would automatically cross and she’d start. She seemed to be completely unaware she was even doing it…like a reflex reaction. Now it seems to be more when she’s tired or stressed. It’s odd to watch, it drives my husband crazy, the most we say is, “please uncross your legs”, or “please sit still”, and she does for a while, but goes right back to her “position”. We usually end up just making her stand up and do something else and the behavior stops. We’ve never “named” it to her, and we’ve never told her she was wrong or bad for doing it, I wonder if giving her a time and place for “flexing” would stop her from doing it everywhere she sits…she’s reaching the age where she can understand a little that some actions are done in private..this should be one of them…and her pre school teachers have mentioned that she “crosses her legs” a lot at school too.

    Reply
  17. ChicagoMOM Report

    Thank you so much for this post. My daughter has engaged in similar behavior we characterized as “rocking” or “wiggling” since she was an infant. At one point her daycare thought she was having a seizure and we had a neurological evaluation done. She’s now in Kindegarten and told me the kids complained that her wiggling was causing the table to shake during snack time. My husband and I had always know the behavior was related to self-soothing since she only does it in the late afternoons and evenings when she’s tired. It’s not uncommon for her to get flushed and breathless while engaging in this behavior, so I felt like a big fool when she expressed to me that she liked to wiggle because it makes her “wee-wee feel excited”. I’m relieved to read that my instincts regarding how to handle the situation were similar to yours. We had a talk and I explained that it’s OK to wiggle in private but not in front of other people. I even offered to put a “wiggle chair” in her room and she proceeded to let me know it needed to be a “hard chair made out of wood”. I don’t want to scar her or make her feel shamed, but obviously I don’t want her ridiculed at school either. I have a feeling this is much more common that we might think, as my next door neighbor has always joked about how much her daughter “loves her car-seat”.

    Reply
  18. mysnowbunny123 Report

    my son in day care was briefly was doing this, and when the director brought me in to tell me about this I was so emmbarassed and felt like he was judging me like i had my son around people that might be “touching” him. I was totally freaked out and also felt scared that the day care was going to call cps or something because of how this guy was talking!
    I am a stay at home mother and am married to my sons father and we are a close family, and I never leave my son with anyone ( he never had babysitters) and the only time he is without me and his father is when he sometimes spends the night at grandma’s house on a saturday, and i pick him up on sunday morning, and he loves it because my mother spoils him & the sleep in the livingroom watching kids movies & she allways gives him treats that he usualy does not get at home.
    Anyway, I reaserched this behavior & spoke to my counselor about it, and found out It was a normal thing kids do, some more than others, but thankfully, this behaviour did not last very long at all.
    I also took him out of that day care, because of how the director seemed judgefull and not understanding at all.

    Reply
  19. Never A Dull Moment Report

    Way to go! I am a mom and also a family doctor and this issue comes up often in my practice (and my house). Almost all children do this in the preschool years. Some have a lull in early elementary school and then start back up again around age 9 or 10, some never stop. Exploring and learning about one’s body in this way is normal and appropriate. Also far more desirable than waiting to learn about these feelings with someone else too early. Early masturbation does NOT lead to early sexual intimacy with others.

    Reply
  20. Miss Pam Report

    AS a certified counselor that deals with kids of all ages, I found this an honest and refreshing way to handle the problem. I am a christian and unfortunately many christians (and others also!) forget that God made sex. It’s natural and just like everything else in life, we train our children about what is and isn’t exceptable. If the child was punching another in the nose, it would be easier for the parent and teacher to deal with, than a sexual/body issue.

    Reply

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