Talking to your child about masturbation may feel a little awkward, embarrassing or even deeply uncomfortable. But these are necessary conversations for parents who want to raise kids with a healthy understanding of sex and their bodies.
“Masturbation is a really important part of human sexuality. It informs our individual conceptions of autonomy, pleasure, identity and intimacy,” sex education teacher Kim Cavill told HuffPost. “Trying to discourage, shame or eliminate it does young people a tremendous disservice. Instead of seeing it as a problem to solve, think of it as an opportunity to teach skills and concepts that empower young people to grow into sexually healthy adults.”
To help inform these conversations, HuffPost spoke to Cavill and two other sex educators about the best ways to talk to kids about masturbation, or self-touching. Here are their expert-backed guidelines and tips for parents and caregivers to keep in mind.
Parents can lay the foundation for their children’s understanding of their bodies by fostering open discussions from a young age. These talks can encompass a number of topics, including masturbation.
“As with all conversations about sexuality, it should be something that’s addressed early and in gradual stages, not one big talk,” sex educator Lydia M. Bowers said. “We should also be talking about pleasure in nonsexual ways ― ‘I like how the wind feels on my face,’ ‘The color purple makes me feel happy’ ― so children develop both language and the knowledge that feeling good isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Cavill recommended talking to children about self-touching before the onset of puberty, which typically starts at 9 to 16 years old. For many parents, the conversation arises much earlier on because their children start to explore their bodies at a very young age.
“Though we associate masturbation most commonly with teenagers, infantile masturbation is also very common for children between the ages of 1 to 5,” said Cavill. Many small children touch their genitals as a form of self-soothing, much like thumb sucking. This behavior is prompted not by erotic thoughts but by the fact that touching those areas simply feels good due to the large number of nerve endings.
“Masturbation at any age is not dirty, shameful or illicit,” Cavill said. “In fact, it’s a perfectly normal and healthy behavior for people to engage in.”
Emphasize That It’s Normal
It’s crucial for parents and caregivers to normalize masturbation by talking about it in a shame-free way, particularly if their child has already started exploring self-touch.
“Disgust, scolding and rejection do not help children learn lessons and, in fact, can grow into internalized shame and self-loathing later in life,” said Cavill. “Communicating acceptance is simple and sounds like this: ‘I see you’re touching your penis/vulva/anus. That feels good, doesn’t it? Touching those body parts feels really different than touching other parts, like elbows or knees. I’m glad you’re getting to know your body, because bodies are really cool.’”
It’s also perfectly normal if a child or teen does not masturbate. Either way, opening up talks promotes a more positive understanding of self-touch, which can be beneficial for children as they get to know their bodies. These conversations can also be opportunities to discuss hygiene, the proper terms for genitals and how to address unsafe touch.
“When children are free to explore their own bodies, they develop a self-awareness that can keep them safer and more prepared to recognize unsafe touch if it ever occurs.”
– Melissa Carnagey, sex educator
“When children are free to explore their own bodies, they develop a self-awareness that can keep them safer and more prepared to recognize unsafe touch if it ever occurs,” sex educator Melissa Carnagey explained. “When young people are more informed and confident about their bodies, they are better positioned to advocate for consensual, safer and more pleasurable sex as an adult.”
Explain That It’s Private
After parents have communicated that self-touch is normal and natural, they can establish that it’s also private. This is particularly important for young children, who may rub against objects like pillows, furniture or toys.
“You can define privacy as something or somewhere other people can’t see, and public as something or somewhere other people can see,” Cavill said. “Teaching privacy sounds like this: ‘I’m so glad you’re enjoying your body by touching your penis/vulva/anus. That’s usually something people do in private, or in a space other people can’t see,’ then offer to take the child to their nearest private space and say, ‘Here’s a private space for you to touch your penis/vulva/anus. You can be private in here anytime you want.’”
For families who use augmentative and alternative communication because of disabilities or other factors, Cavill noted that picture symbols labeling public and private areas of the house can express these concepts as well.
Young children don’t always have the strongest awareness of what’s happening around them, so it’s up to parents to use reminders and gentle redirection to note when and where self-touching is appropriate. Bowers and Carnagey suggested statements like “I know touching your body feels good. Since your penis is one of your private parts, that’s something to do in private in your room instead of at the dinner table.” Or simply “Hands out of your pants while we’re in public.”
Use Books And Videos
There are many helpful resources that promote a healthy understanding of masturbation. Bowers, Carnagey and Cavill are fans of Amaze, which produces educational videos like “Masturbation: Totally Normal.”