Many children start exploring their bodies at a very young age, which is very normal and natural. After all, they may quickly discover that it feels good, which could lead to some questions about what’s going on there.
This can be a tricky talk for parents, who may be unsure of the appropriate time to approach this subject with their children as well as the appropriate dialogue to use for their age.
We know this can be a tough subject to navigate, so we asked the experts to weigh in and let us know when we should start the conversation and how to talk to our kids about masturbation in a way that feels somewhat comfortable for everyone.
There is no set age
This conversation really depends on your child. Rachel Wright, a psychotherapist and therapeutic relationship coach, says it’s incredibly important to talk to your kids about masturbation. And as the parent, you know your child best, so lead with that and have the conversation when you feel it will be most beneficial instead of paying attention to a specific age, she tells SheKnows.
Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist, agrees and says there is no “right age” to talk to your kids about masturbation. Some toddlers and preschoolers begin touching their genitals at a young age, and when you notice it, you should talk about it right away, she tells SheKnows.
Other kids may be much older, and Whitney suggests if you don’t notice your child self- pleasuring, you should talk to them about masturbation as they are nearing puberty.
“Before puberty, most kids aren’t masturbating to orgasm,” Whitney says. It simply feels pleasurable to them, and some even do it to soothe themselves.
Typically, those with a penis start masturbating when they start getting erections and wet dreams. When they reach this point in their life, Whitney explains, it’s important to let them know what’s happening to their body is normal, even if you aren’t sure if they have started masturbating yet.
People with a vagina usually discover self-pleasuring on their own and should be taught they have a clitoris that’s only used for sexual pleasure, says Whitney. Let them know where it’s located, “toward the front of the vulva,” and let them know they should look for it at some point.
While they may be surprised by your comment, it’s so important to teach them we are “built for sex to feel good,” Whitney adds. This also takes away any shame they may be feeling about masturbating.
As your children get older, it may feel more awkward to talk to them about masturbation. Most kids shy away from this as they get older and don’t want to talk to their parents about it at all.
Whitney says there is no need to go into detail about it at this age as long as you are normalizing masturbation. An example of what you can say to your older child is, “Some people used to think it was wrong or unhealthy to masturbate, but of course that’s not true. It’s completely healthy and normal to touch yourself any way that feels good to you.”
Your child will probably not have a positive reaction to your mentioning it to them, but that’s OK. The important thing is “you’ve made the point that self-pleasuring is nothing to be ashamed of,” Whitney says.
Don’t make your child feel wrong for masturbating
Masturbating is something almost everyone does, and there should never be any shame attached to it. The way you talk to your child about masturbation, especially your tone, can make a lasting impression. Whitney says to “be calm, warm and matter-of-fact” when addressing the potentially touchy subject.
Along the same lines, as much as we want to convey the message that it’s normal, parents also have the challenge of explaining that masturbation isn’t something that should be done in public.
Wright says a good way to approach this with a younger child who has discovered masturbation would be to say something like, “Just like we don’t go potty in the middle of the grocery store, we don’t stick our hands in our pants in the grocery store either,” and says the focus should be more on where it’s happening, not what is happening.
It is OK to tell your child there are appropriate places and times to touch their genitals. According to Whitney, a good way to start the conversation is to say something like, “I know it feels nice to touch yourself like that but your penis/vulva is a private part of your body, and touching yourself there is a private activity. So, not in the living room OK? Save it for when you are alone in your bedroom.”
This way, your child does not feel wrong about masturbation or that it’s off-limits. You are simply teaching them there is a time and place for doing so.
Wright mentions the importance of telling your child with a penis that “not all holes are created equal” so they are aware of what is safe and what could be dangerous.
If your child has a vulva, talk to them about what is safe to put near it or in their vagina. We teach our children the right and safe way to do things, such as how to brush their teeth and eat healthy foods, and masturbation needs to be included in these teachings, Wright adds.
What to look out for
If you feel your child is excessively masturbating at home and in public, even after you’ve talked to them about it, Wright says it might be a good time to talk about it. Similarly, she says that if they are masturbating “in conjunction with other symptoms of behavioral or emotional difficulty” or you notice inappropriate sexual talk or activity, you may want to talk to your pediatrician about their behavior.
According to Wright, masturbation is a great gateway to talk about consent with your child as well. You can say things like, “Would you force yourself to masturbate if you didn’t want to?” And then go on to talk about how we never force anyone to do something they don’t want or allow anyone to touch our bodies in a way that makes us uncomfortable. You can then reiterate the fact it is OK to touch your own genitals in private, but not someone else’s.
And while these chats with your kids may not be easy, they are an important part of their sexual development and education and well worth your time and effort.