Talking to Kids About Masturbation

A teen boy covering his face with his hand
Belyaevskiy/iStock/Thinkstock; model for illustrative purposes only

When it comes to the topic of masturbation, the question “Right or wrong?” can dominate the discussion. However, pointing kids toward the healthy relational (versus solo) purposes of marital sex is usually the most helpful way to orient your talks. And, no matter what the age, it’s certainly best to avoid shame, which may encourage intense secrecy and embarrassment. 

Of course, there’s been no lack of coarse joking as well as staunch religious advice given throughout time on this personal issue. Don’t let these attitudes silence you as a parent. Keep your objectives simple and your references mature and to the point. Your growing children will be comforted and aided by your kind, mature wisdom and gentle direction.

Perfect timing may be difficult to establish, but aim to be the initial person from whom they learn about this topic. You don’t want to prematurely plant ideas of experimentation, but you do want to prevent any worrisome wondering or misuse after self-discovery. It’s always best if you are the trusted and calm starting place of information on difficult topics— other sources may be unreliable and unsafe for your kids. 

Your Objectives

  • Introduce the topic around the time you suspect puberty is arriving. The timeline for this may be earlier if your children ask questions about it or if culture or peers have brought this awareness to your children. 
  • For preteens/teens, define masturbation in appropriate terms that make sense without being overly graphic. 
  • Let your children know you are an emotionally safe source of information and that they are invited to talk comfortably with you about the topic whenever needed. 
  • Inoculate them against shame or turmoil over the very common experience of teen masturbation. 
  • Orient your teens with long-term positive goals for how they steward sexuality and how they might respectfully relate to their urges and normal development. 
  • Give direction for why they are getting the feelings they have, which helps prevent problematic and addictive masturbation— especially as it relates to coupling it with pornography, fantasy or the presence of other individuals. 

How to Talk About It

Teach accurate information. Correctly explain that the sensitivity of genital nerve endings is the way the body is made. The purpose and meaning for this is ultimately about love and relationship in marriage. This is the main purpose of sex. It isn’t supposed to be “all about me.” Explain that self-control and the mature use of the body in marriage is the goal—not to get stuck on masturbation, but also not to feel abnormal about it occurring. 

Use proper terms. Explain that masturbation is the touching or movement of the genital area (penis for males and clitoris for females) to the point of a physical sensation called arousal. Be clear that it’s not physically damaging to the genitals or body. As maturity warrants, add:

  • It may also involve an intense sensation in the body called an orgasm. 
  • Becoming aware of or experiencing this ability of the body is a common part of growing up. 
  • For boys this sometimes leads to the fluid called semen being released out of the penis from the same opening urine exits. 
  • Ask what they already know about this topic and if they have questions. Assure them that it’s best if they bring their questions to you because there is a lot of misinformation and even harmful information on this topic out there. Let them know you are glad to talk and that you will find the correct answers if you don’t have them. 
  • The Focus on the Family Guide to Talking With Your Kids About Sex offers excellent phrases and accurate medical references to use with your child (see page 169 of the book or the book’s index). 

Be aware of your child. Genital self-touching sometimes becomes a “go-to” strategy to cope with stress or social isolation. Habitual masturbation of this particular nature is a cue to gently attend to the underlying needs of your teen. Our Focus on the Family FAQ section offers more on this topic. Often, redirection and a calm parental response which does not over focus on the behavior itself is most helpful. 

Clarify what you have discussed. Explain that because masturbation is personal and a private topic— and happens with a lot of teens as they grow up—many people make fun of it. Say that you want them to know better than to feel shame or excessive worry over this. No matter if this topic affects them personally or not, it can seem embarrassing. But encourage your children to ask or talk with you about the subject if they have concerns.

Use this illustration. When an athlete wants to become an Olympian, he keeps his purpose in focus and tries to move in the positive direction of his goals.

  • He doesn’t do things that intentionally train him away from his aims (like eating junk food or avoiding regular healthy workouts). 
  • Yet he doesn’t feel surprised, ashamed or defeated during the time it takes to gain the physical and mental maturity to become an Olympian—he just keeps moving. 
  • His coach understands his developmental process and he does, too. If there’s a problem or barrier along the way they address it together as a team. 
  • Ask your child what he thinks it teaches in relation to the topic of masturbation. 

What Is Harmful

Certain things can pose danger if they become associated with masturbation. Mention the following as the main examples: 

  • Masturbation as compulsive or an all-consuming emotional escape can create an addictive habit if it evolves into a coping mechanism for stress or difficult emotions. Rather than discuss or face worries, such as loneliness or social/ relational challenges, some people might insulate their hearts and lives and become consumed by masturbation. 
  • The use of pornography or fantasy introduces unreal images producing strong and memorable responses in the brain. This adds to the addictive potential of masturbation and warps our view of healthy marital sexuality. 
  • Masturbation with another person outside of marriage leaves an unintended impact on our minds and hearts and is not in line with the goal and overall marital meaning and purpose of sex. 
  • State, “While I hope you don’t become consumed by unhealthy behaviors, it’s important not to be secretive or isolated; don’t be embarrassed to ask for help or wise input. While it’s normal to want to avoid talking to a parent about this as you get further into your teens, let’s try to keep the topic open for conversation if that’s ever needed.” 
  • Mention that staying in the right balance with the mind and body will probably feel challenging at times. That’s normal, too. Instruct kids to remember that they can do something other than masturbate if they feel the need to choose otherwise. Moving intentionally into other actions (sports, games, positive social or spiritual activities) are good alternatives. 
  • Explain that their energy and interest in sex is not bad; they can channel it as motivation to grow as a person with the goal of eventually becoming a great spouse some day.

* If you believe your child's behavior in this area is excessive or compulsive, or if its onset is coupled with circumstances or events that trigger more severe behavior, immediately consult with a trained counselor for help in ascertaining the nature of the matter. Our licensed counselors are available to listen and pray with you as well as provide guidance and resources. Find out more at FocusOnTheFamily.com/CounselingHelp or call 800-A-FAMILY (232-6459) Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time).

 

Copyrighted © 2015 by Focus on the Family.

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