Expert-backed guidelines for parents who want to raise kids with a healthy understanding of sex.
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.”
Carnagey recommends books like Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts by Gail Saltz, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris and What’s the Big Secret? Talking About Sex With Girls and Boys by Laurie Krasny Brown.
Her Sex Positive Families reading list features over 100 books for children and parents to support sexual health talks, and she also likes the American Academy of Pediatrics’ child development resource at healthychildren.org.
Some of Cavill’s favorites includeSome Parts Are NOT for Sharing, Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect, Miles Is the Boss of His Body, C Is for Consent, Drawn to Sex: The Basics, The Girls’ Guide to Sex Education and The Ultimate Guys’ Body Book.
“Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is a Funny Word book has some great explanations about masturbation,” Bowers said. She also recommended Scarleteen’s websiteas a resource for health and safety information about masturbation.
Don’t Worry Too Much
It’s common for parents to have concerns about how often their children are touching themselves. Cavill said that it’s only an issue if masturbation is causing bodily harm or interfering with daily life.
“If someone avoids school, activities, eating food and other aspects of day-to-day life in order to masturbate or repeatedly injures themselves, then it’s time to seek support from a professional, like a doctor or therapist,” she advised. “If masturbation isn’t interfering with daily life, isn’t causing injury and is done in private, then it’s not happening too often.”
If it’s interfering with daily life, Bowers suggested addressing the concern with your child in a shame-free way. “Acknowledge that bodies feel good but that things like homework, chores and even hanging out with friends shouldn’t be neglected,” she said. “Can masturbation happen during a daily shower? Before bed?”
Additionally, parents sometimes worry that masturbation may be a sign of sexual abuse. “Unless there are other concerns or red flags involved, it is often not a cause,” Carnagey said. “Parents should follow up with the child’s pediatrician if they ever feel concerned about their child’s sexual health or behaviors.”
Let Go Of Your Own Shame
Having parents or caregivers who speak openly about topics like masturbation and make it clear that no question is off-limits helps children stay safe and informed when it comes to their sexual health. For many parents, fostering this kind of environment requires some self-reflection.
“It’s important to think about how our feelings about masturbation are affecting our responses to our children. Many of us grew up without conversations about masturbation, so they’re uncomfortable to have with our children. For some with religious backgrounds, there is a level of shame when we talk about touching genitals,” Bowers explained. “Taking a moment to evaluate our own feelings allows us to acknowledge them, then decide what messages we want to share with our children instead.”
Cavill emphasized the importance of seeking help as a parent if you’ve internalized shame or experienced trauma that makes it difficult to communicate acceptance in conversations with children about masturbation. Working through these issues will benefit everyone in the family.
Many of us bring shame to this conversation because of the way we were raised, because of past experiences, our relationships with our own bodies or because of trauma.Kim Cavill, sex education teacher
“Many of us bring shame to this conversation because of the way we were raised, because of past experiences, our relationships with our own bodies, or because of trauma,” said Cavill. “Those feelings can make talking about this in a shame-free way seem almost impossible, but we don’t have to suffer those feelings in silence.”
“We, as parents, deserve support,” she continued. “Parenting is a really hard job, and kids have a way of forcing us to confront the parts of ourselves we’d rather ignore. We need to give ourselves permission to seek help when we need it, to know that we don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to do this alone.”