Masturbation isn't an issue most parents think they need to consider until their kids hit puberty and disappear into their bedrooms. But experts say it's pretty common for children to start exploring their bodies — and discovering what sensations feel pleasurable — from a young age.
“Children between the age of 1 to 5 years old may explore their bodies and realize specific areas feel good to the touch,” certified sex educator Celina Gomes tells Yahoo Life. “Some children enter this self-exploration time in their pre-pubescent years, around 7 to 12 years old. All of these ages and stages are a normal time for exploration.”
Additionally, there are a few other reasons that children may be interested in touching themselves.
According to Melissa Pintor Carnagey, founder of Sex Positive Families, children are focused on their immediate wants and needs at a developmental level. “If a sensation feels good to them, they go for it, all with little to no regard of what others think or the circumstances around them.”
Carnagey adds that young children are transitioning from diapers to underwear, which can cause new pleasing or itching sensations in ways they didn’t experience in more enclosed diapers.
Children's brains are developing in the areas of attention, symbolism and memory, which means a lot of this self-touch may occur in obvious ways, or around others.
“Abstract concepts like social norms or privacy are complex and less realistic for them to consistently grasp,” Carnagey explains.
On a different note, Gomes adds that it's also completely normal for children to not be interested in self-touch. There’s no need to be concerned if your child hasn’t expressed curiosity or interest at such a young age.
And while our own upbringings may have us seeing masturbation as a taboo topic, it's an important part of getting to know our bodies and what feels pleasurable. Here's what parents should know.
Strike up a shame-free conversation — but insist on boundaries
If you notice your child touching themselves in public or in inappropriate settings, then it’s important to address it in a shame-free way. Gomes says there’s a big difference between saying, “Stop! Don’t do that here!” and offering a space and time to enjoy something that feels good. This can help children develop healthy boundaries and avoid internalized shame around self-touch and pleasure.
Her suggested script: “We can say, 'I notice you are touching [name of genitals] and it can feel good. It’s totally normal to do this in private. Since we are at [name of non-private space] right now, it’s not private. You can enjoy more touching in [name of a private space].”
Examples of non-private spaces would include the playground, classroom, grocery store, etc. However, a private space would be a bedroom or a similar place inside the household.
Change the conversation as your child reaches puberty
As your children grow up, the conversation around masturbation will change. In addition to seeing a change in their bodies, teens may start noticing correlations between finding pleasure around their genitals and sex.
This is a great segue to start up a fresh dialogue about consent (an important topic to discuss at any age, particularly in terms of sexual abuse prevention) and partnered pleasure. You’ll want to be open and honest with your children when this conversation comes around because they are asking certain questions for a reason.
Additionally, at this stage of development, it’s a good idea for parents to note the benefits of masturbation.
“We can tell our pubescent children that self-pleasure and exploration can calm anxiety, give us better sleep and help us learn what our genitals feel and look like so we can take care of our health,” says Gomes.
You’ll also want to make sure your children know you are a safe person to turn to if they have any questions.
Safety is key
Aside from being alone and in private, you’ll want to educate your kids about safety while masturbating. According to Lexx Brown-James, a sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist who was recently featured in the It Gets Better Project's Queer Sex Ed, that includes "making sure they know to have clean hands and clipped fingernails to help prevent bacterial growth or cuts throughout the process.”
Bounce back from awkward encounters
If you accidentally walk in on your child masturbating, it can be an awkward moment for both parties. How you address the situation is the most important consideration. “The best response is to apologize for not knocking first, then walk back out to respect their privacy,” Carnagey says. “Continue to give them space to explore their own body without shame or judgment.”
Additionally, if you have uncomfortable thoughts around your children masturbating, you may want to take the time to reflect on why that is. “Digging deeper about our own shame and questioning its roots can help us break shaming cycles with our own children,” Gomes says.
Should you be concerned?
Compulsive masturbation can sometimes be an indicator of sexual abuse. However, in many instances, masturbation among children is common as a way for children to self-soothe.
With that said, there are a few red flags you’ll want to look out for to make sure your child is safe and healthy along the way. “If a child is inserting objects into genital openings, referencing adult sex acts or isn’t responding to redirection or communicated boundaries, especially if they are elementary-aged or older, you’ll want to consult with a pediatrician for professional support,” Carnagey says.
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