Masturbation and Kids–Moving Beyond the Shame!
I started masturbating when I was in 8th grade. I’m not sure about the exact moment, time, or location, but I do remember what started it. I watched a movie and in it the girl masturbated. I’d heard about masturbation from guys around me, but I’d never tried it myself. In this movie, the girl seemed to enjoy it, so I tried it. It was something foreign that I hadn’t learned much about, but I’d heard it was enjoyable. The first time I did it, I liked it. After the initial sensation, I felt guilty. I knew I wasn’t supposed to masturbate because I had been taught that at my church, but in the moment, it was pleasurable and I liked it. My parents never talked to me about masturbation and because of that I didn’t feel like I could tell my parents about this event.
It didn’t stop there. I continued to masturbate into and throughout high school. The guilt turned into shame and self-loathing. I felt like I was a terrible person and an anomaly to be quite honest. I thought I was the only girl struggling with this. I felt so out of place and that I couldn’t tell anyone or they wouldn’t want to be around me or associate with me anymore. I was afraid of others knowing or somehow finding out. Guys in high school would ask girls if they had ever masturbated—of course I know now the question was inappropriate, but at the time, I thought that it was something people talked about in was high school. I would always get super embarrassed, but then I would say, “Oh no, of course not.” I tried to play it off like the thought of masturbating never crossed my mind. All of my girlfriends would say, “Ew, no, that’s gross” and things of that nature. Their reactions just made me feel worse. They made me feel even more like I was abnormal.
The shame I felt from masturbating was a psychological effect and not a physical effect (Haber, 2016). In my case, that shame was compounded by my religious life. While my religious worship often provided me with positive practices as well as a caring community, the shame I felt regarding masturbation stemmed in large part from the way in which my religious community spoke about it. Researchers have found that those who were more religious and attended religious worship often had higher rates of shame, guilt, and negative attitudes towards masturbation (Hungrige, 2016).
I continued to masturbate when I got to college. The frequency decreased, but it still happened occasionally. I still hadn’t told anybody at this point. I started dating my husband and about three weeks in, he shared personal information about his past. He opened up to me in a way that I’d never experienced before. I felt so close to him and like I could trust him with anything. I decided to tell him about my struggles and I also told him how they had made me feel growing up. He helped me realize that it’s perfectly normal to experience desire. He also helped me realize that acting on that desire through masturbation is not the most terrible thing in the world. I had always felt like a bad person, but he let me know that I was not a bad person for having sexual desires. Although it seems common sense to acknowledge the existence of sexual desire in humans, for me, understanding sexual desire as an integral part of my own human nature was incredibly important for my overall health.
I associated guilt and shame with masturbation from a young age due to the fact that the only places that I heard the topic discussed—in my peer groups as a teenager, and at my church—were places that likewise viewed masturbation as something unnatural, unhealthy, and shameful. The point here is not that my friends and my church were bad, evil, or uncaring: it’s that I didn’t have a safe space to talk about masturbation, and that the resulting shame and guilt produced an enormous burden that I didn’t know how to deal with in a healthy manner (Haber, 2016).
Why do I tell you this story? I want to make sure that no kid ever has to feel this way again! You, as parents, can help with this! It starts with teaching your kids about masturbation. Yes, I know, it’s an uncomfortable topic for both the parent and the child, but it’s also an extremely important topic. Discussing masturbation in a calm, thoughtful, and non-judgmental manner with your child is the first step to ensuring that your child understands that they have a safe space to process and understand their own feelings and to develop a healthy approach to human sexuality.
There is no “one way” to talk about masturbation with your child. You may understand masturbation as completely natural and healthy and simply want your child to understand the appropriate social boundaries (e.g., masturbation is something that is not done in public). You may also understand masturbation as normal, but wish to express to your child your desire that they refrain from masturbating for a variety of reasons (to help them focus, to honor their faith, etc.). It is important, however, that your child understands that masturbation is ultimately a personal, private choice and that it is never something that is unforgivable, or something that would cause you to stop loving them and respecting them.
Masturbation is defined as the self-stimulation of the genitals, commonly done by touching, massaging, or stroking the clitoris or penis, in order to be sexually aroused, usually to the point of orgasm. Masturbation is a common behavior across cultures and genders. It is usually the first sexual act that males and females experience. In one study, they found through reports that 95% of males and 89% of females have masturbated. Even as adults, it is difficult at times to talk about masturbation as a normal sexual act—many of us carry with us ingrained responses of shame and guilt to the topic of masturbation. Help your children avoid the burden of unnecessary shame by empowering them with facts grounded in scientific studies. Some of these studies have even found masturbation to be healthy (Your Guide to Masturbation).
You and your family should decide how to approach masturbation. Masturbation can become addictive, like any other behavior, something that gives us another reason to talk to your kids about it. Let them know they can come to you. Give them good alternatives to do when they feel the impulse to masturbate if it’s an act that interferes with their ability to engage and participate in their normal family, social, and school life, or if it is something you prefer they avoid.
If they feel the urge, here are some helpful, alternative coping skills for older kids:
Go for a run
Go for a walk
Read a book
Write in their journal
Call a friend
Hang out with a friend
Redirecting younger kids:
Give them a toy
Play a game
Sing a song
They need to engage in an activity that is entertaining and uses their mind enough that it will keep them from masturbating (Scaccia, 2017). In my personal experience, redirecting my attention away from masturbation, even when it was a behavior I wanted to avoid, was difficult. It couldn’t just be any activity, it had to be something that made me focus intensely. My focus would stop being on not masturbating and turned to whatever activity I was engaging in.
Masturbation is a discussion that you need to have with your kids from a young age and continue to have with them as they grow. When they are younger, you can talk to them about their anatomy discussing their specific body parts and how they differ from the opposite sex. You can teach them how their body functions and discuss their curiosity regarding their body (Alexander, 2015).
Around the ages of 8-11, depending on when you are comfortable, you can start the conversation by discussing your views on masturbation. Talk to them about when it is an appropriate time and place to do so. Everyone has different views about masturbation. Some may think it is totally fine, while others may think it isn’t. Talk about the impulses kids start having around the time they start puberty and how these feelings are normal. Teach them what to do with these impulses and how to handle them. The most important point to get across is that they are loved and that they don’t have to be ashamed of the natural feelings of desire and curiosity. Whatever your personal feelings regarding masturbation, it isn’t beneficial to create guilt and shame regarding this act and doing so can have negative psychological effects (Alexander, 2015). 30 Days of Sex Talks for Ages 8-11 provides a guide to discussing sensitive topics like masturbation with your kids.
Here are some questions you can discuss:
As your child matures, you can discuss masturbation in more depth. Discuss your family views and religious views (if applicable) about masturbation. Talk about how puberty plays a role in the desire to masturbate. Ask your child about their own questions and answer them honestly and with compassion and care.
What constitutes masturbation?
Do you think that masturbation is or can be healthy? Why or why not?
What have you heard about using masturbation as a coping mechanism or escape?
What happens if masturbation becomes a habit, are there any consequences?
Do you think it can be a healthy habit or is it always wrong?
Should it replace a relationship?
Should you feel ashamed if you masturbate?
Does masturbating make you a bad person?
Do you believe that masturbating is a sin (If religious)?
These are all great questions you can discuss with your children about masturbation. It will help both the parents and the child to achieve a better understanding of what they believe and what they’ve heard (Alexander, 2015). It will help to create open communication and hopefully prevent your children from going through what I went through in high school. The loneliness and self-loathing I felt during that period associated with masturbation is something that I will always remember. Luckily, I’ve been able to discuss it with people and overcome a lot of those negative feelings. I hope the same for your children if they struggle!
For more information on how to talk to your kids about masturbation, their bodies, healthy sexuality, and much more, check out our 30 Days of Sex Talks books. There are three available. One for ages 3-7, ages 8-11, and ages 12+.
Looking to prepare your kids for the challenges they face in the digital age, check out our newest book Conversations with My Kids: 30 Essential Family Discussions for the Digital Age.
Alexander, D. (2015). 30 Days of Sex Talks: Empowering your child with knowledge of sexual intimacy. Lexington, KY: Educate and Empower Kids.
Alexander, D. (2015). 30 Days of Sex Talks, for 3-7 year-olds: Empowering your child with knowledge of sexual intimacy. Lexington, KY: Educate and Empower Kids.
Alexander, D. (2015). 30 Days of Sex Talks, for 8-11 year-olds: Empowering your child with knowledge of sexual intimacy. Lexington, KY: Educate and Empower Kids.
Haber, D. (2016, May 21). Why Do I Feel Intense Shame and Self-Hatred When I Masturbate? Retrieved May 30, 2018, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/dear-gt/why-do-i-feel-intense-shame-and-self-hatred-when-i-masturbate
Hungrige, A. (2016). Women’s Masturbation: An Exploration of the Influence of Shame, Guilt, and Religiosity (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://twu-ir.tdl.org/twu-ir/bitstream/handle/11274/8755/Hungriged2.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y
Scaccia, A. (2017, June 05). Masturbation Side Effects and Benefits. Retrieved May 30, 2018, from https://www.healthline.com/health/masturbation-side-effects#sexualsensitivity
Your Guide to Masturbation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2018, from https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/guide/masturbation-guide#1