The taboo topic of masturbating comes up surprisingly often in my office. Parents are afraid to talk about it, but are concerned that their child is doing it. The ultimate question is what do I do about it?
What is masturbating?
Masturbating is self-stimulation of the genitals. It is a normal part of development in childhood and not a sign of sexual deviation. It is very common, even at a very young age.
What is normal?
Kids, as young as a few months old, discover that masturbating feels good and engage in the behavior. It may take the form of rubbing against an object or even the floor. The child will often have a dazed or glazed look and muscle posturing. Because the child is so young, the parent may not recognize it for what it is initially.
In the very early years (sub 6 years old), kids are very curious about their bodies and the differences between girls and boys. It is not uncommon in this age for kids to touch their own bodies and want to touch other kids’ bodies. They are not usually bothered by public vs. private touching and don’t attempt to hide it.
The best way to handle it is to typically distract the child. Calling the child by name and offering another activity is typically all that is required to stop the behavior. Drawing lots of attention to the activity may in fact reinforce it and cause it to happen more often. You may also find that making it more difficult for the child to get his/her hands in her diaper helps stop/slow the activity (i.e., put a onesie on the child).
Social awareness surrounds this age group and masturbating typically happens in private. It also usually decreases in frequency. This age group has reasoning skills that provide a great teaching opportunity. The medical approach is a very straightforward discussion about normal sexual development. It is also an ideal opportunity to discuss private vs. public activities. Your own personal, moral, and religious beliefs will certainly add to the discussions with your child. I caution that when you have discussions with your child that you don’t instill feelings of guilt or shame (no matter how unhappy you may be about the activity). This can lead to very unhealthy, abnormal sexual development and activities.
This is the age that people expect masturbating to be happening. As a teen goes through puberty, hormones help drive sexuality. Again, it is a natural and normal part of development. Even though the conversation may be terribly uncomfortable for both the parent and teen, it is a great opportunity to teach. Whether you take the purely scientific approach of “sexuality and hormones are nature’s way of ensuring propagation of the species,” or the religious approach that “sexuality and hormones are part of the God-given tools used in procreative powers,” or another approach altogether, is really a belief and style point. The important element thing is to be willing to have the conversation with your teen.
When to worry
While masturbating is a normal part of sexual development, be aware of red flags. The red flags may indicate that the child has been exposed to sexual activity (either witnessing sex, being inappropriately touched, sexually abused, etc.) or has other underlying issues such as anxiety or stress.
- Excessive frequency/amounts (such that it interferes with regular activities)
- Acts are forceful and create pain/injury to themselves
- Methods of masturbating imitate adult-like sexual acts
- Public masturbating, especially in an older child that you have discussed it with
If you are seeing any red flags, make sure and talk to your child’s doctor about it.