How to talk to kids about masturbation

Masturbation for Parents

Some teens need guidance on how to masturbate. So here’s a guide for parents on how you might address this with your kids.

Many parents don’t feel they need to talk to their kids about masturbation. For the most part young people are left to work this out for themselves. However I get many young people accessing BISH for information about how to do it safely. Sometimes young people have hurt themselves or are worried about doing it too much. So some parents may feel that they do need to talk about this – but how?

Let’s start with you

BISH masturbation for parents what have you been taught

We might have our own views or ‘values’ around masturbation which might relate to what we were taught when we were growing up. Think about what you were first taught about masturbation; from parents, teachers, friends, religious teaching, cultural values, TV and media. Write a few down. Which of these are relevant now? Are they true or useful now? Which do you believe in?

Having a think about some of this can help you to understand some of the barriers to talking about masturbation and sex in general. Often when we realise what we’ve been carrying around with us we can then think more carefully about what it is we actually want and need to say about it.

What do you want your kids to know about masturbation?

We hear a lot of stigma and negative rumours about masturbation, but the facts are that it is a perfectly pleasurable activity which most people do and enjoy doing.

Masturbation is fine

This is also true for young people. It is a healthy way to explore how it feels to be sexual. To understand what an orgasm feels like. Experiencing how being touched in a sexual way can feel (as opposed to another way). To learn that we have rights to touch our own bodies how we want to. It can help us to understand how our bodies work. Masturbation can help with how our bodies function (for instance it helps to loosen foreskin), it can be a great stress relief, it can make us feel relaxed.

Not all people have sexual feelings but those that do have the right to feel them if they want.

For young people who are learning about themselves as being sexual for the first time, solo masturbation is preferable to sex before they are emotionally ready with someone else.

Many parents have anxieties around their children being sexual and this is heightened with parents of a child with a disability, particularly a learning disability. However a young person with a learning disability is still likely to be having sexual feelings, to experience the feelings of being sexually aroused by someone (either in person or in an image). Of course not all people have sexual feelings but those that do have the right to feel them if they want.

How to make sure it is fine

Actually the anxiety many parents have isn’t that their kids are masturbating but that they may do something inappropriate. It’s not necessarily masturbation that is the problem but understanding where, when, how and how much. Young people I work with also share some of these concerns.

Many parents’ anxieties aren’t around masturbation itself but more about inappropriate behaviour.

So it’s a good idea to try to address some of these and to try and do it in a practical and matter of fact way. You know your kids so you’re the expert here, but below are some tips that you might find work for you.

Doing it in private

Children and young people are at risk if they touch themselves sexually in public. Often a parent’s response to a child touching themselves in Sainsbury’s (people do this in other supermarkets too) is to say “don’t do that.” This sends out a message that masturbation is wrong, not that masturbation in Sainsbury’s is wrong. So try not to panic. Catch yourself before you blurt out the common sense sex education you received. Breathe and say something “that’s okay to do but you must do it in private, not in public.”

Some young people might get what ‘private’ means more easily than others. You can practice at home by using simple pictures or labels on rooms about where is private and where is public.

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Doing it safely

People aren’t taught very much about their sexual anatomy. Mostly this is fine as people learn about what feels nice for themselves. However sometimes people may touch themselves in ways that can cause damage. They may cause chafing, or tearing or soreness if they do it too hard. This is particularly true if they are doing it but not realising it should feel pleasurable.

Plenty of young people writing to me at BISH have asked about damaging themselves after masturbation . You can see a couple of my responses here, here and here. These posts about the penis and the clitoris should provide some useful pointers for people to understand their bodies. It’s worth remembering that masturbation during puberty can help to stretch the foreskin.

If your kid is having trouble understanding this, or you want to explain how to touch themselves, you could get hold of some play doh or plasticine and make a model of what someone’s genitals might look like. They could practice touching the models gently in a similar way to how they may touch their own. Alternatively they could do a drawing.

How often is okay?

People may have a particular time when they want to masturbate. This might be in the morning or evening in bed. This might not cause any problems if their bed is in a private space. However sometimes people may want to masturbate more frequently. Again if this is in private and if this is done discreetly this may cause a problem. Parents may worry that they spend too much time doing it, but sometimes this is a worry young people have too.

Rather than talking about masturbation, you could frame this as a time management thing. Talk about the importance of doing their homework and their chores. Also making sure that they have a broad range of interests and friends. You might find some help in this response I gave to a young person.

Try my other guides for parents, on talking to your kids about sex and what to do about porn.

Comment below if you like. I moderate all comments before they appear, just so you know!

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Justin Hancock

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