Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Today I thought I’d tackle this one: I have a lot of moms writing to me saying, “my son masturbates and I don’t know what to do!” I want to tackle the issue of PRE-PUBESCENT masturbation today (so kids under 11 or 12).
One mom wrote this:
A few months ago, my 8 year old son discovered that he could use the floor as friction on himself (so to speak) when he’s lying down on his stomach reading a book. Not knowing what to do and hoping he would stop on his own, I pretended I didn’t notice the first few times and then read some advice which I’ve partly taken already.
I’ve told him a few times not to do this outside of his room. I asked him why he did it. My tone was casual, not condescending. He looked at me blankly, and I asked him if he did it because it felt good and he said yes. I left it at that. I know that the behaviour has not stopped.
One article mentioned lack of connection as a possible issue, but I don’t think that’s the case. We’re pretty much together 24/7 (we homeschool). My husband is also around a lot and spends tonnes of time with the kids (and me) doing things we all enjoy.
What I want to get across to him is that it’s a bad habit to get into at such a young age. I don’t want him to start conditioning his sexual response so early. If he gets into this habit now, how on earth is he going to manage his hormones when he hits puberty? And when he gets married….can guys have trouble having orgasms with their wife if they have been having them alone for years before they get hitched? I know it can be an issue for women, but I’m not sure on the male side.
In any case, he’s only 8. He’s not going to understand all that. Or maybe I’m not giving him enough credit. Maybe I need to explain the sexual response cycle to him in more detail and how triggering that in himself can disrupt it? Hmmm…. perhaps I’ve just answered my own question. 🙂
That’s a tricky one for a lot of parents! I’ve actually talked to my daughter, who takes Psychology in university, and my husband, who is a pediatrician, to chime in a bit on this one, so I’ve amalgamated their advice.
First, a bit of background:
It’s Very Common to “Masturbate” When You’re 6-8
Around age 6-8 kids often realize that touching their genitals and stimulating their genitals feels good. And so MOST children at this age will start to explore and will start to touch themselves.
My girls taught swimming at the YMCA, and one thing they often found was that little girls–say ages 7 and 8–would often position themselves near the jets of water and sit themselves there. The male teachers would often have to come and get Rebecca and tell her, “Can you tell Nicole to move away from the jets again?” It was a running joke.
But here’s the thing: the 10-year-old and 11-year-old girls didn’t do it.
Because at around age 8-9, kids often enter a “latency” phase for about 3-4 years where they stop this kind of behaviour, and everything like it, until puberty starts.
At This Age It Isn’t Sexual
Let me repeat that: in the vast majority of cases at these young ages, this touching is not sexual at all. Not. At. All.
There may be exceptions: children who have been sexually abused, for instance, can engage in sexual behaviour, but for most children it really isn’t sexual. It simply “feels good”.
Kids Often Fixate for Short Periods on Something
Has your child ever decided he wanted to eat hot dogs–and nothing but hot dogs–for three weeks? Or decided that she can’t go anywhere without one particular toy–and then promptly forgot about that toy a month later? When we toured England back in 2004 Rebecca had this Tower of London teddy bear that she would not put down. It went with her everywhere for a few weeks. And then it sat on a shelf in her room for the rest of her life, never to be picked up again.
Okay, so there’s some information. Now, what do you do? We were talking in a previous article about the Josh Duggar scandal about how parents can unwittingly cause kids to become ashamed of their sexuality, and cause almost a “sexual splitting”. And many parents were asking how to prevent that, which is where this question came from. So let’s look at what actually to do:
When Your Son Masturbates: What To Do
Don’t Make a Big Deal Out of It
Sin is a big deal. Exploring your body is not. And at this age masturbation has nothing to do with lust at all. It really doesn’t. So it is not a sin.
This mom ignored it at first (quite understandably, because as a mom, you likely freak inside when you see your child doing this), but if you can, stop that “inner freak out” and, right from the get go, say something like, “Honey, we don’t play with our penis when we’re around other people,” or “Honey, we don’t rub our vulva when we’re around other people.”
Name the body part, too. That’s important. Because you’d say, “honey, we don’t pick our nose in public”, and “honey, we don’t bite our nails in at the dinner table.” You name those body parts. So don’t be afraid to name these. When you DON’T name them, you actually attach more shame to them (oh, we don’t TALK about those).
So just let them know that they aren’t to do that in front of people, in the same way that they aren’t to get naked in front of people.
If your son is constantly putting his hands down his pants, you just say, “Tommy, hands out of pants in the living room/kitchen/dining room please!”
Treat it like any other unwanted behaviour. You wouldn’t go ballistic on your kid for farting in public, right? So there’s no need to go ballistic about this, either. At this age it really is just like thumb sucking or carrying a teddy bear. It’s self-soothing. That’s all it is, so don’t treat it like it’s more.
Don’t Make It Sexual
One thing that parents often wonder is, “do I need to start explaining about sex?” No. You do not. Absolutely not.
Saying something like, “God made that part of your body to feel good, but it’s supposed to feel good in marriage” really confuses them at this age when they didn’t mean it sexually at all. At this age the idea of a girl touching him THERE is likely absolutely repulsive and not associated with feeling good whatsoever.
That may be a talk that you need to have in the future, if this gets really out of hand (excuse the pun), but you definitely don’t want to launch into that. To a child who likely doesn’t know much about sex at all to be introduced to sex like this can be rather traumatic and awfully embarrassing.
My girls and I have this weird condition where our the nerve ending in our throats is highly attached to the nerve endings in our inner ears. So whenever our throats itch, what do we do? We get a Q-tip and we rub our inner ear like crazy, and our throats feel so much better. Seriously–that Q-tip is likely the one thing I couldn’t live without on a desert island. I like Q-tips for Christmas. It’s bad.
And when I’m rubbing, Keith always laughs at me because I make sounds that are awfully similar to–well, you know.
But I don’t mean it that way at all!
And I think that’s the way little boys and little girls are at this age: they may touch themselves, and it feels really nice, but if someone were to suddenly make it into something sexual, they’d be ashamed and not know what to do. They didn’t even realize they were doing something bad! And now Mommy/Daddy is all serious.
At this age it’s just exploring your body. So saying something like, “I know touching your penis/vulva can feel good, but that’s really something that we don’t do in public. And lots of things feel good!”–and then start a tickling match or something.
We’re often told: we should educate our kids sexually as they are ready for it and as opportunities arise. We should grab those opportunities! But I’d just really caution that this may not be the best one, because it’s really easy to confuse and mortify kids. Remember, we’re supposed to grab opportunities, yes–but this, though it may look sexual, really isn’t sexual. So it’s not our typical “opportunity”.
What If It Doesn’t Stop?
Rebecca stopped carrying Teddy everywhere pretty quickly. What if your child doesn’t stop after a few weeks? What if it becomes a serious habitual problem?
For most kids it will stop. And for most kids, when it becomes habitual it’s because there’s something else going on–a lot of stress in their life, a lack of physical affection from parents, a condition like Asperger’s or ADD where they have difficulty dealing with emotions, etc.
But what if those things aren’t in play (as it doesn’t sound like it is from this mother), and it’s still happening?
Here’s what my husband (the pediatrician) says:
It honestly does usually stop constantly happening after a few weeks. If it doesn’t, go see your pediatrician. After all, maybe your kid isn’t masturbating–maybe he/she has a rash there! Or maybe it’s a urinary tract infection. Or maybe in some way you’re feeding the behaviour and you just need someone to talk to about it.
So there you go. Don’t freak out. Don’t treat it sexually. Name the body part. And if it continues constantly, seek help. But usually it will die down. It really will.
Now I’d love to know in the comments: Has this ever happened to you? How did you handle it? Let us know!