Preschool Years (4-6 Years)
Young children often are not fully aware of how their behaviours may be perceived by others. They may pick their noses or touch their genitals without thinking twice. Avoid shaming or humiliating your child. Their actions are innocent and not sexual in nature as they are experiencing what a self-soothing behaviour feels like.
Explain that just as picking their nose in public is not something we do, we do not touch our private parts, except when cleaning them in a bath or shower, or at a check-up with a doctor. You can say something like: “Let’s put our hands on our laps where everyone can see them.”
Children at this age may be curious about their sexuality, Take time to explain how our body parts makes us distinct as a male or female and there are no bad body parts.
If the self-stimulating urge becomes more frequent, find out why your child is touching himself or herself more often. For some children, it could be arise from the desire for more affection. Parents can offer alternatives such as ruffling their hair, rubbing their back, holding or hugging them.
Primary Years (7-9 Years)
As kids enter school, they become more socially aware of their behaviours. Beginning a conversation now about masturbation tends to be easier because kids are more likely to talk openly.
Masturbation is sometimes used as self-soothing behaviour for school-age kids, especially if they feel lonely or rejected by classmates. When kids self-soothe in this age group, though, they will begin to hide their behaviour from adults. If we avoid the topic because it is awkward and uncomfortable, guilt and shame may start to build up.
Conversations with our children about masturbation do not have to be descriptive, but they should not be so vague that kids do not know what is being discussed. Talk about masturbation in a natural tone of voice and explaining simply how certain parts of the body feel good when touched can help parents pave the way for open and honest conversations later.
You may ask your child a question like: “I see you touching your penis a few times. Can you tell me why you are doing that? How does that make you feel?”
Avoid condemning messages, such as looking horrified, or yelling things like: “Don’t ever do that!” Punishing a child for masturbating is another form of shaming, as is telling him that masturbation is going to ruin his future sex life, prevent him from having children or other untrue myths as a scare tactic.
Instead, explain that this kind of pleasurable touch is something husbands and wives can enjoy with each other as an expression of love.
Tween Years (10-12 Years)
By the time your children reach the tween years, they would have attended sexuality education in school. It is important for parents to unpack what was taught and allow your child to ask questions which they may not have a chance to ask.
Parents should continue to give their kids a context for what they see or hear at school or in the media. If it feels unnatural to have an official sit-down talk, look for spontaneous conversation opportunities prompted by something seen on television or when your child is entering puberty.
Explain what masturbation is objectively to your child. Provide him or her factual information that the sensitivity in genital nerve endings is how our bodies are made to enjoy sex, which is reserved for marriage.
Inform them that they can approach you with questions because there is a lot of misinformation and what they read from the internet may be harmful information. For example, you can ask them, “What do you already know about masturbation?”
What you say to your tween depends on the strength of your relationship with him or her and your comfort level. If parents are uncomfortable talking about the subject, the child may pick that up and interpret it with guilt or shame. Therefore, it is best that parents practice talking about this subject with each other first. Dads should talk to boys and moms talk to girls. This isn’t a topic just for boys or just for girls.
Be ready for long silences and embarrassed looks when talking to your tween. Don’t hurry through the uneasiness as something you need to check off. Even if you must continue the conversation another time or are faced with a question you do not know how to answer, assure your child that you will talk about it again and that you will answer any questions he or she has. After all, if we are silent, the only voice our children hear is culture’s voice.
Adapted from What to do when young kids masturbate by Ann Byle © 2015 All rights reserved. Used with permission from Focus on the Family.