Masturbation is an aspect of childhood sexuality that parents find hard to respond to comfortably and appropriately. Part of the difficulty may be the need to acknowledge that children are sexual beings. The misunderstandings and secrecy about masturbation add to parent and child discomfort.
By definition, masturbation is self-stimulation of the genitals. It is done by both boys and girls and is normal behavior. Just how common is masturbation during the various stages of childhood? Up to the age of five or six years, masturbation is quite common. Young children are very curious about their bodies and find masturbation pleasurable and comforting. Youngsters also are curious about the differences between girls and boys, and thus in the preschool and kindergarten years they may occasionally explore each other's body, including their genitals.
From age six on, the incidence of masturbation in public tends to subside, largely because children's social awareness increases and social mores assume greater importance. Masturbation in private will continue to some extent and remains normal. When pubertal development begins—accompanied by an increase of sexual hormones, thoughts, and curiosity—body awareness and sexual tensions rise. Masturbation is a regular part of normal adolescence. Most young teenagers discover that masturbation is sexually pleasing and recognize that self-stimulation is an expression of their own developing sexuality.
Although the myths surrounding masturbation have been scientifically dispelled, they still persist. A child who masturbates is not oversexed, promiscuous, or sexually deviant. Nor will he go blind or insane, grow pimples or warts, or become sterile. Nevertheless, many cultures still actively discourage masturbation, partly because of the general moral constraints often placed on sexual behavior.
When parents of school-age children discover their child's masturbatory play or activity, some react with embarrassment, anger, and even moral outrage; others take it in stride and recognize it as developmentally normal behavior. Ideally, this discovery provides a wonderful opportunity for teaching children about their own sexuality and about the differences between public and private activities.
Excessive or public masturbation may indicate a more serious psychological or personal problem. It could be a sign that the child is stressed, is overly preoccupied with sexual thoughts, fantasies, or urges, or is not receiving adequate attention at home. Sometimes masturbation is a means of providing himself with personal comfort when he is feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Masturbation could even be a tipoff to sexual abuse; children who are being sexually abused may become overly preoccupied with their sexuality, suggesting the need for further investigation.
What Should You Do?
"I caught my child masturbating, Doctor. What should I do?"
It is not unusual for physicians to hear this question from worried parents. However, masturbation is a part of normal human sexual experience, and children find it pleasurable. Assuming it is not excessive (not interfering with normal routines, responsibilities, or play), elimination of masturbation may not be desirable.
Nevertheless, make sure your child understands that masturbation, like many other things, is a private activity, not a public one. If you observe him touching his genitals in a public place, you might say to him: "It is not appropriate for you to be touching your penis [or vagina] here. It should be only done in the privacy of your room when no one is with you." As you discuss masturbation with your child, do not label it as bad, dirty, evil, or sinful. This will create a sense of guilt and secrecy that may be unhealthy for his sexual development.
There are certain situations in which children should receive an evaluation by a behavioral pediatrician, child psychiatrist, or psychologist. These include:
- Frequent excessive daily masturbation, both at home and in public.
- Public masturbation that continues even after you have talked about it with your child.
- Masturbation that takes place in conjunction with other symptoms of behavioral or emotional difficulty, including social isolation, aggression, destructiveness, sadness, withdrawal, bed-wetting, or soiling (encopresis).
- Inappropriate sexual talk or other sexual activity.