It goes without saying that growing up is natural, and a part of that evolution is exploring our bodies. Yes, our… as weird as it may be for you to think about, your parents were once at this very crux, wondering what sort of self-exploration is quote-unquote normal and how to talk to you about it. But since you likely don’t remember that convo, you’re probably looking for a refresher.
Now that you have kids of your own and they’ve reached a certain age, the likelihood that you could walk in on your child self-touching increases exponentially. You need some talking points, right? To help navigate this conversation, Scary Mommy reached out to several experts and sex educators about what to do if you walk in on your child (boy, girl, or non-binary) masturbating — and how to foster important dialogue about self-touching.
What do you do if you catch your tween or teen “in the act”?
We tapped licensed marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney, who blogs about these very kinds of conversations at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, to find out. In speaking with her, she pointed out that it’s first important to quite literally check yourself at the door. “If you walk in on your preteen or teen playing with themselves, the first thing to do is to apologize and walk back out,” she told Scary Mommy. “The second thing is to catch your breath. It’s weird to think of your kid as having sexual feelings and masturbating, but there is absolutely nothing wrong about that. It’s completely normal for any child who’s gone through puberty — and even ones who haven’t — to self-pleasure.”
Whitney also noted that parents should be aware of their own internalized biases about this sort of behavior. “Thinking of the situation as ‘catching’ your kid masturbating implies they’re doing something wrong. But they aren’t. The American Academy of Pediatrics is clear that masturbation is normal and healthy for kids of any age and gender. The only problem with teens self-pleasuring is that it may freak parents out — but that’s our problem, not theirs.”
Still feeling a bit squeamish about the whole thing? Think of it this way, says Whitney: “Masturbation is the safest possible outlet for normal sexual feelings. No one can get pregnant or catch an STI. No one is being pressured or coerced.”
Why else should parents be okay with their tween or tween self-pleasuring?
This one’s simple, according to Whitney — it teaches young people that (a) they have agency over their own bodies and (b) what they’re comfortable with. “It’s a great way for teens, especially girls, to learn about what feels good for them. That’s useful information when the time comes that they’re considering sex with a partner. If they know that sex should feel good and what that means for them, they’re more likely to expect that in a partner, rather than acquiescing to something that doesn’t feel good to them.”
How soon after walking in on them should you broach the subject?
If you think you’re too upset to talk to your kid about what you just walked in on, it’s best to shelve the conversation until you’ve had time to process and recalibrate your feelings. But even if you think you’re ready to have that convo right this second, put a pin in it. You’re probably a little embarrassed. Your tween or teen is definitely embarrassed. “Give yourself and your kid a couple of days to recover from the worst of the embarrassment,” Whitney advised.
What specifically should you say to your teen or tween about masturbation?
Are you ready? Good. Take a deep breath, find a quiet moment when your kid is relaxed and no one else is around. Then, open a dialogue. Whitney recommends tweaking these talking points in a way that feels organic to you:
“About what happened [insert day]… I’m sorry I walked in on you. Next time lock the door, okay? [smile] So, this is awkward, but I just want to say that it’s completely normal to touch yourself. I’m sorry if I looked freaked out; it’s just weird for me to see how you’re growing up. But you haven’t done anything wrong.”
According to Whitney, your kid will likely (and not surprisingly) groan and leave the room, but that’s okay. “You’ve addressed an emotionally charged issue and normalized what’s really normal behavior,” she said.
Should you approach the conversation differently with a tween than a teen?
Maybe you have a tween and teen living under your roof and are wondering whether you need to adapt your approach accordingly. As it turns out, you don’t need to stress about that too much — the central focus here should simply be on conveying to your child the normality of their behavior, and that intersects any age demarcation.
“There doesn’t need to be any difference in how you approach the situation based on the age of your child. Masturbation is as normal for preteens as it is for teens. Once kids have hit puberty, it’s normal to have sexual feelings, and self-pleasuring is the logical, safe way to deal with them,” explained Whitney.
Should you approach the conversation differently with girls than boys (as well as non-binary kids)?
According to Whitney, gender is also secondary to the central message of destigmatizing masturbation for your child. “Self-pleasuring is perfectly healthy for kids of any gender, male, female, nonbinary, whatever,” she reiterated. “It’s a normal human thing. You don’t need to approach the situation differently depending on your child’s gender.”
Having said that, there are a few ways that gender can impact the conversation. Namely, kids sometimes differ in when they start masturbation, largely for anatomical reasons. “People with penises often start playing with themselves as soon as they mature sexually. Once they’ve started having wet dreams, it’s obvious that orgasms feel really good, and it’s not hard to figure out how to achieve them,” said Whitney.
For kids with female anatomy, it’s sometimes a more gradual learning curve. “It may take girls longer to figure out how to touch themselves and even to realize it’s something they might try. If you’ve walked in on your daughter, she’s obviously figured it out, so nothing needs to be said.”
Is there something you can say to your daughter (or non-binary child) to help them feel more comfortable?
You know your child better than anyone. If you feel like they might be unsure about self-pleasuring or whether it’s okay to try it, you could always address it in a way that underscores its normality. Whitney recommends something such as:
“So, this is kind of awkward, but I just want you to know that many girls and women find it can feel really good to touch their private parts [or vulva, if that’s the language you use]. If you decide to do that sometime, you’d be absolutely normal.”
What if your tween/teen is masturbating to pornography?
Granted, this could add another layer to your discomfort level. If your child is masturbating to porn, though, you probably should address that in your conversation — not because it’s wrong, per se, but because it is complex and certain considerations should be made. “It’s common and normal to view porn while self-pleasuring, but it’s important for kids of any gender to know that what they see in porn is a far cry from the sex most people have in real life. It’s a performance. Most people’s bodies don’t look like the actors’ bodies. Most women don’t like being treated the degrading and violent ways often shown in porn,” elaborated Whitney.
This is obviously a complicated topic and one that will probably be informed by your personal opinions about pornography. If it aligns more with your beliefs and comfort level, you can simply encourage your child to masturbate without porn (without making them feel bad about doing it in the first place).
“[Masturbating without porn] used to be common, but research has found that porn is so accessible that young people may not ever have simply used their own imagination as part of their sexual experience. Relying exclusively on stylized visual stimulation leaves young people with a limited arousal repertoire that can be unhelpful when the time comes for sex with a partner,” explained Whitney.
Of course, if pornography is something that you recognize as relatively unavoidable, you can always discuss with your tween or teen the idea of ethically sourced pornography and why it’s important. Sites like The Porn Conversation — a project offering tools for parents to discuss pornography with their kids in age-appropriate ways — can help with direction.
Is masturbation at these ages ever not normal?
Short answer? No. And the implications of making your child feel that way could be long-lasting. Traci W. Pirri, MSW, LCSW-S, and owner/director of the counseling group Hope for the Journey, gave us an example. “Masturbation, even in young children, is normal. If you are able (with both your words and your body language) to show that you are calm about this, your kid will be more likely to come to you with questions about sex down the road and be less likely to internalize something negative in themselves — like, ‘I’m a bad kid.’ These kinds of negative beliefs become self-fulfilling meaning if a kid believes they are bad, they will act bad,” Pirri said.
She continued, “Shaming or punishing kids for normal exploration of their bodies leads them to those negative beliefs and also makes it pretty sure that they will not come to you in the future to talk about sex, sexuality, or anything relationship in nature. Additionally, most people who have been shamed about masturbation end up feeling ashamed about sex even when they are married or in committed relationships. Shaming healthy sexuality can cause long-term problems and is best avoided.”
But does it ever warrant a more serious conversation or outside intervention?
Well, you may have to circle back around to the subject if you feel like your tween or teen isn’t adhering to healthy boundaries. “By the time your child is a tween or teen, they should know that masturbation is a private affair,” Pirri noted. “Some healthy rules for masturbation include: Do it in private; don’t do it because you’re angry, sad, or anxious (this sets up for an unhealthy pairing of negative emotions and sexual release); don’t do it too much (masturbation should not cause a rash, for example, and should not get in the way of normal activities).”
If you find that your tween or teen isn’t maintaining those boundaries even after you’ve addressed it with them more than once, it might be time to seek an expert’s advice. Said Pirri, “A professional counselor can help them explore what is going on. Additionally, if any sexual orientation or gender issues become apparent, a therapist can give them the support they will need to negotiate this tricky developmental stage while also dealing with these big identity issues.”
It’s also not a bad idea to seek counseling for yourself if you are struggling with regards to your child becoming more sexually active.
Is there any way to make these conversations less awkward?
Let’s be real: Talking to your kid about masturbation will probably always be a little awkward. But by making it a priority in your household to have regular conversations about sex and relationships, it will undoubtedly be less awkward than if you avoid the subject altogether.
“Walking in on your tween/teen masturbating is just an embarrassing reminder that your kids need some support and guidance to develop healthy sexual habits and attitudes. Most parents want their kids to say no to things that are uncomfortable and to use birth control once they do decide to start having sex. When you help kids to talk about these things at home, you are prepping them to do this in their romantic relationships,” said Pirri.
But, as any parent of a tween or teen can tell you, your kid probably isn’t going to listen to you proselytize about the sexual behavior for an hour — which is why Pirri suggests creating an ongoing and ever-evolving narrative. “Try to ask them questions that will get them thinking about things,” she suggested. “Value their opinions. Let them challenge your ways of thinking about things and know that they will be exploring and changing as they grow.”
Written by Julie Sprankles.