There are a number of things that our kids do when they are young that are totally normal and age-appropriate but they push our buttons. Child masturbation is one of those things ie a behaviour that often makes parents squirm!
So what should you be doing about it? Without giving your child negative messages about their genitals?
You’ll find more information about sex education in my Sex Education 101 page.
Well, it depends on your definition of masturbation.
There is adult masturbation which is when you might be touching yourself for sexual pleasure and it peaks until you climax or reach orgasm. The type that you do because you might be feeling sexually aroused or desiring sexual touch. Or to use some slang, something that you might do if you were feeling ‘horny’.
Well, kids don’t do this type of masturbating.
Firstly, orgasm doesn’t usually happen until adolescence which is when the sexual hormones of puberty will alter the body to be capable of reproducing ie to create the next generation. Which means that during puberty your child’s brain is rewired so that they start to see sex as something that they will want to someday do. Which means they will start to have sexual thoughts and feelings so that they will want to have sexual intercourse, conceive and create the next generation. Pretty smart, huh?
Now, you may disagree with this and believe that orgasm does occur much earlier in children. I have looked at a lot of research articles and textbooks and the general consensus is that orgasm doesn't happen until puberty. Some government agencies talk about it happening from the age of 7 but they provide no referencing as to the source of this information. The research that many refer back to is a book written over 30 years ago in which their main source of information is in asking university students to recall their childhood memories of masturbation, of which some recalled orgasm. There are some small cases studies that do show orgasm from a younger age. Every person is unique and individual and we don't know enough about child sexuality to be able to definitely say that children do or don't. And the research ethics of questioning paedophiles about the sexual response of children is ethically questionable. (And I'm sorry but I'm not going to find their forums, join and ask them what they think). The general consensus is that most children don't have an adult-like orgasm until their early teens but if a child does orgasm earlier than this, it is still considered to be quite normal.
So for kids, child masturbation is more about discovering that their genitals can feel nice when they touch them in a certain way. They are exploring their body and then discover a part that feels nicer when they touch it. It is usually just a vague fiddling that may become more purposeful later on when they discover that it can feel quite nice (a different ‘nice’ to what an adult feels remember, as kids don’t climax or reach orgasm until during puberty). Or they might discover that if they sit on top of their favourite teddy and rock backwards and forwards, that it can feel really nice. They don’t know that it is a feeling that adults associate with sexual pleasure, they just know that it feels nice.
So child masturbation is just about children touching their genitals because it feels nice. They don’t do it because they are having sexual thoughts, or are feeling aroused.
Not all kids will masturbate. Some do and some don’t, and both is normal age-appropriate sexual behaviour! So your child isn’t abnormal if they are (or aren’t) masturbating.
Child masturbation it is something that kids usually discover as they are exploring their body or playing.
It might be something that they do occasionally. Or it might be something that they do regularly. Some kids might rub their genitals at nap time, when watching the tv or when they are bored, stressed or tired.
So as well as feeling nice, it is a behaviour that can soothe and relax them, just like thumb sucking and hair twirling does. You could look at it as another way that kids manage their feelings.
Usually, there isn’t anything to worry about. Child masturbation is usually just a normal age-appropriate behaviour.
The only time that you should be worried, is when:
If you’re unsure, the Traffic Lights App by True Relationships & Reproductive Health is a fantastic tool that you can use to work out whether you should worry or not. Masturbation is rarely a sign of sexual abuse but I am a firm believer in trusting your ‘gut instinct’. If your ‘gut instinct’ tells you that there is something going in, then have a look at that app or seek advice from a health professional.
Child masturbation might be normal age-appropriate sexual behaviour in children, but does that means that you should stand by and just let them go for it? Whenever and wherever they want to?
Well, the thing is… it might be normal but we need to teach our kids that there is a time and a place for touching their genitals. And sitting at the dinner table with the in-laws is not the time or place!
So how do you teach masturbation etiquette to your child? Slowly and gently is how you do it so that your child doesn’t get a ‘hang up’ about their body or feel ashamed. And also so that it doesn’t become an attention-seeking behaviour or something that they keep doing more of (just to get your attention).
And don’t expect them to understand your new child masturbation rules immediately. It can take some time for ‘the message’ to sink in!
The main thing to remember is for you to stay calm and to not make a big deal about it or to discipline your child about it.
So what do we do when it comes to babies and toddlers. At this age, it is usually just exploration of their genitals. They are very tactile at this age and learn by sticking things in their mouth or by touching with their hands. So it is quite natural for them to grab their genitals during a nappy change or in the bathtub. It is just a different part of the body to explore and they take advantage of easy access when their nappy is off or they are naked.
When changing their nappy, you can let your child grab their genitals and explore this part of their body. Your child touching genitals at this age isn’t going to awaken any sexual feelings or start any future problems as they get older. They are just touching their genitals because they are curious about their body and they learn best by touch.
Sometimes they can be quite rough when handling their genitals and you may cringe and wonder if they are actually causing any damage. They usually do stop when it becomes painful but sometimes you may need to redirect their attention away from what they are doing, especially if they develop chafing or redness. Distract them with a toy or new activity and limit their naked time.
This is a great age for starting to name the different parts of their body to them, and you can learn how to start naming the private parts in young children here.
So what do we do when it comes to children?
First of all, take a deep breath. Don’t panic and get angry when you find your child touching their genitals. This can give your child negative messages that can impact on their self-esteem, body image and later on, their comfort with sex as an adult.
Second, set limits by informing your child about your family rules on touching genitals. Remind them that it is a private activity that should happen in a private place.It can take a lot of reminders until kids fully understand the concept of private.
You will need to start teaching your child the difference between public and private. We have public and private places where public means that there are people around and private means just you. Parts of our body can be private too, and they are the parts that are usually covered up by our private clothes. They include your penis, bottom and mouth or vulva/vagina, mouth, bottom and breasts. A great book that will help you with teaching your child about the difference between public and private is Hayden-Reece learns a valuable lesson that private means ‘Just for you’ by Holly-ann Martin from Safe 4 Kids.
You could say try saying something like, “It’s okay to touch your penis/vulva but because it is a private part of your body, you should only touch it in a private place, like your bedroom. So if you want to do that then you need to go to your bedroom.”
You can then send them to their room. They will usually need a lot of reminders before they start to remember this automatically. You could try saying something like, “I know that that it can feel nice to touch your penis/vulva but where do we do private activities? Do you want to go to a private place now?”
Sometimes you might need to distract your child from touching their genitals. Especially if you have visitors or are out of the house. For example, you might suggest that they start playing with their blocks, or see if they can click their fingers together, or some other age-appropriate task that is readily available. You could try saying something like, “Look how nice it is outside, let’s go and play outside”.
Don’t make a big deal out of it, when you find your child masturbating. Kids enjoy any attention, good or bad, so you could end up encouraging the behaviour. Approach it as you would approach any other annoying habit that they have.
Try to use your everyday voice when reminding your child as you don’t want them to think that they are in trouble or to feel ashamed. So remind your child in the same voice that you might use when asking them if they can go and have a shower.
Oh, and you may want to add in that they will need to wash their hands after touching their genitals.
As they get older, kids usually do realise that masturbating is a private activity and will just touch their genitals in private. You won’t even know if they are doing it or not.
Masturbation takes on a different meaning during puberty as orgasm and sexual feelings begin to happen. Boys will begin to create sperm and will ejaculate semen, either through wet dreams or masturbation. Girls will be able to climax or reach orgasm. My parent books on how to talk to your son or daughter about puberty and sex can provide you with a starting point to talk about these sometimes awkward topics.
The easiest way to start is with a book and there are some fantastic books that will help you to introduce this concept. You can find a list of suitable book in this parent resource – Sex Education Books for Children: The Parent Guide.
If you have got this far, I am hoping that you will have some ideas on how best to manage child masturbation.
The trick is to be patient, and eventually (with lots of gentle reminders), they will understand that it is a private activity that should happen in a private place.
There are also some fantastic books that will help with talking about child masturbation.
I'm Cath, a sex educator living in Australia with my husband and 2 kids. I help parents to talk about sex (with less cringe and more confidence) and to empower their child to make smart sexual decisions. You can join my online parent support group here and visit my shop for helpful resources.