Masturbation is a normal, healthy expression of sexuality, and almost all adolescents will do it. It is, however, very uncomfortable talking about masturbation, even if you are an open-minded parent to.
But maintaining an open line of communication for kids is the best way you can reinforce your own values and the attitudes you’d like to pass on to your children, says Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist with Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
“When their body starts to change and their hormones start to change, you want to set up a healthy picture about sex and what that is,” he says. “As parents, you want to be the one to put the frame on the picture.”
When to talk with your kids about masturbation
What age to start the discussion about masturbation varies by the child’s behavior. Young children commonly touch their genitals because it feels good, without sexual thoughts or feelings attached, Herman says.
At that age, it’s important to let them know it’s a private activity that should be done in their bedrooms or bathroom, not in public, and to make sure they are maintaining proper hygiene. If they have questions, don’t overload them with information – answer exactly the question asked and wait for them to ask more, he says.
For older kids, it gets more complicated. Once your child starts puberty, it’s likely they will experiment with masturbation, and just as likely it is not a topic they are remotely interested in discussing with their mom or dad.
Parents should approach it as something their kids are probably doing, he says, instead of asking if they are masturbating, which could lead to them shutting down the discussion completely.
Parents want to let their kids know it’s normal, that most people do it, and that it’s fine as long as they don’t become obsessed with their private parts.
Talking about porn and privacy rules
A big concern that many of us did not have to contend with growing up is the ubiquity of pornography on the Internet.
Kids have access, with a few clicks, to images of sexual acts we may have never even heard of. Parents have to tackle the issue of porn, because teens are likely to come across it. This is a good time to have a sex talk and pass on your own values around sex and relationships, he says.
“You need to let them know that just because see they see stuff on the Internet, that doesn’t make it the truth about sex,” he says. “With the world they are in now, you have to be very direct about it.”
Privacy should become more a concern at this age, as well. Don’t enter your child’s room without knocking. If you do and find yourself interrupting them masturbating, simply apologize and walk out, he says. If you bring it up later, do so in a neutral tone and reassure them that what they were doing is normal and OK, Herman says.
Often, realizing your child masturbates is the first time parents are confronted with their children’s developing sexuality, and it can be a difficult realization to come to terms with your child’s emerging adulthood.
Having these conversations with your kids might be uncomfortable, Herman says, but it is an important part of parenting your kids – and the earlier you start, the more you create a relationship where they know they can go to your with questions or concerns.
“You want to start early enough that you’d hope that if they ever got into a situation later in their teens they would talk to you,” he says. “If you haven’t talked to them, they won’t talk to you when the desperately need to talk to you.”
This post was originally published in 2015 and is updated regularly.