Unlearning Shame
February 11, 2020

Is It OK For My Child To Masturbate?

Caught your child masturbating? Here’s the best advice we can give you on how to respond.
Written by
Kelly Gonsalves
Published on
February 11, 2020
Updated on
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When a parent first notices their child touching themselves, it can be surprising and awkward. But according to health and sexuality professionals, there’s nothing to worry about — kids of all ages and genders masturbate, and it’s very common.

Is my child masturbating normal?

Yes, it’s totally normal.

A 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics in Review reports about 90 to 94 percent of men and 50 to 60 percent of women recall masturbating during childhood. According to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), kids usually begin exploring their bodies — including touching their genitals and discovering masturbation — between ages 1 and 4.

“Sexual exploration is a normal, universal, and healthy part of early childhood development. At this age, children show interest in their own, as well as others’, ‘private’ areas,” the AAP guidelines read. “Masturbation is frequently a concern for parents but is normal behavior unless it becomes excessive.”

In other words, a child masturbating is mostly just awkward for their parents, but otherwise it’s typical, harmless behavior.

Why children masturbate.

“They’re touching themselves because it feels good,” Lanae St.John, DHS, ACS, a board-certified sexologist and author of Read Me: A Parental Primer for The Talk, explains to O.school. Even for toddlers, masturbation is just physically pleasurable. Kids don’t associate stimulating their penises or vulvas with anything sexual like adults do—it just feels good and comforting, like a foot rub or back scratch.

Masturbation can also be a form of self-soothing young kids turn to when stressed or upset. Dr. St.John adds that, sometimes, a toddler may masturbate more regularly if they’re lacking familial touch or attention. “It could be a sign that they are anxious and need more hugs or soothing,” she says.

That said, some kids also just touch their genitals when they’re bored or mindlessly do it while watching TV. It’s just something to do with their hands.

How young is too young to masturbate?

“Children begin to touch themselves in utero, before they even come out,” Dr. St.John says. “So when the question is ‘what’s normal,’ normal is even before they're born so technically there’s not an age that’s too young.”

In general, toddlers tend to gain interest in their genitals around the same time they’re learning about the rest of their body parts — they’ll curiously touch their penis or vulva in the same way they might curiously touch their belly buttons and toes. The potty-training period is also a common time for kids to discover that it feels good to touch their genitals because they’re paying more attention to those body parts.

Should I be worried if my child is masturbating?

There are no risks, negative effects, or long-term problems related to masturbating for kids, as long as it’s happening in private and not disturbing their other daily activities.

When you should seek out help from a doctor or health-care provider:

  • If you’re struggling to redirect your child from masturbating in inappropriate contexts.
  • If your child tries to stimulate other people’s genitals.
  • If you think your child was taught how to masturbate by another person.
  • If your child seems unhappy. 

Do’s and don’ts for parents handling masturbation in kids.

1. Don’t freak out or refer to masturbation as “bad,” “wrong,” or otherwise negative.

These responses can make children start to associate their bodies, pleasure, or sexuality with shame or negativity, which can have lasting repercussions. 

“They learn from you how people think about it — if you react with shock and shame, they will learn just that. And thus lays the foundation for many of their future sexual interactions,” Dr. St.John says. “Masturbation is totally within the bounds of healthy sexual behavior. What isn’t normal and what creates problems is the shame a person feels about natural and normal desires to feel good.”

Consider making this a teaching moment to explain what the vulva or penis is, if you haven’t already. Spring for language along these lines: I’m happy you’re starting to get curious about your body! Do you know what that part of your body is called? It’s the vulva/penis! It feels good to touch and play with, right? That’s a very personal activity though, so we only do that at home or when no one else is around. But when you’re by yourself, your body is yours to explore!

2. Do redirect their attention when they start masturbating in public.

Give them a toy, screen, or another distraction. (Try things like: Hey honey, want to play with your Legos? Or, let’s go look at that cool fish tank over there!) It’s easier to draw their attention to something else enticing than it is to try to scold them into stopping.

3. Do teach boundaries. 

When they’re old enough to understand, the AAP guidelines recommend explaining to your child that masturbating is private behavior: “Gently setting limits on such activities when they are done in the presence of non-family members or in public, without harsh reaction to or shaming of the child, helps the child grasp socially acceptable behavior.” 

When you see your child masturbating, gently remind them that it’s something to be done privately in their bedroom or bathroom. Try lines like this: I know that feels good; just remember to only do that in your bedroom or bathroom. It’s very private and personal, so sometimes it can bother other people when you’re doing it around them. 

4. Do make sure young kids have plenty of loving familial touch in their lives. 

“Try sitting together and reading a book with your child in your arms or lap,” Dr. St.John recommends, or just give some extra hugs to make sure your child is receiving plenty of physical affection.

5. Don’t try to forbid your child from masturbating.

You’re not going to win that fight, and you run the risk of teaching your child over time that they cannot talk to you about issues related to their genitals or their bodies overall. Instead, aim to give your child empowering messages around sex and accurate information about their bodies while guiding them toward appropriate social behavior. 

As parents, part of this process does come down to releasing some of our own negativity and embarrassment around sex. It’s healthy and normal for children to get curious about their bodies and start to explore them from a very young age. Bodies are cool! Allow your kids to grow up knowing that.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to make their sex and dating lives actually feel good. Her writings on sexuality, relationships, identity, and the body have been featured in Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, The Cut, and elsewhere.

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