Originally posted June 2, 2009
It's all the rage with your kid and it kind of freaks you out. You have a hunch that it's completely normal, but it makes you squirm. It never occurred to you that you'd be confronted with the notion of your innocent baby as a sexual being quite so early, and, honestly, you'd rather avoid thinking about it altogether. Am I right?
Please take comfort, dear moms and dads. You're in the company of many surprised parents and your instincts are right on. Masturbation is perfectly normal at any age, and even babies in utero have been known to touch their genitalia and have erections (though boys do not produce semen until puberty). It's natural for children to want to explore and touch their own bodies, especially those fabulous parts with lots of nerve-endings that feel kind of nice when they're touched, so congratulations! Your child has made a marvelous discovery. He knows how to take pleasure in his own body and that self-stimulation can aid in self-soothing. There is so little in life over which your child has control, but his body can be one of them.
What made us uptight about masturbation in the first place? Maybe we're embarrassed by the freedom our children exhibit, perhaps because it contrasts with our own lingering inhibitions about sexuality. Some parents worry that accepting masturbation as a normal childhood experience somehow means they're condoning other sexual behaviors. For others, their own sexual histories are too painful for them to easily appreciate their child's budding sexuality. Young children are fortunate, however. They haven't yet acquired the emotional baggage inspired by cultural and religious mores that promote the idea that autoerotic behavior is shameful. They just know it feels good. So why can't we just leave well-enough alone.
You might find it easier to do this once you've explored the messages about masturbation you received when you were a child. What social and religious values shaped your thoughts and feelings about sexuality? After careful consideration you may conclude that these rationales for why we should abstain from self-pleasure no longer fit for you, and then choose to endow your own offspring with new messages. What we say and how we react to our children's experiences of their own bodies has tremendous impact on their developing self-esteem and sexual health.
What's a parent to do?
Masturbation becomes quite popular once diaper days are over and children have free access to their genitals. Many parents find that they can respectfully ignore their child's need to masturbate, but for others, whose children are enthusiastic masturbators unfazed about doing it in public, brief, non-judgmental discussions about privacy, politeness and self-protection are needed. Aim for a neutral tone in your voice and facial expressions and keep in mind that children who are often discouraged from masturbating by anxious parents can actually become more preoccupied with doing it. Masturbation can actually be harmful to a child if shame or guilt feelings are attached to the experience.
During adolescence, your child will even discover that masturbation can help her to relieve the sexual tensions that her own raging hormones unleash. This might actually be reassuring to some parents, particularly parents of girls, who tend to be more surprised by their daughters' inclination to masturbate than they are of their sons'. Consider that a benefit of masturbation is a keener awareness of your body's responses, which can make one less susceptible to confusing the overwhelming rush of orgasm with love, which can happen if orgasm occurs only during an encounter with a sexual partner. In this way, masturbation may actually help your child choose to postpone engaging in sexual behavior with others, which can also keep her safer: by avoiding STD's, unwanted pregnancy and emotional grief.
Note for parents:
- Moments when you need to gently redirect your child to masturbate in a private space are also fabulous opportunities to discuss 'good touch and bad touch,' and to clearly communicate to your child that she has the authority to set limits on who touches her body.
- Excessive or obsessive masturbation (interferes with daily activities or causes injury) can be a symptom of stress or even abuse. Concerned parents should consult a doctor before panicking, however, to rule out a simple yeast infection that could be driving the urge.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.