Do You Know Why Kids Masturbate? Therapist Gives 5 Reasons and Top Tips for a Healthy Response Plan
This article was originally published on October 19, 2021 and updated January 30, 2024.
Masturbation. It’s a topic no one wants to talk about--especially in regards to their own kids. Yet it’s something that comes up for many parents. Whether your child is young or a teen, it’s important to pause and consider your response when you find out your child has discovered masturbation.
The essence of this article is to offer some guidance with a few straight-forward ideas:
- hold off on compelling immediate elimination,
- pay attention to what may be driving the masturbation, and
- develop a response plan that is wise and effective.
Be careful with masturbation elimination efforts
“Why would it make sense for my child to masturbate?” An odd question, right? When we discover masturbation we may be more inclined to ask, “How do I make them stop?”
Efforts to eliminate masturbation can be ineffective and even backfire, inadvertently generating more sexual compulsion. As our children repeatedly remind us - we can’t control them! So of course we can’t make our kid’s sexuality just go away. And they wouldn’t properly mature if we could.
But this is not to say that we do nothing when we discover our child’s sexual behavior. Responding with wisdom demands that we:
- pause our reactions,
- tolerate an undesired reality for a moment,
- consider our largest values, and
- select a solid (though sometimes challenging) course of action.
Finding balance between control and passivity can be tricky. Geoff Steurer offers counsel to check masturbation without shaming in his article, A Neighbor Boy Masturbates in Front of My Kids! A Dad Asks for Help.
Start finding wise solutions by considering what may be driving the behavior. “Why would it make sense for my child to masturbate?”
Five common drivers of childhood masturbation
Exploring underlying drives or motivations for masturbation can inform you how best to respond. Here are 5 common drivers of masturbation:
Some of these drivers (discovery, development, and sometimes coping) are considered normal and non-problematic from a psychological or developmental perspective. Some parents have no problem “allowing” for healthy masturbation. Others may believe there’s no such thing. Either way, these points of view will be useful in formulating a wise response that will avoid fueling the very problem you hope will disappear.
Children are built to explore the world around them. Teens and adults too. Like when a baby discovers that the hands they are looking at belong to them! Or kids discovering how much ice cream they can take before they feel sick. Figuring out a new updo for the prom. Swimming lessons. And of course, “whoa, this little thing feels crazy!”
Many, but not all, young children will discover that rubbing their private parts is pleasurable. Believe it or not even fetuses in utero have been known to stimulate their genitals.
Sometimes self-stimulation is really as simple as a “body trick” that feels great. Body-discovery is natural and has not been shown to lead to future problems unless other issues become entangled with it (as described below).
In time, self-stimulation may begin to be connected to larger ideas like sex, spirituality, relationships, and humanity. Children will gain more awareness of what is and is not appropriate, harmful, and “normal.”
From a sexual development perspective, masturbation can be a non-problematic means of expressing one’s evolving sexual nature. It can be a way of working through an understanding of self, sex, and humanity.
Development involves learning from healthy guilt when our behaviors cause harm or integrating our complex nature to understand when our behaviors are appropriate.
Again, this type of engagement with sexuality has not been linked to future problems such as sexual risk-taking, exploitation, or addiction.
Many value systems discourage all self-stimulation - even this developmental type of masturbation. If that's the case, thoughtfully use the recommended responses found below to help your child avoid forming a problematic pattern with masturbation and trust that their development will lead to self-mastery and integrity.
For many children, the discovery of erogenous pleasure eventually overlaps with emotional experiences.
Sexual stimulation is powerful enough to mood-alter. It may make boredom, anger, sorrow, powerlessness, or insecurities go away for at least a brief period of time. Or it may augment a happy or relaxing day.
The most common way masturbation can regulate emotions is to soothe stress. Sexual arousal can lead to a very relaxed state, especially the euphoria following climax - this can easily be used to take the edge off anxiety.
Self-soothing may or may not lead to future challenges. Consider a couple appreciating sex after a stressful day. There is no need to avoid the de-stressing nature of sex any more than the de-stressing nature of jazz. The trouble may come if your adolescent begins to over-rely on sexual behaviors for coping.
Compulsion is any behavior that happens repeatedly despite efforts to avoid or moderate it. This can happen with many different behaviors - picking one’s skin, watching sports, or masturbating.
Compulsion occurs when desire-circuitry in the brain becomes too reinforced, too rigid, and too disconnected from other brain modules such as the prefrontal cortex (not when desire is “too much”). This is most likely to occur when the behavior is laden with intense emotion such as fear, shame, or desperation.
If masturbation is compulsive, it may begin to interfere with other valued activities or escalate into more frequent, intense, or risky behavior.
Another driver for masturbation could be trauma. When sexual abuse has occurred a child, teen, or adult may orbit around behaviors or themes related to the wounding experiences. Though it may seem odd or ironic, it’s natural for any of us to place ourselves into situations or reenact scenarios as an unconscious effort to process through our traumas.
But, of course, not all trauma manifests as sexual abuse. Non-sexual trauma could also push a child to rely more heavily on whatever coping methods they have developed, including masturbation.
Compulsion does not necessarily mean trauma has occurred, and trauma does not necessarily mean that behavior will be compulsive. But the two can mix together at times.
Develop a wise and effective response plan to childhood masturbation
With a better understanding of possible motivating factors for masturbation, we can begin to piece together a wiser and more effective response plan for developing well-being and reducing problematic behavior.
Responding well to discovery and development
When you sense that your child’s behavior is normative and uncomplicated, then you can trust they are on the road to sexual maturity. What is “normal,” anyway? Check out resources such as KidsHealth.org to review developmental norms.
Kids can learn to not indulge sexual urges that are harmful or counter to their values. And they can honor their sexual nature by channeling that energy toward vitality, healthy relationships, confidence, and joy - with or without masturbation.
With young children, self-pleasuring can occur at inappropriate times such as church or parent-teacher conferences. Rather than stamping the behavior out harshly, you can simply redirect.
Try “hey, let’s be sure to only touch our private parts in private,” or, “please do that in your room or the bathroom where others can’t see.” If the touching is driven by discovery and natural development, most children will quickly break the public habit after just a few reminders.
This is also a great time to mentally review your child’s level of sexual education. What have you taught them? Do they understand things like basic anatomy, privacy, and safety? As they grow older do they know what sex is, how reproduction occurs, and how sexuality ties into identity and relationships? Do they understand your definition of sexual integrity?
Occasionally drop in nuggets of information and periodically ask questions to start an ongoing dialog. While some kids and teens are embarrassed to have healthy conversations, you’ll find that many are open and interested. Keep in mind that even “normal” sexual development can include mistakes, a bit of turmoil, and weirdness.
Responding well to coping
Coping is normal and can be either healthy or unhealthy. You can probably reflect and find both helpful and unhelpful coping in your own life. If this is a driver then it’s a good opportunity to discuss effective coping and resolution strategies with your child.
You may discuss what coping methods your child sees in their own lives (heads up: they probably won’t bring up masturbation). How many do they have? Healthy coping actually has less to do with the inherent nature of the coping activity (good activities vs. bad ones) and more to do with the overall flexibility offered by a variety of activities. Rather than focusing on stopping “bad” coping, try to focus on developing more options.
If your child only seems to handle stress with video games and masturbation, then self-stimulation will show up a lot, and desperately (and so will Minecraft). But if they have video games, masturbation, reading, music, basketball, going on a quiet drive, deep breathing, positive self-talk, and a gerbil, then self-stimulation is a much smaller slice of the pie - it’ll occur much less frequently and with less intensity.
Coping helps us get through difficult times without going nuts. But it generally won't solve the original stressor or problem. Sometimes the right move is to face the music, step into the difficulty and create change. This could involve setting boundaries with others, tackling homework, or asking the neighbor girl out.
With some balance, occasional masturbation will not typically lead to problems such as promiscuity or harmful sexual choices. If your value system is aimed toward avoiding as much masturbation as possible, teaching your child or teen how to juggle healthy coping with effective resolution skills can help.
Responding well to compulsion or trauma
If a child or teen is displaying intensity or “stuckness” or if they are enacting harmful and serious behaviors, then their actions may be stemming from compulsion or trauma.
In the long-term, spend more time addressing the root (the source of the compulsion or the trauma) than on eliminating the behavior. If you’re able to support your child in finding resolution and healing then the need to reach for masturbation will be diminished.
For example, a compulsion may ease up and slow down as your child develops more self-worth (assuming that worthlessness drove the compulsion in the first place). Or the behaviors may diminish as you educate about sexuality and convey acceptance, even of missteps (assuming the compulsion arose from shame about their sexual urges).
If trauma is addressed - through establishing safety, sharing their narrative, rebalancing power differentials, accountability, forgiveness, etc. - then the need to process their wound with sexual reenactment or rebellion will fade away.
After the stressors have been resolved there may still be a season of intentional habit-breaking, hopefully led by the child or teen’s intrinsic motivation. This will allow their sexuality to break free of lingering ties to old patterns and resume healthy development.
As is clear from these examples, this can sometimes be a long and difficult journey. Early on, you may need some boundaries, limits or rules to establish a baseline of safety or distance from acting out. Hopefully these can be collaborated with your child rather than imposed on them.
Unless the compulsion or trauma is mild, look at getting support. Find a therapist, program, or other resources to move through this process - just be sure the treatment goals do not accidentally reinforce any shame or repression that originally generated the masturbation.
Developing an individualized, effective response plan to childhood masturbation
This article would have been simpler as “3 Steps to Eliminate Your Kid’s Masturbation.” Balance and nuance always complicate things. And yet addressing our children’s sexuality with wisdom is too important to oversimplify.
When you discover your child’s masturbation, consider why it makes perfect sense for them to be doing that. That should set you up to develop a response plan that is individualized and ultimately effective at helping them achieve sexual maturity.
Take these ideas and write down what is driving your child’s masturbation. Then write out the steps you believe will be most helpful in their development.
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"I really like the no-shame approach the author takes. It's so much more than just 'don't watch or look at porn.' It gave my children a real understanding about the brain and its natural response to pornography, how it can affect you if you look at it, and how to be prepared when you do come across it (since, let's face it... it's gonna happen at some point)." -Amazon Review by D.O.