Walking in on your kid masturbating might be shocking, but it's nothing to freak out about. Psychologists explain what is normal and what’s not.
The weirdest thing about childhood masturbation is that even though it’s ubiquitous, it’s considered weird. But experts agree that normal, healthy young boys and girls will masturbate, much like adults. The biggest difference between children masturbating and everyone else doing it is that kids don’t know that masturbation is sexual yet. They just know that it feels good. The weirdness happens when it’s placed in an adult context of sexuality.
“As children, we learn that to touch certain areas brings us pleasure and is also self-soothing,” says Nadine Pierre-LouiS, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist. “Masturbation in itself is mostly upside. The resulting release of hormones and neurotransmitters can reduce stress, increase relaxation, encourage restful sleep, improve mood, and reduce sexual tension.”
In other words, masturbation at a certain age is essentially children discovering how their bodies work. But what is the normal age to start masturbating? What age do girls start masturbating, and at what age do boys start masturbating? In order for parents to know when they should be concerned, Pierre-Louis and other experts have weeded out what they do not need to worry about.
What Is the Normal Age to Start Masturbating?
Clinically speaking, there is really no age that’s too young for children to start exploring their bodies. Masturbating at a young age is surprisingly common. Scientists have even observed fetuses doing it in utero. Babies and toddlers are known for masturbating too, but it catches most new parents off guard.
“Research shows that children as young as newborn infants masturbate by rubbing their crotches rhythmically against the bottom of their crib mattresses,” says psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D. Parents shouldn’t ignore this behavior completely, but they should respond in a calm way that sets healthy limits for masturbation. “It is up to parents to gently give their young children a clear message that it’s fine to feel good by touching yourself only when you are alone and in your bed, setting defined boundaries that specify solo involvement and a specific place only for self-pleasuring.”
Children Will Use Props to Masturbate
It can be jarring for parents to see children use their toys, pillows, and even the couch to masturbate before they realize what they’re doing is sexual. But rest assured, it’s normal. The reason kids tend to do this is that these objects are familiar and come with a sense of safety. That instinct is a healthy one. Like with masturbating in general, the best way for parents to respond to this is by reassuring that it is okay to use their toys to make themselves feel good in that way, but only by themselves.
“You can say, ‘moving your stuffed animal like that is for private. I know it feels good, and you can do it. But it is private so you only do it in your room, and not when anyone else is watching.’ Say this in a normal conversational tone,” clinical psychologist Samantha Rodman suggests on her website.
Privacy Is Crucial for Children Who Masturbate
Although experts overwhelmingly agree that it’s up to parents to teach children appropriate boundaries about not masturbating around peers or adults, many kids will welcome privacy anyways. In fact, when parents catch their children masturbating for the first time, it’s often in scenarios when they thought no one was around.
But when kids are masturbating in front of their peers, siblings, or adults, especially after this boundary is set, it can be a warning sign of compulsive behavior and sexual abuse. It’s crucial that parents gently ask follow-up questions and consult with their pediatrician and other professionals if that is the case. The goal is to make sure that no one is hurting their child and to foster healthy expressions of sexuality.
“Masturbation is a normal behavior, but it can become problematic when the behavior is no longer private,” says psychologist Sabina Mauro, Psy.D. “This may suggest they have a history of sexual abuse or were exposed to inappropriate sexual behavior. It may also suggest that there may be intrusive thoughts related to their masturbation and need to masturbate. These behaviors can be addressed, identified, and corrected.”
Masturbation Shouldn’t Affect a Child’s Social Life
For adults, the answer to how much masturbation is too much is any amount that gets in the way of their daily lives. Since young children do not have jobs or responsibilities, this is more challenging to quantify. But it’s not impossible. If masturbation habits are getting in the way of eating or sleeping, that might be something to worry about. Beyond that, when healthy boundaries about masturbation are effectively set and children are only doing it privately, then parents just have to make sure children enjoy enough time outside of their bedroom.
“Not so much the quantity as much as the context of masturbation. In other words, do they seem to prefer to be alone to social interactions with their friends? Are they becoming increasingly isolated?” Pierre-Louis says.
If parents suspect their child is masturbating too much, they can try encouraging more social activities that kids enjoy to naturally curb masturbation without shaming them. Ideally, this will get them out of their rooms without making them feel bad about the masturbating they’ve already done.
Children Should Only Masturbate When They’re Happy
Masturbation should be a fun solo activity, but it’s far from a coping skill, and children should not use it in that way. But some children do, especially under stressful or traumatic circumstances.
It’s worth noting that trauma does not have to be of a sexual nature when it comes to children developing unhealthy masturbation habits, though that is understandably a concern. Sometimes trauma can come in the form of a change, such as a divorce, a loss of a family member, or even moving to a new town. In these instances, if children seem to be masturbating when they feel upset, stressed, or anxious, it could be a sign that they’re using it in an unhealthy way. This could lead to more compulsive sexual behaviors later in life.
“Masturbation compulsion signs include when you must masturbate urgently and impulsively when you feel anxious, upset, frightened, or nervous,” Walfish warns. But when children masturbate when they’re otherwise happy, it’s likely nothing to worry about.
Some Children Aren’t Into Masturbation
Every kid is different. And as much as it is normal for babies to masturbate, it’s just as normal for some children to not masturbate at all. Although not masturbating enough is not a concern for parents, it underscores the important point that people are born with varying sex drives. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for how big or small that should be.
Whether children masturbate or not, what is important is that parents are prepared to communicate openly about it if they do, so children can have healthy sex lives as adults, without growing up too fast.
When masturbation does happen, it’s simply one of many weird things children do as a sign of healthy development. Once parents have endured all of the other strange surprises, like their baby’s primitive bat reflexes and night terrors, it’s hard to be phased.
What to Do If You’re Concerned About Your Child Masturbating
Childhood masturbation is normal, but bottling up parental anxieties about it is not. Even if your kid’s masturbation habits check all the healthy boxes, being concerned about their sexual development does not make you a bad or overbearing parent.
In these cases, it’s important to get some outside perspective, ideally a clinical one. By talking to their pediatrician privately about your concerns, rather than reacting to them in front of your child, parents can better determine if their concerns are valid and how to address them, without doing any additional damage.
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