Recently we received a difficult question from a father with young children about a young neighbor boys who masturbates in public. We asked therapist, author, and father, Geoff Steurer, to provide a measured and practical answer for parents who may want to give their kids more information about the potential downsides of masturbation. Geoff approaches this topic from the belief that sexual feelings are ideally expressed within a committed relationship such as marriage.

Masturbation is natural in kids

Question from a Protect Young Minds dad

There is a seven-year-old neighbor boy who openly masturbates (humping the ground with his clothes on) in front of our kids. We have restricted our kids’ playtime with this neighbor to supervised outside play, and very limited, at that. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find any resources, articles, books or blogs that talk about childhood masturbation problems to give to our neighbors with this issue.  Not sure if its even our place to bring it to their attention, as they probably already know about it.

We don’t want our children exposed to sexualized behavior and also don’t want to completely cut off their friendship. Also, our church appears to be silent on this issue and we are stuck trying to figure out how to handle this situation. Any advice, ideas or recommendations are very much appreciated.

Answer from a therapist

This is a sensitive and often controversial topic, but I appreciate the opportunity to use my professional knowledge and experience as a father to address it. I’ll first suggest some ways you can handle the neighbor boy situation. Then I’ll talk more specifically about how to discuss masturbation with your children.

It’s important to remember that 7 year-olds are still transitioning into an awareness of what is private and public behavior. The fact that he’s doing these behaviors publicly doesn’t mean he’s on the road to sexual deviance. He’s most likely discovered that the behavior feels good and can’t help himself. Another possibility is that he may have elicited strong reactions from other kids or adults and is responding to that reinforcement.

With a child this age, it’s most effective to use redirection and a private discussion about public versus private behaviors. If his parents aren’t present when he’s acting up, there is nothing wrong with you redirecting him and explaining to him (out of earshot of the other children, of course) the difference between public and private behavior. Then, you can follow up with his parents and let them know how you handled it.

How to address the topic of masturbation

Many parents wonder how they should address masturbation with their children. It goes without saying that every parent understands masturbation is something that shouldn’t be done publicly. Beyond that, however, most parents clam up and aren’t sure where to go in the discussion.

Even though most therapists and educators will tell you that masturbation isn’t a big deal and parents shouldn’t worry if their kids do it, you as parents still get to make the decision for how you teach your children about their bodies. Most conservative religions warn against masturbation, but may not teach the “why” or help parents to know how to address this with their children beyond a straightforward, “Stop it!”

Historically, there have been plenty of unhelpful (and humorous, I might add) scare tactics to keep kids from masturbating. Blindness, hairy palms, insanity, and other conditions were made-up reasons to scare kids from masturbating. These may seem dated and obviously flawed ways to handle the topic of masturbation, but the same anxiety and fear can still hijack well-meaning attempts to deter this behavior.

Despite what you may have read in sexual education resources, your child won’t be harmed if they abstain from masturbation. Even though it is a completely normal part of childhood development and self-discovery, it’s a behavior that can become problematic. Please make sure that in your efforts to educate your child about your concerns with masturbation that you don’t shame them. Your child can be emotionally harmed by the way you teach them to abstain from masturbation. Using approaches that shame and guilt your child into abstinence are completely unhelpful and set your child up for a life of other emotional and relational problems.

Rising above what comes “natural”

Sex educators seem to get caught in this false dilemma of believing that since virtually all kids are going to privately discover masturbation on their own, a parent will do more damage by trying to stop something natural and harmless. Please recognize that there are healthy ways to help children know how to avoid the pitfalls of masturbation. Shaming a child into submission or ignoring the issue completely aren’t the only two options.

While I am completely opposed to shaming children, I just as strongly disagree with the notion that we should just throw our hands up and let our children go with whatever feels good and natural to them. As a parent, I want to help my children rise above their physical impulses. I believe there are non-shaming and supportive ways to help us accomplish this lofty ideal.

Masturbation is natural in kids

Begin with a trusting environment

Hopefully you’ve already created an environment in your home where your children know that they are worthy of love and belonging. This is an environment where mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning and growth instead of evidence that they’re broken and defective.

If you have contributed to a shame-based home environment where children are afraid to make mistakes or be human, then it’s essential you work on improving conditions before you begin a delicate discussion on sexuality. Your children need to know there is absolutely nothing wrong with them when they discover masturbation. Do not send them the message that they have done something disgusting or evil.

Your children are likely to experiment with masturbation. You may catch them, they may admit it if you ask, or they may even tell you (less likely, by the way). Please don’t act shocked, disgusted, disappointed, or upset. In the same way you would never overcorrect a veering car on the Interstate, it’s just as dangerous to overreact and overcorrect a child who is discovering their body.

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Avoiding masturbation: 3 reasons to consider

If you choose to teach your children to abstain from masturbation, then you need to have a clear understanding about why it’s something that should be avoided. Your children, whether they ask you or not, will have questions about why it’s banned. They’ll likely ask themselves, “Since it feels good why is it wrong?” As a parent, you have to be prepared with good answers, flexibility, and plenty of loving encouragement.

I want to introduce three ways you can help your child understand why masturbation is something they’ll want to avoid:

#1 Just because masturbation is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you

As a child develops, we help them redirect what comes naturally to them, otherwise their impulses will completely control their behavior. For example, if they want a toy, they hit another child. If they see something on the floor, they put it in their mouth. We want our children to learn how to slow down their physical impulses and not be ruled by them.

Children begin with no ability to regulate anything that comes naturally to them (hunger, bathroom behavior, sleep, and so on). We celebrate each stage of mastery over their bodies as they learn to walk, feed themselves, talk, and potty train. New challenges await them as they develop. Eventually, we have an opportunity to help them learn to master their sexual impulses.

In the same way we gladly work with a child to master other physical aspects of their development, we can also help our children make sense of their sexual feelings and impulses. The word “natural” only means that it’s not the child’s fault when they feel sexual impulses in their bodies. It doesn’t mean we ignore it because it happens naturally. Our commitment as parents is to provide loving guidance and teach limits with all of the natural stages of development.

Sexuality is powerful and isn’t something children can make sense of on their own. Unfortunately, there often exists a private collusion between parents and children around the issue of masturbation. In these cases, kids are embarrassed and unsure about these strong urges, while parents would rather not talk about it. In my view, the fact that it IS natural gives us even more permission and reason to talk about it in a non-shaming and supportive way. We must not dismiss it and hope our kids figure it out.

World famous historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote:

No man [or woman], however brilliant or well-informed, can … safely … dismiss … the wisdom of [lessons learned] in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; [but] if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he … understand[s] that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group. (The Lessons of History (1968), 35–36.)

We can teach our children that sexual impulses, though natural, can become consuming and problematic for them if they fail to put limits around them. 

#2 Masturbation can become a substitute for real connection with others

Even though our sexual urges are a natural human need, a stronger and more important need that predates our sexuality is the longing to be close to another human being. From birth, we need others to see us, respond to us, and touch us. We never outgrow these needs, but we often accidentally discover counterfeit ways to meet this deep need for safe connection with others.

Babies instinctively reach for human connection when they’re distressed. As we get older and discover the powerful and soothing feelings experienced with food, sex, and other behaviors, it’s easy to turn to these instead of other people. Human relationships are unpredictable, painful, confusing, and sometimes unavailable. Counterfeit connections, on the other hand, are always available.

Masturbation is highly soothing and relaxing, which can create a pattern of turning only to ourselves for comfort when our wiring actually craves safe connection with another person. We can teach children that masturbation creates a powerful calming feeling that might keep us from turning to other people when we need emotional support. It’s like having your own emotional “off switch” that can direct all of your struggles away from people who can actually help you. Using masturbation in this way can lead to loneliness and isolation.

Our sexual response releases the hormone oxytocin, which is often called the “cuddle hormone.” One of its primary purposes is to bond us deeper to our spouse during sex. This is great for marriage, but not so great when you’re alone, as it can often leave people feeling more isolated. The problem with masturbation, then, is that it teaches that sex is a solitary event instead of an experience that brings two people closer together.

In other words, masturbation will not prepare people to think unselfishly of their partner’s needs, but instead, it will teach them to merely focus on their own pleasure.

We can teach our children that our sexuality is intended to draw us closer to our spouse, not to be an end unto itself.

#3 Masturbation can become addictive

Before I begin discussing the addictive nature of masturbation, please understand that just because a child begins experimenting with masturbation does not mean they’re addicted. You don’t want to incorrectly label a normal developmental behavior as an addiction. Children need room to be human so they learn and develop mastery. We simply want to teach our children that masturbation is addictive and it’s a behavior we want them to avoid.

Masturbation is highly addictive because it initiates a cascade of feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. These pleasurable feelings can numb us quickly so we don’t have to feel some of the more painful things in life. In a sense, we carry our own supply of body and emotion-numbing chemicals that we can release at will. Our brains are efficient and can remember the fastest way to feel good, even if it’s going to cause problems for us in the end.

Because the experience of sexual release is so powerful, it’s easy to use masturbation as a way to relieve stress and end up becoming addicted. Instead of turning to addictive behaviors, we want our children to face reality and learn to confront the challenges of life. We can teach children that they will discover substances and experiences that will tempt them to avoid pain or other uncomfortable feelings that are a normal part of life.

The problem with an addiction is that we become slaves to the behavior. More of the same behavior is required to get the previous effect as the addiction escalates and becomes stronger. This creates feelings of powerlessness, shame, and despair. Plus, compulsive masturbation is often paired with pornography (and viewing pornography almost always leads to masturbation), which is also highly addictive and damages relationships. Addiction will never satisfy our deepest needs for connection.

We can teach children other ways of coping with stress, such as mindfulness, breathing, exercise, talking to others, journaling, and so on. These ways won’t numb or desensitize them to the wonderful and powerful feelings of sexual expression that they can one day share with their spouse. Instead, they’ll prepare them to develop stronger, more intimate relationships.

This short animated film helps kids understand the negative effects of any kind of addiction.

Conclusion: Children can be taught sexual self-mastery

Children can learn that their bodies have natural and powerful urges that serve important purposes in committed relationships. As they discover these feelings, they can be taught to accept them as normal and healthy. No child should ever feel ashamed of their sexuality or the desire to act on those feelings. However, kids can learn that just because they feel something doesn’t mean they have to act on it.

Children can learn the purposes for these feelings and direct them toward their intended purposes. Gaining discipline and mastery over their impulses will help them learn to cherish and respect their bodies without shame, which decreases the likelihood that they will develop unhealthy addictive patterns in their lives.

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Geoff Steurer

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.


You can connect with him at:

Website: www.lifestarstgeorge.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT


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