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"I Caught My Tween Masturbating"

Q. I caught my 11-year-old daughter masturbating in her bedroom and became completely embarrassed and shut the door. Should I say something to her about the incident? I also have an 8-year-old son, and I'm wondering if perhaps I should have a conversation with him. How do I get started?

A. Yes, you need to have many conversations with each of your children about their developing sexuality. Before you get started, since you're likely feeling embarrassed about the topic, read the book, Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid They'd Ask) by Justin Richardson and Mark Schuster (Three Rivers Press). This book will give you the confidence to address the topic without embarrassment.

How to Start Talking About It

Regarding your daughter, realize that masturbating is normal and natural. Since she was in the privacy of her own room, she wasn't doing anything inappropriate or shameful. She was probably living with the notion that she alone discovered this uncharted sexual territory, and in a way she had. How she now feels about it will depend on your continued conversations.

As difficult as it might be for you, at a time when both of you seem open to a sensitive conversation (driving in the car is sometimes the best place) say something to the effect of, "I walked in your bedroom without warning, and I'm sorry. You were masturbating in the privacy of your bedroom, which is not unusual or wrong. As you approach puberty, your body will be changing in many ways, and when you have questions, please let me know."

What to Convey During "The Talk"

As you discuss masturbation with your son or daughter, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Let your children know that masturbation is nothing more than giving themselves genital pleasure. Masturbation provides a young girl or boy the opportunity for sexual exploration. As adolescents masturbate, they develop an awareness of their own sexual responses and a familiarity with their bodies that may make sex with others less mysterious and potentially more satisfying.
  • Help your children to develop an accepting attitude toward themselves the enjoyment of their bodies by not teaching them to be ashamed of their genitals or of themselves taking pleasure in them.
  • Communicate respect and acceptance along with reasonable and consistent limits that reflect your values regarding sexual activity alone or with a future partner. When you talk to your children, be sure to pay attention to your tone of voice. If you feel tense, you may be saying masturbation is healthy but your body language may be communicating a conflicting message.

Is Masturbation a Problem?

Realize that masturbation is only a problem if it seems to be getting in the way of other activities. For some children, masturbation is a child's way of managing excessive stress. If you think this might be the case with your daughter or son, it's best not to focus on limiting the masturbation itself, as doing so may increase your child's stress levels. Instead, try to search out and eliminate the possible sources of stress in your child's life.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, April 2006.