I Caught My Tween Masturbating—What Do I Do?

Parents' Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains how caregivers should handle catching their kids masturbating.

Talking to Child About Masturbation
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Zoe Hansen | Parents

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 awkward incident? I also have an 8-year-old son, and I'm wondering if perhaps I should have a conversation with him now. How do I get started?

—Concerned Parent

No matter how evolved and open-minded we may be as parents, catching our own child masturbating will leave most of us feeling unprepared and embarrassed. This doesn’t mean we do not want to support healthy sexuality in our children, it just means that seeing our children as sexual beings can be uncomfortable. But raising children to have healthy attitudes and behaviors about sex is a critical part of the more general goal of raising healthy, well-adjusted children. So, after recovering from the embarrassing moment, there are great reasons to get comfortable with being uncomfortable!

Why Face the Discomfort?

American parents are known to be pretty weak in the sex talk department, and research shows this does not serve youth well. Avoiding sex talks does not result in abstinence, but actually a greater chance of riskier sexual behavior at younger ages. In fact, one 2012 survey found that 87% of teens said they would have found it easier to delay sexual activity and avoid pregnancy had they been able to talk more openly and honestly with their parents about sex. Another key finding from this survey: “Teens make clear that parents matter more than many probably think (teens say parents most influence their decisions about sex).”

We also live in a culture of unprecedented access to sexual content, mostly sources we would not choose for educating our children. It’s motivating to ask ourselves, “Do I want my child to learn about sex and sexuality from YouTube or from me?” It’s also helpful to imagine the future and work back to the present. Think about how you want your child to experience sex as an adult; I’m guessing you hope for a confident adult who engages in healthy sexual relationships based on consent and respect, including self-respect. I don’t know a single parent who is grateful for what the American culture has to offer in this area. There is a major vacuum of unhealthy messaging if we aren’t there to fill it.

How to Respond to Masturbation

It’s OK to not bring up the topic right after walking in on your child masturbating—both of you are embarrassed and need time to recover. But you can see this as an opportunity to address an important part of growing up that has implications for your daughter’s adulthood—after you apologize for walking into her room without knocking. (Privacy lesson learned for all!)

After you manage your own possible freak-out response in private or with a friend or partner, approach your child as a calm and relaxed parent who can handle the conversation. Setting this tone conveys openness and comfort to discuss not just masturbation, but any topics related to sex. Remember: this chance to address masturbation is only one stop on the sex-talk train! This means that first and foremost, how you relate to your child around this incident matters as much as or more than what you say.   

If your tween is anything like every other tween I know, however, they are going to collapse into a ball of embarrassment and want to roll away when you directly address masturbation. You know your child best, so think of how to take on the topic in a way that honors their own comfort zone. If they are going to feel mortified with a deep, direct talk, they likely won’t process anything you’re saying anyways. Think of the highlights you want to communicate, and keep it brief and casual—until they show interest in a more in-depth talk. 

Expert Tips for Talking About Masturbation

  • Reinforce that it's healthy and normal. “Hey, just so you know, it’s totally normal and healthy to make yourself feel good like that.” 
  • Pleasure is an important part of sex. This is an especially critical lesson for girls! “It’s good to know what works to give you pleasure. Your pleasure is equally important as any future partner’s pleasure.”
  • Nothing to be ashamed of. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with touching yourself for pleasure. It’s private, but most people do it.”


Younger kids exploring masturbation may need the explanation that the activity is only for private time, and never in front of other people. Typically developing tweens generally have the brain development to understand private versus public behavior; tweens with developmental delays, however, may need guidance.  

Body Autonomy Benefits

As you work through your own response to observing your child as a sexual being, it may help to think of how masturbation is beneficial for growing teens. Discovering what gives them pleasure offers a sense of agency over their body. This body autonomy is critical for future healthy sexual relationships. Since sexual feelings are as normal and natural as all other parts of child development, masturbation is the safest way to express and explore these feelings—with no worries about sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy! 

The Sex Talks

I don’t know where you are in the trajectory of sex talks with your tween, but it’s not a matter of “one birds-and-bees discussion and done.” Navigating all things related to sex and sexuality means a lot of talks over the years, shifting in topics and details as your child matures. I recommend every family invests in a book collection to aid discussion across ages. (The popular Robie Harris series progresses across age groups with developmentally appropriate material: It’s Not the Stork, It’s Perfectly Normal, and It’s So Amazing.) For your 8-year-old, looking through a book with him allows him to ask questions where he has curiosity; this may include masturbation, and it may not.  

The Bottom Line

Whether we thought ahead about the reality of raising sexual beings when we anticipated raising children or it caught us by surprise when we walked into our child’s room during a private moment, it’s one of the trickiest parts of parenting made more difficult by the general sex taboo in many cultures. We can be kind to ourselves as we take time and space to respond thoughtfully, keeping in mind our bigger picture goals for our children to become sexually responsible, satisfied, and healthy adults.  

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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