Talking to kids about sex isn’t particularly something a lot of parents are thrilled to do. So it’s probably no surprise then that discussing masturbation is way further down the agenda. For some families, the topic simply never comes up.
But this does young people “a tremendous disservice,” according to sex education teacher Kim Cavill.
“Masturbation is a really important part of human sexuality. It informs our individual conceptions of autonomy, pleasure, identity and intimacy,” she previously told HuffPost.
Instead of feeling embarrassed or brushing it under the carpet, parents should think of it as an opportunity to teach skills and concepts that empower young people to grow into sexually healthy adults, she suggested.
One parent who’s doing just that is Sarah*, who preferred not to share her real name so as not to embarrass her kids. Sarah has three sons – her two step-sons (or bonus children, as she calls them) are teenagers, while her youngest is six. She lives with the three boys and their father.
Rather than having one big sit-down conversation, Sarah has had a handful of chats with her two older boys over the years about sex, their changing bodies and masturbation.
With her eldest step-son, who is 14, the latter topic first cropped up about two years ago. “It’s a subject that comes up casually and naturally when we’re chatting about life, girls, his mates and experiences in general,” she tells HuffPost UK.
The couple have also spoken to him – in a very calm, non-judgey way – about porn after noticing searches for a popular porn site in his phone’s internet search history.
“We casually chatted before bed about what we’d found,” she explains, adding that they talked about the website in question and reassured their son it was natural to be inquisitive.
“We were clear that the nature of some of the videos and clips he may see on there were very graphic, degrading to women... and as a young man starting his sexual exploration and starting to have relationships with girls, the sex and sex acts he might view on porn sites aren’t reflective of what actually happens between two people in a loving and respectful relationship,” she says.
With their 12-year-old, there hasn’t been a specific conversation centred around masturbation. It’s more that he is sometimes privy to discussions Sarah has with his older brother.
“It’s never a forced discussion or parent sit-down. It usually comes up in a jokey-way, then turns into a deeper, but light-hearted chat,” she says.
This way of communicating is quite often key when discussing sex with teens. Everyone unanimously agrees that little and often is best rather than one big intimidating, cringe-fest of a chat.
Dr Áine Aventin, of Queen’s University Belfast, said in a piece for The Conversation it’s best to ditch “the big talk” in favour of teachable moments. Those frequent, short conversations when, for example, an issue arises on TV or something happens to a family friend.
“Parents also suggest that talking in the car or on a walk helps ease embarrassment, as there is less need to make eye contact,” she added.
What’s more, parents should steer clear of lecturing, or casting judgements, and simply listen to what their child is saying and then answer as best as they can. “This will reassure young people that they can expect a nonjudgmental response in the future,” said Dr Aventin.
Sarah recommends for other parents to open up conversations where possible, and always end them in “a light-hearted, no pressure way”.
“And if you can’t look them in the eye when you’re doing it, do it when you’re in the car,” she jokes, “they can’t get out of a fast-moving vehicle.”
The mum-of-three is a firm believer that it’s down to parents and caregivers to be having discussions around masturbation at home, rather than making schools responsible. Although that’s not to say some secondary schools aren’t having a go.
“Masturbation is about self-exploration and teenagers need to explore the topic and themselves at their own pace,” says Sarah.
“The topic has come up in our home because I always reassure the children that there is no topic that is ever off limits. And if there’s ever a problem, there’s never not a way to find resolution in whole or part.”
Some experts believe the earlier you start talking to teens about masturbation, the better. Cavill, for instance, recommended talking to children about self-touching before the onset of puberty, which typically starts at nine to 16 years old.
If you’re ready to start talking about masturbation with your teens, here are some things that might help:
- Emphasise that masturbation is normal – and that it’s normal if you do it, and normal if you don’t
- Explain that it’s something that happens in private
- Use books and videos to help promote a healthy understanding of masturbation
- Let go of your own shame
- Check out these conversation starters and key messages to get across to your kids. According to sex education site Amaze, it’s best to have lots of little talks over the years rather than just chatting about it in one sitting
Sarah says there are no downsides to speaking to kids about masturbation – only positives.
“Being open and honest with your kids about sex, relationships, exploration and anticipation of these is a great way to connect with them and let them know that you’re not just mum, dad, bonus mum or dad, or a stiff unapproachable adult who hasn’t got a clue,” she explains.
What’s more, when children and young people are free to explore their own bodies, they develop a self-awareness that can keep them safer and more prepared to recognise unsafe touch if it ever occurs, according to sex educator Melissa Carnagey.
“When young people are more informed and confident about their bodies, they are better positioned to advocate for consensual, safer and more pleasurable sex as an adult,” she said.
So it’s certainly worth talking about it – even if in bitesize chunks.