As a certified sex therapist who is also a Mormon, I get a lot of questions from parents. A huge number of them sound something like this:
“What should I do if my child is masturbating??”
Here are some examples of questions I got just last week:
“I literally never had any conversations about [masturbation] with my parents or church leaders other than don’t touch yourself. I didn’t even know if it was a thing girls could do until I was a teenager. I feel very-ill prepared to talk to my own children about it. I do feel like the LDS standard (policy?) is contrary to what I want to teach my kids, so I feel paralyzed about what to do. Help?”
“I was always told it was a sexual sin but I also know that it is in other ways part of normal sexuality and can help partners better understand and work together through sexual encounters to have a better experience together.”
“What is your take on children masturbating from an LDS perspective? I have a 4 and 6-year-old and they both do it, almost daily. I know it’s not a good idea to freak out about it and that it’s not sexual for them right now, but I’m wondering when does it become sexual for them and how and I supposed to determine that? When do I tell them it’s not okay anymore? How do I approach it?”
These concerns all come from a parent’s love for their kids, and a desire to teach them correct principles that align with their values. It can be complicated as a parent to know what to do when your kid starts to discover their body – especially if it makes you uncomfortable.
Your feelings around the topic of sex or masturbation can be so big that it can smother your ability to find the answers you so desperately want.
People often bounce around from Bishop to Bishop, expert to expert, Facebook group to Facebook group, trying to nail down whether or not masturbation is ok. Even when they find an answer, they never feel fully satisfied because it doesn’t fully match up with what they know, feel, believe, or understand. Many of these conversations around masturbation are focused on it as a behavior and a moral rightness or wrongness. They try to make the issue black and white rather than looking at masturbation in a larger context and considering its developmental role, how it intersects with a person’s own values, stage of life, medical circumstances, and age.
As I read through the different questions sent to me by hundreds of parents, what became instantly clear is that they all had a uniquely personal story, experience, or major internal conflict with masturbation. I can’t help but wonder how many of these stories or experiences have been shared in a safe space where they could be understood without judgment.
My goal for this post is to create a way for you to understand your sexual story surrounding masturbation. As Albert Einstein said, “If you cannot explain something to a six-year-old, you do not understand it yourself.” In my professional experience I’ve seen that as you begin to understand yourself, you will have a greater capacity to support your kids.
As a therapist, it’s not my job or my goal to hand you the answers to your questions about masturbation. Instead, I will give you the questions you need to ask yourself in order to identify your own sexual values, how they intersect with your spiritual values, and how to figure out what makes the most sense for you and your family.
While it might feel uncomfortable to explore your own sexuality, it’s very worthwhile. Developing insight will help you fine tune an internal compass around sexuality that will last longer and be more reliable than a quick answer given to you in a soundbite.
In order to get the answers we are wanting with our children, we have to start with ourselves.
I’m willing to assume you grew up in a home where talking about sex was hugely taboo. (The majority of Americans did… especially religious Americans.) When you don’t talk about sex, you try to make sense of the different messages you receive via movies, magazines, religion, and other influential people in our lives on your own. As a kid, you probably didn’t feel comfortable talking with adults about things you didn’t understand, or things you were curious about. Most of us never got accurate sexual health information. You developed as a sexual being without even realizing it – doing the best you could with what you had.
You soaked in messages around body image, sexual behavior, gender roles, orientation, self-esteem, healthy relationships, and…masturbation.
For many of us, this word sounded as pungent as the strongest of four-letter words. You developed your own personal story surrounding masturbation. You may have strong emotional reactions about it or simply grew up feeling confused. Maybe you did it and felt terrible about it but still liked it and weren’t sure what to do. Maybe you did it and told your Bishop and couldn’t take the sacrament. You vowed to never talk about it again. Maybe you never did it because you didn’t know how your body worked, or maybe you knew people who did do it, people who currently do, or people who enjoy the physical sensation but struggle with the emotional and spiritual aftermath.
These experiences matter because they helped to shape and define your sexuality.
Now many of you are parents with kids ranging from babies to teens. You may be single adults, divorced adults, or emerging adults with your own sexual stories and experiences in tow. Your own sexual stories around masturbation often get triggered as you raise your children and embrace them as sexual and spiritual beings.
Here’s your first opportunity to find answers for yourself:
- What is my experience with masturbation?
- As a boy, the messages I received around masturbation were…
- As a girl, the messages I received around masturbation were…
- What are the different hot spots in my history where masturbation came up? When I was a kid? In the youth program? Before my mission? Before marriage? During marriage? As a growing single adult? After divorce?
- General messages I received about masturbation were…
- What emotions do I feel when I think about my history and how do those emotions show up in my life, in my parenting, in my partnership?
- What do I understand about sexual shame?
- What do I hope to provide for my children that I didn’t get for myself…
- What question do I wish I would be asked right now that would help me explore my sexual story more?
Working through this stuff can bring up a range of emotions including surprise, sadness, anger, shame, joy, relief, and more. Be gentle with yourself as you answer these questions. Find a trusted friend or your partner to go through these questions with. Even just answering these questions will start to make things less taboo and more approachable.
If you don’t have someone you can share your story with, but you’d like to share it, you can use my google form anonymously. I won’t be able to respond to you, but it can be a place for you to put your words and story.
What’s next for part 2?
The conversation about masturbation is a big one. This post is only an introduction. In the following weeks, I’ll be responding more specifically to the common questions I get from parents: Is it normal? What does the church say? What does the American Pediatric Association say? But first, let’s start with you.