When my 13 year old daughter first told me she masturbated, my brain froze, and then a string of questions went through my head. “Isn’t she too young?” “How does she know how to do that?” “Is she doing it in a safe way?” until it ultimately landed on the pivotal question, “How can I help her?”
As parents, none of us get a manual to tell us how to be parents, and if there was a manual, I doubt there would be a chapter on Talking to Your Kids about Masturbation (although there certainly should be). Yet masturbation is an important topic in the lives of human beings, and because of this, your kids will experiment and will have questions. You get to decide if you will be the resource they come to for answers, or the last person they’d consider when they have questions.
Setting the tone
In an ideal world, parents would set the foundation for conversations about sensitive topics like masturbation early. Once a child is able to engage in verbal, 2-way communication, parents can practice and implement strategies to allow for the open exchange of questions and information. Let me give you an example from my own life. At 7 years old, I was in a public bathroom with my mom, and I read something written on the stall. Apparently I needed time to process what I’d read because it wasn’t until we were back in the car when I asked my parents what a “f**” was (derogatory term for a gay man, or a cigarette if we were in England). My dad told me not to repeat that word; it wasn’t nice. My mom told him to answer me. He struggled a bit, and she jumped in. “It's a not-nice word for a man who loves another man.” That was the end of the conversation for me. I had a question. I asked. I got an answer. And later in life when I had questions about gay relationships or other sensitive topics, I felt comfortable coming to my mom with questions, knowing I’d get an answer.
Another example comes from a friend’s experience. Her three-year-old was touching herself during her bath. My friend could’ve chosen to shut the behavior down, telling the child it was something she “shouldn’t do” or “isn’t appropriate”, but instead she used it as an opportunity for conversation. “Why do you touch yourself there?” allowed my friend to find out if her daughter’s behavior was about pleasure or if there was another issue. In this case, my friend learned that her daughter’s labia were itchy which allowed my friend to monitor the situation. A few months later, the behavior occurred again during a bathtime. My friend asked the same question, getting a different response from her daughter - “It feels good.” To which my friend followed with, “I understand that so if you want to do that, just ask mom for some privacy.”
But for many parents, we don’t create these open environments when our daughters or kids are young. So the question becomes, “How do we set the tone now?”
Starting the conversation
If you haven’t yet established this open dialogue about sex, you could start by throwing yourself under the proverbial bus. Let the focus be on you instead of your daughter. As an example, "When I was a teenager, I didn't have anyone reliable to talk to and I don't want that for you. So it might be uncomfortable for both of us to start having personal conversations, but I'd like us to try."
You can then follow this up with sharing appropriate stories from your own experiences to normalize your daughter's potential experiences. This will open the floor for candid conversations and allow you, as the parent, to take on the 'embarrassment' on behalf of your daughter.
This also involves understanding the developmental stage your child is at, cognitively and emotionally. Overwhelming your child with too many details or too much information isn’t beneficial. In the story I shared earlier, my mom waited to see if I was going to have a follow-up question about gay love. I didn't, so it wasn’t the time to explore that topic. In another conversation with her when I was 6 years old, I asked her what a period was. She didn’t tell me I was too young to worry about it (thus discouraging future questions), but she also didn’t share every detail with me. “Every month, a little liquid comes out of your vagina and you can wear something in your underwear to catch it.” I asked what the “something” looked like and my mom showed me a panty liner. My mom gave me enough information to answer my question without scaring or exposing me to too much.
Preparing yourself for the conversation
As with any interaction, it helps to define your goal. Initiating talks about sex or masturbation with your daughter or child is no different. Once you establish your goal, this becomes your litmus test to evaluate your words and your behaviors. If, for example, your goal is to encourage future conversations, you can determine whether something you are about to say meets this goal or detracts from this goal. The goal becomes a way to keep on track in the conversation, rather than allowing yourself to become derailed by emotion.
The success of these types of conversations is also about being non-judgemental. If you are opening the door to conversations about sex, gender, sexuality, and sexual pleasure, then being ready to hear and discuss anything that comes your way ensures that communication will continue to happen. If you demonstrate judgment, you are shutting down future conversations.
With that said, admitting a lack of knowledge or information is appropriate. If you don’t have an answer, or you don’t know about the topic your daughter is asking you about, be honest. You can let your daughter know that you’ll do a bit of research and then have another conversation. You can also be honest if she’s sharing information about a choice she made that you wouldn’t make, but maintaining a non-judgemental manner. This allows your child to explain and discuss the topic with you, keeping the flow of communication open, in the moment and in the future. As an example, another person I know had a conversation about her 22-year-old daughter’s recent decision to engage in multi-person sex. As you might imagine, it wasn’t a topic the mom expected to have with her daughter, but instead of reacting with judgment, anger, or disappointment, she asked questions. “Why?” “What was the benefit to you?” “Were you safe?” The daughter then asked her mom if she’d ever done this, to which the mom responded, “No. I’d find it too distracting.” These questions, from both parent and child, encouraged that conversation and future conversations.
The immediate, direct benefits of encouraging these types of conversations is certainly your connection to your daughter or child. You ensure that your daughter gets accurate information. You become her reliable source of information. She is then less likely to get her questions answered from uninformed sources, social media, porn, or the internet. You allow conversations about these topics to be open and direct.
Without these conversations, it contributes to the irony. Girls’ reproduction is openly discussed by politicians, news sources, and leaders, but conversations about girls’ sexual wellness, sexual pleasure, and them owning their own bodies are done in whispers, if at all. Social media can show all kinds of sexualized images, but educational posts about sexual devices, including vibrators, are blocked.
The impact of fostering these conversations isn’t just within your home. By having these conversations with your daughters, you break down the stereotypes of “sex toys” as deviant or atypical. You acknowledge sexual wellness as an important aspect of overall health. You define masturbation, sex, and sexual wellness as parts of the overall lifespan, not relegated to a particular age or relationship status. These conversations let your daughters know that they have the right to discuss, debate, and demand things which make them feel good and make them healthy, regardless of age or relationship status, and without stigma.
Written by Dr. Robin Buckley