Masturbation is a sensitive and often controversial topic, even among members of the LDS Church. Although the term “masturbation” hasn’t formally been used in a general conference talk since the 1970s, there are current Church publications that clearly teach that masturbation isn’t necessary and is even considered sinful.[i] Armed with these official statements on the dangers of masturbation, many parents can still feel unsure how to discuss this subject with their children. Some may wonder if it’s even worth addressing at all.
Children are naturally curious and often accidentally discover the powerful physical and emotional experience of sexually stimulating their own bodies. I remember a conversation my wife had with one of our sons when she found him aroused in the bathtub. This little 4-year-old boy was confused about her redirection. “Why can’t I touch myself? It feels good!” he responded.
She tried to explain that Heavenly Father didn’t want us touching ourselves to create those feelings. He followed up with a direct question, “Who gets to touch it, then?” My wife decided to tell him the truth and told him that his wife would be the one to touch him there when he’s married. He seemed relieved with the answer and carried on with his bath.
This experience taught me a few things about the topic of masturbation. First, sexual feelings for children aren’t sexual. My son simply knew that this felt good. Period. Humans like to do things that feel good and avoid things that feel bad. So, when a child discovers the beautiful gift of sexuality in their own body, they’re naturally going to find ways to keep doing it.
Second, I learned that direct answers are the only helpful answers. Vagueness confuses children and may cause them to feel more shame about why they want to keep doing something that feels good but is treated as bad by their parents.
Finally, I learned that we don’t have to be afraid to talk with our children. They have questions and we have answers. This topic isn’t naturally shameful to young children unless we make it uncomfortable for them. We have the revealed truth about the sacred nature of the body, sexuality, and how all of this fits into Heavenly Father’s plan of happiness for all of His children.
Every parent has a responsibility to seek inspiration and answers on how to talk with their children about the sacredness of the body and how to handle the powerful sexual feelings they’ll inevitably experience. I believe that the sacred purposes of the body fall within the commandment to teach “light and truth” so the “wicked one [won’t have] power” over our children.[ii] I’d like to offer some supports to help you teach your children why masturbation isn’t a healthy behavior for their bodies, spirits, and relationships.
Private vs. Public Behavior
As I shared in my personal example, many young children will surprise their parents by stimulating their genitals in a public setting. It’s important to remember that young children under the age of eight are still transitioning into an awarenessof what isprivate and public behavior. Just because a young child stimulates himself or herself openly doesn’t mean he or she is on the road to sexual deviance. They’ve most likely discovered that the behavior feels good and don’t know they need to stop.
When working with young children, it’s most effective to use redirection and a private discussion about public versus private behaviors.There is nothing wrong with redirecting a child and explaining (out of earshot of others, of course) the difference between public and private behavior. This is the first boundary in helping them protect the powerful sexual feelings in their bodies. Next, you can begin to give them direct, age-appropriate, and clear explanations about the problems with masturbation.
Avoiding Masturbation: 3 Reasons to Consider
If you choose to teach your children to abstain from masturbation, then you need to have a clear understanding about why it’s something that should be avoided. Your children, whether they ask you or not, will have questions about why it’s banned. They’ll likely ask themselves, “Since it feels good, why is it wrong?” As a parent, you have to be prepared with good answers, flexibility, and plenty of loving encouragement.
I want to introduce three ways you can help your child understand why masturbation is something they’ll want to avoid:
#1 Just because masturbation is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
As a child develops, we help them redirect what comes naturally to them, otherwise their impulses will completely control their behavior. For example, if they want a toy, they hit another child. If they see something on the floor, they put it in their mouth. We want our children to learn how to slow down their physical impulses and not be ruled by them.
Children begin with no ability to regulate anything that comes naturally to them (hunger, bathroom behavior, sleep, and so on). We celebrate each stage of mastery over their bodies as they learn to walk, feed themselves, talk, and potty train. New challenges await them as they develop. Eventually, we have an opportunity to help them learn to master their sexual impulses.
In the same way we gladly work with a child to master other physical aspects of their development, we can also help our children make sense of their sexual feelings and impulses. The word “natural” only means that it’s not the child’s fault when they feel sexual impulses in their bodies. It doesn’t mean we ignore it because it happens naturally. Our commitment as parents is to provide loving guidance and teach limits with all of the natural stages of development.
Sexuality is powerful and isn’t something children can make sense of on their own. Unfortunately, there often exists a private collusion between parents and children around the issue of masturbation. In these cases, kids are embarrassed and unsure about these strong urges, while parents would rather not talk about it. In my view, the fact that it is natural gives us even more permission and reason to talk about it in a non-shaming and supportive way. We must not dismiss it and hope our kids figure it out.
World famous historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote:
“No man [or woman], however brilliant or well-informed, can … safely … dismiss … the wisdom of [lessons learned] in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; [but] if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he … understand[s] that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group”(The Lessons of History (1968), 35–36).
We can teach our children that sexual impulses, though natural, can become consuming and problematic for them if they fail to put limits around them.
#2 Masturbation can become a substitute for real connection with others.
Even though our sexual urges are a natural human need, a stronger and more important need that predates our sexuality is the longing to be close to another human being. From birth, we need others to see us, respond to us, and touch us. We never outgrow these needs, but we often accidentally discover counterfeit ways to meet this deep need for safe connection with others.
Babies instinctively reach for human connection when they’re distressed. As we get older and discover the powerful and soothing feelings experienced with food, sex, and other behaviors, it’s easy to turn to these instead of other people. Human relationships take work. They are unpredictable, painful, confusing, and sometimes unavailable. Counterfeit connections, on the other hand, are always available and have predictable outcomes.
Masturbation is highly soothing and relaxing, which can create a pattern of turning only to ourselves for comfort when our wiring actually craves safe connection with another person. We can teach children that masturbation instantly creates a powerful calming feeling that might keep us from turning to other people when we need emotional support. It’s like having your own emotional “off switch” that can direct all of your struggles away from people who can actually help you. Using masturbation in this way can lead to loneliness and isolation.
Our sexual response releases the hormone oxytocin, which is often called the “cuddle hormone.” One of its primary purposes is to bond us deeper to our spouse during sex. This is great for marriage, but not so great when you’re alone, as it leaves people feeling more isolated. The problem with masturbation, then, is that it teaches that sex is a solitary event instead of an experience that brings two people closer together.
In other words, masturbation will not prepare people to think unselfishly of their partner’s needs, but instead, it will teach them to merely focus on their own pleasure. Successful marriage and family life is based on sacrifice and unselfishness. We want to teach our children to avoid only thinking of their own comfort and pleasure when they’re stressed.
We can teach our children that our sexuality is intended to draw us closer to our spouse, not to be an end unto itself.
#3 Masturbation can become addictive.
Before I begin discussing the addictive nature of masturbation, please understand thatjust because a child begins experimenting with masturbation does not mean they’re addicted. You don’t want to incorrectly label a normal developmental behavior as an addiction. Children need room to be human so they learn and develop mastery. We simply want to teach our children that masturbation can become addictive, so it’s a behavior we want them to avoid.
Masturbation is highly addictive because it initiates a cascade of feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. These pleasurable feelings can numb us quickly so we don’t have to feel some of the more painful things in life. In a sense, we carry our own supply of body and emotion-numbing chemicals that we can release at will. Our brains are efficient and can remember the fastest way to feel good, even if it’s going to cause problems for us in the end.[iii]
Because the experience of sexual release is so powerful, it’s easy to use masturbation as a way to relieve stress and end up becoming addicted. Instead of turning to addictive behaviors, we want our children to face reality and learn to confront the challenges of life. We can teach children that they will discover substances and experiences that will tempt them to avoid pain or other uncomfortable feelings that are a normal part of life.
The problem with an addiction is that we become slaves to the behavior. More of the same behavior is required to get the previous effect as the addiction escalates and becomes stronger. This creates feelings of powerlessness, shame, and despair. Plus, compulsive masturbation is often paired with pornography consumption (and viewing pornography almost always leads to masturbation), which is also highly addictive and damages relationships.[iv] Addiction will never satisfy our deepest needs for connection. Two excellent resources for teaching children to reject pornography are Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids for ages 7 to 11, and Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds for children ages 3 to 6.
We can teach children other ways of coping with stress, such as praying, meditation, breathing, exercise, talking to others, journaling, and so on. These ways won’t numb or desensitize them to the wonderful and powerful feelings of sexual expression that they can one day share with their spouse. Instead, they’ll prepare them to develop stronger, more intimate relationships.
How to Address Masturbation
Many parents wonder how they should address masturbation with their children. It goes without saying that every parent understands masturbation is something that shouldn’t be done publicly. Beyond that, however, most parents clam up and aren’t sure where to go in the discussion.
Even though most therapists and educators will tell you that masturbation isn’t a big deal and parents shouldn’t worry if their kids do it, you, as parents, still get to make the decision on how you teach your children about their bodies. Even though the LDS Church has warned against masturbation, parents often do not know how to teach the “why” or how to address this with their children beyond a straightforward, “Stop it!”
Historically, there have been plenty of unhelpful (and humorous, I might add) scare tactics to keep kids from masturbating. Blindness, hairy palms, insanity, and other conditions were made-up reasons to scare kids from masturbating. These may seem dated and obviously flawed ways to handle the topic of masturbation, but parents should be aware that anxiety and fear can still hijack well-meaning attempts to deter this behavior.
Despite what you may have read in sexual education resources, your child won’t be harmed if they abstain from masturbation. Even though it is a completely normal part of childhood development and self-discovery, it’s a behavior that can quickly become problematic. But please make sure that in your efforts to educate your child about your concerns with masturbation that you don’t shame them. Using approaches that shame and guilt your child into abstinence are unhelpful and can create negative associations that can cause other emotional and relational problems.
Rising Above What Comes “Natural”
Sex educators seem to get caught in this false dilemma of believing that since virtually all kids are going to privately discover masturbation on their own, a parent will do more damage by trying to stop something natural and harmless. Please recognize that there are healthy ways to help children know how to avoid the pitfalls of masturbation. Shaming a child into submission or ignoring the issue completely aren’t your only two options.
While I am completely opposed to shaming children, I just as strongly disagree with the notion that we should just throw our hands up and let our children go with whatever feels good and natural to them. As a parent, I want to help my children rise above their physical impulses. I believe there are non-shaming and supportive ways to help us accomplish this lofty ideal.
King Benjamin and Alma both taught that we should overcome the natural man and bridle our God-given passions so we can be filled with love.[v] Having passions and appetites isn’t something we’re doing wrong. Our struggle to manage them is a weakness that was purposefully designed by our loving Heavenly Father to help us turn to Him in humility. Dr. Wendy Ulrich taught that God is the author of weakness and Satan is the author of sin. It’s critical we don’t confuse the two and either shame ourselves for the struggle or give into natural impulses that are placed in us for our own growth.[vi]
Begin with a Trusting Environment
Hopefully you’ve already created an environment in your home where your children know that they are worthy of love and belonging. This is an environment where mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning and growth instead of evidence that make your children feel broken and defective.
If you have contributed to a shame-based home environment where children are afraid to make mistakes or be human, then it’s essential you work on improving conditions before you begin a delicate discussion on sexuality. Your children need to know there is absolutely nothing wrong with them when they discover masturbation. Do not send them the message that they have done something disgusting or evil.
Your children are likely going to experiment with masturbation. You may catch them, they may admit it if you ask, or they may even tell you (less likely, by the way). Please don’t act shocked, disgusted, disappointed, or upset. In the same way you would never overcorrect a veering car on the Interstate, it’s just as dangerous to overreact and overcorrect a child who is discovering their body for the first time.
Children Can Be Taught Sexual Self-Mastery
Children can learn that their bodies have natural and powerful urges that serve important purposes in marriage. As they discover these feelings, they can be taught to accept them as normal and healthy. No child should ever feel ashamed of their sexuality or the desire to act on those feelings. However, children can learn that just because they feel something strong and natural doesn’t mean they have to act on it.
Children can learn God’s purposes for these feelings and direct them toward their intended purposes. Gaining discipline and mastery over their impulses will help them learn to cherish and respect their bodies without shame, which decreases the likelihood that they will develop unhealthy addictive patterns in their lives.
**Some of this content was originally published by the author on Protect Young Minds.
Lead image from iStock
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). Geoff is the 2017 conference chair for the Southern Utah conference for the Utah Coalition Against Pornography (www.utahcoalition.org). He is also the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. Geoff has authored workbooks and articles on the topics of healing marriages, sexual addiction recovery, betrayal trauma recovery, and disclosing secrets. He also writes a weekly relationship column for Meridian Magazine (http://ldsmag.com/author/geoff-steurer/). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] See D&C 93:42
[v] See Mosiah 3:19 and Alma 38:12
[vi] Wendy Ulrich wrote about this concept in two of her books, “Forgiving Ourselves” and “Weakness is not Sin”. She also discussed this concept in this 2015 Ensign article https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/04/it-isnt-a-sin-to-be-weak?lang=eng