Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

Information about Masturbation

(For Parents of Children with Developmental Disabilities)

Masturbation is common throughout life, both for men and women. Children masturbate from an early age, although the behavior usually increases during adolescence. Masturbation is a healthy thing for children and adults to do, but many people still feel guilty about masturbating.

Masturbation may:

    • help relieve sexual tension
    • provide a sexual outlet for people without partners
    • be a source of comfort or security to some individuals

Masturbation may also be a symptom of non-sexual problems such as frustration, boredom, or loneliness.

Excessive masturbation may occur:

    • when there are personal emotional problems
    • when there is an irritation such as a skin rash (for example, an allergic reaction to a new soap or detergent)
    • when clothing is too tight
    • when there is an infection (for example, a yeast infection or a sexually transmitted infection)
    • when a physical disability affects sensitivity to pain or pleasure
    • when an individual has a general tendency to engage in obsessive, repetitive, and/or self-abusive behavior
    • when an individual with autism has hyposensitivity to touch (an underdeveloped sense of touch). This individual may need to masturbate longer or more forcefully just to get sufficient sensations.
    • when an individual is not masturbating to orgasm
    • when an individual is taking medications that affect sexual function (as a side effect)
    • as an attention-getting behavior
    • when an individual has been sexually abused

Masturbation may seem excessive because it occurs in inappropriate places. This may happen because an individual has no appropriate places to masturbate or because he or she hasn’t been taught where it is appropriate to masturbate.

Masturbation cannot be ignored:

    • when it is done in a public place
    • when it is done in a private place (such as a bedroom), but when other people are around
    • when it interferes with daily living (the individual no longer finds time for family or friends, other interests, schoolwork, or their job)
    • when an individual is rubbing so hard or so often that there is soreness or bleeding

Individuals may need to learn the following things:

    • Masturbation should be done in a private place at home, such as a bedroom or a bathroom with the door closed and the curtains drawn.
    • Masturbation is a private behavior that should be done alone.
    • Use a sexual lubricant such as KY Jelly (available at pharmacies) if there is soreness.
    • Clean up after masturbating – this includes wiping off the genitals, wiping up semen (for males), and washing hands.
    • Masturbation should not be discussed in public places with family, friends, or strangers.
    • Masturbation can be discussed in private with a doctor, nurse, parent, or other appropriate person.

Dealing with Inappropriate Masturbation

    • Be clear about your rules.
    • Respond to inappropriate masturbation in a calm, non-judgmental manner. Use clear language. For example, “It’s not okay to masturbate here. You can do that in the bathroom.”
    • If possible, coordinate the messages given at home and at school or work, so that you and all school or work staff are giving consistent messages.
    • Look for possible causes if the inappropriate behavior persists.
    • Behavior modification techniques can be applied to inappropriate masturbation. Use techniques that have worked in the past for other problem behaviors exhibited by your child. Possible techniques include:
    • Encourage other, incompatible behaviors – your child won’t be able to masturbate if their hands are busy doing something else.
    • Reward appropriate behavior or the absence of inappropriate behavior.
    • Extinguish attention-getting behavior by ignoring it or calmly redirecting your child. This may be difficult – masturbation is a very private behavior, and seeing it in public may cause feelings such as anger, fear, or disgust.

NOTE: Masturbation is usually pleasurable and may be impossible to eliminate completely. Teaching appropriate places and times for masturbation, and ensuring that there are such places and times in your child’s life, is usually more effective than trying to eliminate the behavior completely.


Compiled and adapted by Sexuality Resource Center for Parents.

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