Q: I recently discovered that my son, who is 14 years old is addicted to masturbation. I only allow him to use his mobile phone during holidays and he has no prolonged access to a computer. I am worried that this habit may affect his sexuality later on. Am I overreacting? Does he need counselling? How do I stop it? Is this a normal among teenagers?
Puberty is a period of rapid growth changes and parents often find it challenging, embarrassing and uncomfortable, especially when confronted with behaviour change and sexuality.
Remember that the teens are going through a growth spurt and changes both physically and mentally. During this period, it is important to talk to them often enough and it is not helpful to have one lengthy talk and then forget all about it.
The generation gap makes this even more difficult because these subjects are not openly discussed even among the youth.
Technology makes this millennial generation much more accessible to information and peer influence than ever before. This has led to early onset of sexual awareness, exploration and masturbation.
Masturbation in teens
Sexuality and sexual exploration in teens is a subject that “leaves” the parent lost and often worried about its possible consequences. Parents can react drastically through punishments such as withdrawing privileges or their cell phone.
Some of these reactions are due to a parent’s own upbringing.
However, masturbation in teenagers can be a normal part of their growing up, of their self-exploration about sexuality and eventually into adulthood.
It becomes a problem if it starts interfering with other aspects of life, for instance, relationships, concentration, academics and socialisation. It can also lead to addiction or chronic masturbation.
What should a parent do?
—First of all, don’t FREAK OUT!
—Do not delay the talk. Talking to your children about sexual health can be difficult but also beneficial especially if the parent does not make them feel guilty or having committed a sin.
Whilst most teens will not discuss all their issues of growing up with their parents, they should feel safe enough to reach out whenever they need, knowing that they will be heard and not blamed, accused or shouted at.
Talking to your child about masturbation may be awkward, especially from a cultural point of view. However, these are necessary conversations for parents so that the children grow up with a healthy understanding about sexuality and their bodies.
—Make them busy. At puberty, teens have excess energy. If their energy is unutilised, it can be spent in maladaptive ways. Encourage teens to join positive, character building activities such as the gym or outdoor sporting activities.
This is a better option than frequent night clubbing which raises risks of other problem behaviours.
—Engage a youth counsellor or psychologist instead of the child learning sexual health from the Internet or through experimentation or peers.
Talk about other sex topics
Masturbation opens up the individual conceptions of autonomy, pleasure, identity and intimacy and presents a unique opportunity for parents to teach skills and concepts that empower young people to grow into sexually healthy adults.
A parent could combine this talk with other topics such as: -abstinence, drugs abuse or alcohol use and date rape.
What to look out for Even after discussing these adolescent issues, if a parent notices worrying behaviours such as the teen avoiding school, family and friendly activities, not eating meals as usual or avoiding other aspects of day-to-day life or repeatedly harms themselves then it is time to seek support from a professional such as a family physician or a psychologist who can explore other underlying issues that may have contributed to the problem.
Remember that parents are role models that children want to emulate and often picture themselves growing up to be.
Mr Merali is counselling psychologist at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi.
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