How can I stop my child, who has a disability, from masturbating?

Dear Stop It Now! 

My daughter is 8 years old and has an intellectual disability. She has recently been masturbating and I’m concerned that this could mean she was abused or that she’ll be inappropriate with another child. How do I get her to stop masturbating?

Dear Concerned Parent, 

I understand that you want to keep your daughter safe. It can be hard for any parent, whether or not his/her child has a disability to address their child’s sexuality and sexuality development.

Age-appropriate sexual development 

Sexual feelings occur for individuals with or without disabilities, and are a natural part of what makes us human.  Masturbation – touching one’s genitals and often feeling a physical pleasurable response – is a normal developmental behavior for children of this age. 
 
For many individuals with developmental disabilities, masturbating may be the only available outlet for expression of their sexual feelings. It may be helpful to review our prevention tip sheet: Age-Appropriate Sexual Behavior. Your daughter’s intellectual disability will affect the development of some of these behaviors but you will be able to note some common physical developments.  For more resources on sexuality development, please refer to our Children's Sexuality Development and Behaviors resource guide list.

Beliefs and values regarding sexual behaviors, including masturbation, are highly individual and differ from family to family. It is important for you to first clarity your values and to find your comfort level in addressing sexual behaviors.  

Talking to your daughter 

Rather than attempting to discourage her from engaging in masturbation entirely, use this as an opportunity to teach her about her body, and about privacy and safety concepts. If merely “forbidden” from engaging in masturbation, your daughter may continue masturbation in hiding, in inappropriate locations, and/or using potentially harmful or socially inappropriate methods (e.g., rubbing any available object against the genital area). 

Safety begins by making sure that she has correct information and understands what the family rules are about masturbation.  For help in talking about sexuality, Advocates for Children has some good guidelines in their article, “Sexual Education for Physically, Emotionally and Mentally Challenged Youth”. 

It is important your child has a clear understanding of the appropriate times and locations for engaging in masturbation and that she understand the private nature of the behavior.   

Safety Planning 

If she is engaging in what appears to be an excessive amount of masturbation (e.g., to the exclusion of other activities, or to the point of self-harm) or you notice other warning signs of possible abuse, follow up is necessary. Always start with your pediatrician when you’re concerned about specific behaviors or physical conditions.

For more information about keeping your daughter safe, take a look at our tip sheets For Parents with Children with Disabilities, as well as
• Talking to Children and Teens
• Don't Wait: Everyday Actions to Keep Kids Safe

I hope this information is helpful. 

Take care,
Stop It Now!
 

 

*This question was submitted in part by the Chicago CAC, and is a sample question that parents with children with disabilities have asked.

 

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Last edited on: July 15th, 2013