Father and son talk masturbation

Dear Alice,

I am sorry if I seem maybe over-worried or so but I have a situation that I am not sure how to deal with and I need someone's help. I am a forty-two-year-old male, and I am not into masturbating. I am not sure why. As a kid, I was taught it was a bad thing to do and I was always afraid. I have two sons, one fourteen and another nine. I was getting ready to go to work the other day and I walked into the bathroom and my oldest son was sitting down on the toilet masturbating. I was deeply shocked and my son was deeply embarrassed. I did not know what to make of it. I did not know what to do about it so my son and I had a discussion alone about it. He said he has been masturbating for awhile, maybe a year, about everyday. He says it is something to him that is hard to drop, and sometimes it causes his penis to hurt, sting. He is not circumcised and he said he noticed that he had been getting red tiny veins on his penis and he was worried about it. I did not know what to do about it because I am circumcised and that has never really happened to me. I feel I didn't handle the conversation well because I was shocked and I don't know what to think of it. He seemed worried about it. Can masturbating affect his penis with the symptoms he has? What should I do or think about it? I wish I wasn't so inexperienced about this subject, and my son does not wish for me to talk to anyone about it, so I have turned to someone I don't know to spare his embarrassment. I would greatly appreciate it if you could answer this because I don't know what to do about it. And I am quite worried about it. Thank you.


Dear D, 

There is no right or wrong way to parent; it’s often about handling each obstacle the best that you can—and it sounds like you did! Kudos to you for being willing to learn more about this topic and being open to exploring some communication strategies to continue the conversation. Masturbation habits vary from person to person with some people doing it every day—even multiple times a day—while others, like yourself, may never do it at all. In terms of your son's physical symptoms, it’s possible that they're due to the friction and pressure he applies when masturbating. He might consider loosening his grip, incorporating lube, and using mild soap to clean his penis when showering. He could also switch to his non-dominant hand to minimize or prevent the irritation and discomfort he's feeling. These tips can be useful regardless of whether or not a person is circumcised. 

While masturbation frequency can vary from person to person, it can become “too much” when it starts to inhibit a person from completing everyday tasks like going to school or work, or when it gets in the way of maintaining relationships. If your son finds that his masturbation habits are impacting the rest of his life and he’s concerned, consider suggesting he speak with a health care provider. A medical professional can provide treatment for his physical symptoms and may be able to offer strategies for cutting back on masturbation. There’s no correct way for you to feel, but you might find that reflecting on your own experiences and discussions about masturbation and sexual health may help you figure out the best approach to talking with your son. 

It might be helpful to consider some of the following questions: What were your experiences with masturbation like growing up? How did you (or didn’t you) talk about it with your parents? What are your beliefs about masturbation? What influences those beliefs—culture? Religion? Family values? You might also think about what you would have liked to know about sex and your body at your son's age and how you wish the adults in your life would have handled those conversations. Thinking about the answers to these questions may help you examine your experiences and the way you want to conduct these conversations with your son moving forward. 

It may feel awkward or challenging at first to have these kinds of chats with your kids, but keep in mind you’re creating an atmosphere of openness and trust with them by doing so. Continuing to be available and letting your child know you are open to talking about all aspects of their health as they progress through puberty will be an invaluable resource for them. Part of having these conversations is admitting that you may not know or have all the answers. Telling your son you are unsure may present an opportunity to learn something new together. If having a little more preparation before these conversations would make you feel more at ease, consider checking out resources such as Amaze and the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). These organizations have information for you as a parent as well as resources you can share with your child(ren). Thinking about how you would like to share age-appropriate information in a way that fits with your family’s cultural, religious, or other values may help you cover the information in a way that feels comfortable for everyone. 

Best of luck! 

Last updated May 19, 2023
Originally published Feb 26, 1999

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