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Dear David Coleman: My 13-year-old daughter masturbates to relieve stress

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Question: I found out, by accident, that my 13-year-old daughter masturbates. She was upset when I found out and said she was worried what I would think of her but she seems totally fine since. She says it is a form of release for her when she is worried about something. She is doing it the last few months. I am completely shocked by this. It is very important for her to be liked and she has told me that she worries what people think of her and is always over-analysing situations she is in. Do I need to do something about this, or will it pass?

David replies: You may not need to do anything about the masturbation. Masturbation, even as a form of tension release or relief is not a bad thing. It is certainly a very normal thing for a 13-year-old to do, although it is probably more common among 13-year-old boys than girls.

It is also understandable that your daughter was upset and worried about what you might think of her. Masturbation is still one of those sexual activities that generates a fair bit of embarrassment. It may even generate guilt for some youngsters. Equally, your own shock, at discovering that your daughter has engaged in any kind of sexual activity, is not unusual. We rarely think of our children as sexual beings, and so when we get faced with an aspect of their developing sexuality, it takes time for us to accommodate to this new stage that our children have moved into.

I think that our children and teenagers are being challenged by sex and sexuality in a way, and at an age that we never were. Between pornography and the sexualisation of children in media and society, generally, parents need to have an awareness and a willingness to support them and give them a positive understanding of what sex is all about.

On the upside though, younger teenagers also seem a lot freer to talk about sex and relationships with less stigma and embarrassment. So if they have a greater freedom from guilt about their bodies and their sexuality that can be a good thing.

Perhaps more concerning than the masturbation, are her worries about how other people think of her and her "over-analysing" of situations. While it is, again, quite common for young teenagers especially to be self-conscious and sensitive to what their peers say, think and do, it is worrisome if it is causing so much distress that your daughter feels she needs to take some action to reduce the stress.

As much as you had the conversation with her about the masturbation, which must have been reassuring for her since she seems "totally fine" since, you may want to have some further conversations with her about her anxiety, to explore how significant or severe it may be.

The self-consciousness of adolescence does, typically, pass. That strong desire to be the same as their peers tends to diminish over time and their greater independence, of you, and of being a slave to trends, tends to grow.

However, if the analysis she makes of situations always leads to distress and negativity for her (for example, she always thinks she has made a mess of things, upset people, or is unlikeable) then you might want to think about getting some help for her. Similarly, if her worries about how others think of her prevent her from doing certain activities or going to certain places, then it too could be problematic.

It might be worth exploring more to see if she needs some extra help or support to overcome the anxiety such that she can participate fully in life.

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