How should parents approach an adolescent who is involved in sexual self-gratification? Without going into details, I can tell you that I have good reason to suppose that my teenager has been masturbating. Needless to say, this is extremely upsetting to me. I’m worried about my child’s spiritual condition, and I have no idea what to say or how to deal with the problem. Can you help me?
The first piece of advice we have to offer you is as simple and straightforward as it can be: relax. There’s no reason to panic, particularly where your child’s salvation and spiritual condition are concerned. Masturbation is a highly controversial topic. The Bible never directly addresses it, and Christian leaders differ widely in their understanding of its spiritual and moral implications. It’s crucial to acknowledge these divergences in opinion before saying anything further on the subject. This is an area where we have to be careful about laying down hard and fast rules or making definitive statements about the mind of God (though Scripture does clearly address behaviours that are often related to this activity). In particular, it seems to us that there’s little to be gained by labelling the act of masturbation itself a “sin.” In fact, in some ways, we think it misses the point.
The point, as we see it, is the larger meaning and purpose of human sexuality. The Bible has two important things to say about this: first, sex is central to the process by which husband and wife become one flesh (Genesis 2:24); and second, sex and marriage are intended to serve as picture or symbol of the union between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:31, 32). Sex, then, isn’t intended to be “all about me.” Rather, it’s designed to function as part of the give-and-take of an interpersonal relationship.
For these reasons, we believe it’s vital to resist the temptation to overreact to this situation, and we would strongly urge you to avoid heaping guilt on your teenager over this issue. Adolescents are in the process of discovering their own sexuality, and many of them find the urge to masturbate almost uncontrollable. They may be driven to spiritual despair over this issue if parents convey an overly harsh or critical perspective.
Instead of worrying and becoming upset, then, we’d advise you to turn this situation into an opportunity to tactfully and sensitively explore the biblical view of sex with your child. Don’t make a “big deal” of it. As suitable occasions arise, help your teen see that self-gratification is inconsistent with the purpose, goal and basic nature of sex. Incorporate these discussions into the broader, ongoing process of sex education in your home. If and when the subject does come up, make it clear that people shouldn’t be condemned for masturbating, but neither should they be encouraged to make a habit of it. Point out that God has created men and women to experience sexual fulfillment on a much higher level: within the context of a marital relationship.
In connection with this last thought, it’s important to add that masturbation, due to the powerful hormonal and psychological components of human sexual behaviour, can often become addictive. Individuals who fall prey to this addiction may end up carrying it with them into adult married life, where it can become a serious obstacle to healthy marital intimacy. Further, masturbation frequently involves indulging in sexual fantasy; and fantasy, if we are to believe the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:28), does represent a very serious breach of a person’s mental and spiritual purity. Here again, it’s not necessary to beat your teen over the head with these ideas. But it is vital to keep them in mind as you broach this delicate subject.
You should also remember that, in many cases, teen masturbation originates as a self-soothing behaviour. In other words, it’s a way of coping with pressures and seeking to meet the basic human need for peace, security, comfort and reassurance. With this in mind, you may want to ask yourself what might be going on at home, at school or in your child’s social life that could be influencing this behaviour. You should also start thinking creatively about ways to help your teen replace this negative behaviour with a more legitimate method of addressing the underlying need. For example, by talking things over with you or a trusted a friend, reading an engaging book, listening to music, tackling a constructive project or serving other people. Ultimately, the pain your teen is trying to anaesthetise through the practice of masturbation is just another manifestation of the “God-shaped vacuum” that exists at the centre of every human heart. Only a relationship with the Lord can fill that empty space in a deep, lasting and satisfying way.
If you need help working through these concepts and putting them into action, it might be a good idea to consider the option of discussing the situation with a professional counsellor.