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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

My son (age three) has “discovered” masturbation (at this point rubbing a toy on his genitals or rubbing on the floor). Before I became a Catholic (this year), I would have probably said something like “go to your room, honey, if you need to do that...,” but now that I know it is just WRONG, I don’t want to allow him to do this any more than I would allow him to eat whatever he wants at every meal. At the same time, I don’t want to do anything to inhibit a healthy/correct view for the future of his body/sexuality (or make a big deal so he does it for negative attention) I have been first trying to distract him and if that doesn’t work I then tell him (strongly) to stop. He often gets upset, even very angry, and doesn’t want to. I often force him to stop by removing him from the room and helping him get involved in something else. This doesn’t work well if we are in the car.
 
How do you recommend I handle this situation? Is it OK to forcefully make him stop? Is discipline like time-out called for? I pray for his purity and try not to worry (but I do). Priests or friends say don’t worry because he can’t really sin at this age, but I know he can certainly develop bad habits that could become a pattern of sin later.

Outline of the Answer
• Like Taking a Bone Away from a Dog
• The Meaning of Reproduction
• Childhood Masturbation is Not a “Sexual” Pleasure
• The Unknown and the Forbidden
• Clinical Considerations
• What You Can Do
• Correcting Unholy Behavior
• Raising Children to Revere the Holy

 
Before you can do anything about your son’s masturbation, it’s important to be clear in your own mind about the reason why masturbation is wrong. If you are not clear about the matter, then you cannot be clear about what to say to your son, and if you are not clear about what you say to him, then trying to make him stop masturbating will be like trying to take a bone away from a dog. He will growl and snarl and you will be left feeling frustrated and angry.

 
The Meaning of Reproduction

Masturbation is wrong for one simple reason: it defiles the God-given reproductive purpose of our genitals.

God designed the male and female genitals for the sacred purpose of reproduction, thus allowing a man and a woman to conceive a child and thence to raise that child in a holy environment so that the child can grow to love and serve God. A child, therefore, is the parents’ gift to God of a holy soul who can fill up the ranks of the fallen angels.

Consequently, to use the genitals for mere self-gratification is a defilement of God’s love.

Now, for an adult who can comprehend the concept of reproduction, the misuse of the genitals would be a grave sin. But a child who has no understanding of reproduction cannot comprehend why masturbation is wrong. To the child, masturbation simply feels good. Moreover, to the child, masturbation has nothing to do with sexuality.

 
Childhood Masturbation is Not a “Sexual” Pleasure

Even though most adults fail to understand this, the psychological truth about childhood masturbation is that it has nothing to do with sexuality. Yes, masturbation, by definition, is self-stimulation of the genitals, and the genitals are organs of sexual reproduction. That part is true.

But to a child masturbation is simply a form of self-soothing. In its essence, it is no different from thumb sucking; both behaviors derive pleasure from bodily stimulation. Masturbation is different than thumb sucking, however, in that it utilizes private, sacred parts of the body. A thumb is always in public view, and so a thumb is not surrounded with feelings of secrecy. The genitals, however, are usually kept private and hidden from view because of their sanctity, but to those who do not understand sanctity, an element of secrecy—and shame—surrounds the genitals.

Therefore, when a child discovers masturbation as a source of soothing pleasure, the child enters into a psychological state of exploring the unknown and the forbidden.

 
The Unknown and the Forbidden

Imagine how any child feels when surrounded by a vast and mysterious world. In the midst of rules and traditions that adults seem to take for granted, the child will feel ignorant and helpless and will be driven by an urge to acquire a sense of power and efficacy to compensate for a shameful sense of “not knowing.”

Now imagine what will happen when a child is confronted with a Do Not Enter sign on a door, for example. To a child driven by the urge to acquire a sense of knowledge and power, the words Do Not Enter will reverberate with enticement. “If they don’t want me going in there, it must be something special. I wonder what it is?” To a child, then, “forbidden” usually means “something to be desired and explored because someone else surely must be enjoying it.”

This leads us to an odd psychological irony: to tell your child that he is doing something bad only increases his desire for it.

So what can you do when you find him masturbating? Telling him that masturbation is “bad,” just because you know that masturbation is bad, won’t help him one bit. How can he stop doing something if he cannot comprehend why it is wrong?

Well, first let’s consider some clinical issues.

 
Clinical Considerations

Given that masturbation is a form of self-soothing, you should be alert for any psychological reasons causing your son to need to soothe himself. Here are some special clinical issues for inquiry.

1.

Investigate the possibility that someone could be sexually abusing your son.

2.

Is your son in daycare? If he is, then it would be helpful to determine if he masturbates in that setting and what the teacher does about it. For example, you could be working at cross purposes with a liberal teacher who condones, or even encourages, his behavior.

3.

You might also try to determine if he learned this behavior from other children, whether siblings or neighbors, especially older children who were taught to masturbate by sexual indoctrination programs in school.

4.

Are there any current underlying conflicts between you and your husband that your son could be unconsciously acting out?

5.

Is your husband actively involved with the family? Is your son’s behavior a symbolic response to his need for attention from his father?

6.

How did you feel about your son’s conception? What were the circumstances of the conception? Was it planned? How did you feel about your son as you carried him in the womb? Were you experiencing any emotional turmoil about other matters during the time of your pregnancy? How did you feel about your son in the initial months of his life? Was he “difficult” or not? Any of these issues could be an unconscious reason for anxiety that your son is trying to alleviate with masturbation.

Therefore, even though it might seem that masturbation is something a child just “discovers, ” it can really be a symptom of a deeper, emotional problem that might now need to be addressed—with some outside professional help, if necessary.

 
What You Can Do

At this point, there are two topics to consider. One topic concerns what can be done now to correct the behavior of your son who has probably not been taught, right from his birth, to live in respect for the holy. The second topic concerns the ways parents can raise their children, right from birth, to respect the holy so as to avoid the need for any drastic correction later in life.

 
Correcting Unholy Behavior

Below are several interrelated behavioral techniques that you can use to help your son stop masturbating, whether or not there may be clinical issues as well.

 

Naming.  Give a name to the masturbation that your son can understand at the level of his own language skills. Calling it “that” (as in “Don’t do that !”) only makes the whole subject seem mysterious. You might therefore refer to his behavior as “playing with the private parts of your body.”
 

Affirming.  Affirm his reality. Let him know that, in regard to his personal experience, he is not inferior in knowledge to you. He knows that masturbating feels good. You know it too. So just acknowledge it: “Playing with the private parts of your body feels good; I understand that.”
 

Encouraging.  Encourage him to identify with adult behavior. But be careful here. If you shame him by saying, “Stop that! Adults don’t do that!” you will only drive his behavior into secrecy. Instead, calmly say, “Adults who love God respect the private parts of their bodies as holy and do not play with their bodies like toys. You can love God like that too.”
 

Teaching.  Teach your son that his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Explain to him, constantly—and in increasingly mature terms as he grows—how he can care for his body as an instrument of divine will. Demonstrate to him, through your own example, how all aspects of caring for the body—eating, grooming, playing, and resting—are ways to sanctify the body. Explain to him that the desire for divine love is more important than any other desire. Show him how to satisfy bodily needs by subordinating bodily desires to the supreme desire for holiness.
 

Nurturing.  Do what almost every parent—even those who call themselves devout Catholics—fail miserably in doing: nurture your child’s desire for the holy. Realize that because of his drive to understand the world (including his body) he already has the desire to feel good. Now teach him that there is something more powerful and more mysterious than feeling good with masturbation. Teach him about the love of God. Rather than stifle his curiosity with the shame of the forbidden, take his hands, join them together in front of him, and say, “Let me show you something really, really, special. This is how we pray to God, who is a powerful Father to all of us and who protects us when we feel scared and who teaches us everything we need to know about the world.” Then recite the Our Father with him. 
 

Permitting.  If your son persists in masturbating even after you pray with him, then, instead of getting into a battle of wills with him, simply give him permission to play with himself [1] and then take one of several possible responses depending on the circumstances.

1.

You might say, “If you want to play with your body, you have my permission. But go over into the corner by yourself, and, when you are finished, then we can resume [doing whatever activity you were doing previous to the masturbation].”

2.

Or, you might say, “If you want to play with your body, you have my permission. When you are finished, then we can [do something together that he really enjoys].” Then ignore him until he responds positively.

The point here is that your son will have to decide to stop masturbating of his own will in order to receive attention and participate in family activity. The key here is repetitive consistency.
 

So let’s go on now to consider what you could have done, or might still do—or what any parent can do—to raise a child to revere the holy right from birth.

 
Raising Children to Revere the Holy

Teaching a child to revere the holy should begin in the womb, with blessings, and should continue through infancy and childhood with blessings, prayer, and teaching.

 
Blessings

While the child is still in the womb, give it a blessing in the morning and evening and several times a day by making the Sign of the Cross over the womb and saying audibly, “May our Lord Jesus Christ bless you and protect you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

After the child’s birth, whenever you fetch the child from bed and when you put the child to bed, make the Sign of the Cross on the child’s forehead with your thumb and say audibly, “May our Lord Jesus Christ bless you and protect you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As the child gets older, you can teach the child to say his or her own prayers on waking and going to sleep.

Whenever you feed the child, make the Sign of the Cross on the child and say audibly, “Bless us, O Lord, and this food which [name of child] is about to receive, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” As the child gets older, you can teach the child to make the Sign of the Cross himself or herself, and, ultimately, to say along with you the standard Catholic blessing (“Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”).

 
Prayer

While the child is an infant, hold the child in your arms or lap while you audibly pray vocal prayers such as the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours. This will teach the child to sit quietly during periods of prayer and worship. As the child gets older, he or she can join you in the prayers.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, let your child witness you praying and giving thanks. For example, before leaving home, go before the crucifix and ask for protection, and give a blessing to your home; on arriving home, do the same, giving thanks. Let your child see you constantly engaged in prayerful interaction with God. Whenever possible, pray audibly, rather than silently, so that the child can learn from you how to pray.

 
Teaching

When the child is old enough to understand, every time you bathe the child, teach him or her that the genitals are to be kept private because of their holiness before God, and that they are not to played with like toys.

When the child asks about babies and where they come from, explain that the genitals are used by adults in marriage to make babies. Explain that a girl has a special, holy place inside her for a baby to grow, but that it doesn’t work until adulthood. Tell the child that just before adolescence, when the genitals begin to work, you will explain the details.

 

Who wrote this web page?
 

Notes

1. “Giving permission” is a temporary psychological method that utilizes paradox to bypass resistance; it’s neither a declaration that “masturbating is OK” nor an attempt to condone sin. The goal here is to stop a behavior without causing long-lasting emotional scars from a shameful, guilt-producing battle of wills.

 


 
Recommended Reading
 
A treasure of a resource for psychological and spiritual healing. Information gathered from my websites (including this webpage) is now available at your fingertips in book form.

 

Falling Families, Fallen Children by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. Do our children see a mother and a father both living in contemplative love for God with a constant awareness of His presence and engaged in an all-out battle with the evil of the world? More often than not our children donít see living faith. They donít see protection from evil. They donít see genuine, fruitful devotion. They donít see genuine love for God. Instead, they see our external acts of devotion as meaningless because they see all the other things we do that contradict the true faith. Thus we lose credibilityóand when parents lose credibility, children become cynical and angry and turn to the social world around them for identity and acceptance. They are children who have more concern for social approval than for loving God. They are fallen children. Letís bring them back.

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