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How To Prepare For One Of Parenting’s Most Awkward Convos

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Parents, friends, caregivers… it’s time to talk wet dreams. Sorry, you can’t ostrich your way out of this one by sticking your head in the sand — at some point, you’ve got to prepare for the inevitable milestone. Among the physical and emotional rollercoaster that puberty brings, wet dreams can feel like a special type of embarrassment for your kid, especially if it happens before they’re familiar with what it all means and why it’s a totally normal, natural bodily process. If your child is on the precipice of puberty, you’ll want to be both armed with information and prepared to handle it with grace, all while modeling sex- and body-positive language so your little one feels empowered instead of ashamed.

But fear not! Scary Mommy spoke with a trio of experts who will assuage your fears and help you and your kid get through potentially awkward moments with ease.

What are wet dreams, anyway?

First up, a quick refresher on wet dreams, in case your sex ed memories are a little dusty. Wet dreams (scientific name: nocturnal emissions) are a “normal part of puberty and typically occur during REM sleep,” aka the late-sleep stage when you’re deep into dreamland, explains Dr. Lanae St.John, DHS, CSC, ACS, a board-certified sexologist. “These spontaneous orgasmic sensations happen while a person is sleeping,” she says, which means they occur without manual stimulation from sexual activity.

Why do wet dreams happen?

While they’re most commonly associated with teenage boys going through puberty, all sexes and genders can experience sexual responses during slumber, and it’s all entirely normal, natural, and healthy… and not always related to an erotic dream. Explains St. John, “That’s not always the case — sometimes, people who have had a wet dream cannot even remember their dream.” Wet dreams can even be triggered by movement against bed linens.

Why does it seem like tweens and teens get them most frequently? “Generally, people who are younger and less sexually active will have more nocturnal emissions than someone who is older and having more frequent sex — solo or partnered, it makes no difference,” says Nicole Prause, Ph.D., a sexual psychophysiologist. “One common myth is that nocturnal emissions are a sign of youth. They do decrease in adulthood eventually,” she says, but the downswing is typically associated with “becoming more regularly sexually active as an adult, when you can masturbate whenever you choose or may have a regular partner.”

There’s still a lot that scientists don’t know about wet dreams, such as how common they are and why some people get them and others don’t. That means your child might never have one, though it’s definitely normal if they do.

How do you talk about wet dreams?

Just as the general experience of puberty (and wet dreams themselves) is different for everyone, the way to approach your kiddo about wet dreams might differ too, says Dr. Lee Phillips, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist. That means some kids will be more open to having these talks, and others might react negatively.

No matter what, your top priority should be normalizing and validating their experiences instead of being reactive or approaching them with judgment or a mocking tone, says Phillips. “There is a chance they could feel embarrassed, and they may also feel shame. It is important to give them the time and space they need.”

“Of course, many youth will not understand what happened to them when they experience a nocturnal emission and may believe they urinated,” adds Prause. “Depending on whether your child already has had some education about sex or not, it is probably most useful just to reassure them, like letting them know ‘that just means your penis is healthy.'”

“It can be embarrassing to wake up with sticky sheets,” adds St.John. “Some children feel ashamed thinking they wet the bed and then rush to hide the evidence. Let kids know they’re normal; there’s nothing wrong with them if or when it happens.” She suggests letting them know that wet dreams are “just a result of the body’s natural process of sexual development.”

“If they are distressed about the mess, or become concerned about sleepovers, guidance on managing this also might be helpful,” says Prause. “Something like, ‘How about we leave a washcloth for the next time that happens, then you just rinse off the washcloth?’ Giving them some age-appropriate terminology could be helpful. ‘Wet dreams’ might be easier and accurate enough for younger kids, where a teenager might understand ‘ejaculation.'”

When should you have “the talk”?

You’re likely wondering about the best age or developmental stage to broach the conversation. “There is no science to know what a good age is to introduce the topic of nocturnal emissions,” says Prause, but you’ll want to tread lightly if the first time you’re talking about wet dreams is after your child has had one. “This is probably not the time to launch into a discussion of masturbation, sperm, or other sexual topics. These would not necessarily be harmful, but sexuality is confusing enough! If your child is tearful or says they feel embarrassed, it can be useful to acknowledge that some people are embarrassed when this happens, but it is a sign that your body is healthy.”

Ultimately, you should be having open, honest conversations with your children about sex when possible before puberty so that they’re not overwhelmed or panicked by anything they might experience. “It is always helpful to discuss sex with your child. Parents often talk to their children about sex, masturbation, and wet dreams around the age of 10 or 11, when they begin getting curious about their bodies,” says Phillips. “However, it’s totally normal for that curiosity to occur earlier. Masturbation in childhood is a healthy way to self-soothe — it is not always a sign of sexual abuse, and it is how children get to know their bodies.”

No matter what, says Phillips, “The last thing a parent should do is judge or shame their child” (i.e., calling something “gross” or “weird” or scolding them). “This is only going to cause them to withdraw and feel more shame. Instead, normalize what has occurred. I recommend that parents use the conversation as a way to connect — this can be a teachable moment. Being curious, caring, and empathetic is the complete opposite of judging and shaming. Tell the child that it is okay if they are embarrassed and that you are there to support them.”

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