The first thing I need to say in this situation is “DON‘T PANIC.” Many parents, if they have not done their own work, (as we discussed in an earlier chapter) get very anxious, panicked, upset or angry when they discover their child is engaging in sexting or looking at pornography online. This is not a moment to panic, this is an opportunity. What you have before you is the opportunity to talk to your child and guide him or her while also learning about them and their world.
In today’s digital world, if we “catch” a teen looking at pornography online, we are “catching” a normative behavior. Viewing pornography for many adolescents is a part of their sexual exploration. Access and availability have made online pornography a venue for sexual exploration and sex education. If we use shaming language with our children or shame them for engaging in something normative, we are fusing sex and shame together. This fusion has the potential to lead to trouble in the future.
The goal of talking to your child is to prevent problematic sexual behavior, not to create it. This is why I am very mindful of the language I use when discussing this matter, as well as the language I use in my mind when I think about it. If I think I have caught someone doing anything this shapes how I may or may not react. If I think that I have found something, it changes the context.
Another thing to think about here is how we find out that the child is engaging in cybersexual behaviors. Our knee jerk response is likely to be very different if we find a pornography site in the cookies of the laptop than if we get a call from the school principal indicating that our child was found to be sending naked pictures of a classmate. One situation has the distinct possibility of ramping up our own issues and anxieties (call from the principal). Regardless of the type of discovery you have, your response should be the same no matter what. CALM.
If you approach the issue from a growth mindset, you will approach it without labels and potential shame. So you walk into your child’s room and see pornography on the screen. To approach this from a growth mindset is to say, “OK, I’m not really excited about this but it is done. My child is looking at pornography. How can I handle this so that we both can learn from the discovery and move forward in a healthy way?” By doing this, you don’t shame your child. You are also instilling in them the idea that communicating about difficult issues is not only possible but is a good thing. You will both learn from such a conversation.
If you approach the issue of finding your child looking at online pornography or sexting you can approach it in several ways. If you approach it from a fixed mindset, you may convey a message to your child that there is something wrong with them for engaging in this behavior. They are perhaps a troublemaker, sick, perverted, stupid, shameful or sinful. If you don’t say these things to your child but you are thinking these thoughts in your mind, you may convey the message in tone and intonation without having to use the words. These thoughts are fixed mindset traits. If you think that your child is a trouble maker, this is a label that can skew you and your child’s thoughts on their ability to change this trait.
As you can see, there is no true prescription for talking to your child about sex, cybersex or sexting. What is very obvious is that it is always easier to have a proactive conversation than a reactive conversation. If you have spent the time talking to your child proactively about these issues, it is less likely that you will end up having a traumatic discovery of their behavior. However, even if you have had good discussions about sex, pornography and sexting with your child, you may still find yourself in the position of having a reactive conversation.
Excerpt from The New Age of Sex Education: How to Talk To Your Teen About Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age.
Jennifer Weeks, Ph.D. is a therapist specializing in addiction, sexual addiction and compulsivity, trauma and addiction, and general mental health concerns. In 2007, she began to specialize in treating sexual addiction and cybersex offenders and, in 2010, opened Sexual Addiction Treatment Services, her private practice which specializes in treating all aspects of problematic sexual behavior as well as sexual offending. Connect with Dr. Weeks on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and via her website www.sexualaddictiontreatmentservices.com.