By Jeffrey J. Ford, MS, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Sex and pornography have become a top priority for parents and their children to discuss in recent years. With research indicating that adolescents today appear to be using pornography much more than any other age group, parents need to know how to talk about pornography and how to recognize signs that their child may be already struggling with
pornography. In a study conducted at Brigham Young University by Jason Carroll (2008) and others, it was found that 9 out of 10 boys and one third of girls use pornography. Research like this can be sobering and overwhelming for parents today. Talking about pornography and sex is particularly difficult for parents who didn’t have that type of discussion with their parents when they were children. Some parents are unsure or confused about when to talk to their children about such an important topic and feel torn between giving their child too much information or too little for their age. In whatever situation parents find themselves, it is helpful to remember that it is never too late to change and make things right.
The first thing that parents have to realize as they begin having this conversation is that this is not a one-time “talk” that will occur in an evening or at dinner. Many people have described their experience of having a one-time “talk” with their parents. One young man shared that his father took him on a long walk when he was twelve years old and that when the walk ended he never heard anything about sex or pornography again. He told me, “I was in shock! My dad talked for two hours about things I had never heard of before.” The result was that the boy took all of the confusing information his father gave him and did two things: 1) He asked his friends about it. He shared that this confused him even more because it was clear that many of his friends were as ignorant as he was. 2) He went to the Internet and looked things up. This boy’s World Wide Web inquiry began innocently enough, but that day it ended in an exposure to pornography that created a hunger that developed into a full-fledged addiction. Repeatedly having this discussion with your son or daughter provides an opportunity for them to sort through confusing information and experiences, and it also ensures that the parent is the person who gives the most accurate, safe information.
It is also helpful to remember that an adolescent will open up about things in stages and rarely discloses something all at once. Teenagers are trying to make sense of what is going on around them, what their peers are doing, and whether they will be accepted. Sometimes parents scare their children away when they are approached with one question. Parents become so eager to help that they might think, “At last, a chance to unload!” As the parent unloads everything, the child will likely tune out and feel lectured, and most importantly, his or her needs will not be met. It is helpful to remember that our children will not learn everything at once, and we don’t need cover everything at once either. Learning about sex and pornography is a process that takes time and requires safety in asking questions. There isn’t one right way to discuss this topic as long as the discussions take place—find a framework or analogy or another way to talk about this that fits for you and draws upon values that are important to you and your family.
Parents must have many conversations about pornography which provide an opportunity to clarify values and beliefs, express opinions, instill truths about sexuality, and answer questions that their child will have. Jill Manning has said parents need to “start having new kinds of conversations about pornography—ones that go beyond scary statistics, frightening forecasts, graphic details and dire realities, and which shift into dialogues that are empowering, hopeful and arm people with practical strategies for being able to address this issue in their own [lives] effectively.” These types of conversations go well beyond why pornography is bad and explore what the child thinks and feels about pornography, especially if they have been exposed to pornography already. In essence parents need to create a safe place for their children to talk about dangerous things such as pornography.
Here are some tips that can help parents create safety for their kids as they talk about dangerous things:
- One way to begin fostering an environment of safety is to stay calm when your son or daughter begins to ask questions about sex or pornography or share their experience with sex or pornography. Teenagers are attuned to their parents’ non-verbal cues and will avoid talking about things or asking questions if they sense that Mom or Dad is anxious or upset. Staying calm is particularly important if parents discover that their teenager has been looking at pornography. In this case, parents should carefully plan a response that is based on understanding and helping their teen instead of punishing or shaming them. One of the most important things a parent can do is to ask questions such as “How long have you been viewing pornography?” or “Have you also masturbated while you looked at pornography?” If your teen has been viewing pornography for a significant amount of time, he needs help. If parents can provide a safe place for teens to share their struggle, they will be more likely to come out of hiding. One teen I worked with said this: “When my parents caught me looking at porn, it was an answer to prayer! The night before I prayed that something would happen so I could stop looking at porn. I have tried and tried to stop by myself, and I just couldn’t do it. I was relieved when my parents found out!” In this case, the parents and teen are more likely to get the help they need to begin recovery. Another teen shared this: “The last people I want to tell are my parents! Whenever the subject of pornography comes up, my parents talk about how sick and wrong people are who look at it! Well, I look at it, so they will not love me if I tell them.” The way parents talk about people who look at pornography will contribute to creating a safe place a hostile place for their children. Showing your son or daughter that what they share with you isn’t going to send you over the emotional edge creates a lot of safety and encourages them to share more.
- It is also important that parents create room to make mistakes along the way as teens begin recovery. Telling your child “Don’t ever let me catch you looking at pornography again” may cause a lot of panic, especially if the teenager has already attempted to stop and failed. One young man shared that after his parents caught him, they scolded him and forbade him to ever do it again. He said, “My parents didn’t understand! I had already tried to stop and I couldn’t do it. How do they expect me to just turn it off? So I just stopped talking about it with them, because I didn’t want to disappoint them anymore.” Teenagers need a safe place to talk about how a slip affects them and how to do better the next time. Inviting your child to come to you whenever he is struggling opens the door and prevents him from going underground with his addiction.
- Many parents also get caught in the trap of offering false forgiveness when their teen begins the disclosure process. False forgiveness usually occurs soon after an adolescent discloses something to their parent and the parent says something to this effect: “It doesn’t matter, it’s water under the bridge, I forgive you and I love you, and I’ve always loved you!” Certainly communicating love when your child has done something wrong is important; however, love is not forgiveness. Forgiveness can only occur when everything that was done has been disclosed, and each person has had time to sort out how they feel about it. Remember, much of the time initial disclosure begins the process of getting the whole story, and is rarely the whole story! Offering forgiveness will most likely feel cheap and fake to someone who knows that there is more, and it does nothing to provide safety. It also devalues the learning process for the adolescent to be accountable for what they have done. The bottom line is to remember that forgiveness is a process just like disclosure, and reminding your son that you are committed to work with them will create a lot of safety. It is generally more helpful for a parent to commit to being there for their child and helping them in any way possible to overcome their addiction to pornography.
The most important thing to keep in mind as parents talk with their teens about pornography is that together they can find solutions. Pornography’s influence diminishes when a teen has a safe place to talk about it. In cases when a child has become addicted, it is important to maintain a safe place where your child can come back for healing and support as he struggles. Creating a safe place will positively influence your child’s belief that he can overcome his addiction.