I caught my child looking at porn – what do I do?

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post detailing how to secure an iphone so that kids couldn’t stumble onto explicit content.  I had a few readers email me and ask for advice on what to do after you’ve found your child looking at adult content online. I want to talk about it because I think it’s important and relevant for all parents. Kids in the internet age will be curious about porn, and they have unprecedented access to it. Despite our best efforts, kids may find ways around the stopguards we put in place.  I’m putting on my therapist hat for this post since I’ve not experience this as a parent – but I can tell you that in my practice, many shocked and dismayed parents called me after discovering an internet history full of porn sites accessed by pre-teen kids. 

It’s alarming to discover your child has been looking at porn. Pornography is an unfortunate and unrealistic education for most kids, but it can also quickly become a preoccupation. It’s important to remember that curiosity about sex is normal. Unfortunately, what isn’t normal is the extreme and often violating nature of sex depicted in pornography. Pornography websites are rarely focused on sex between a loving couple . . . very quickly, most sites are flashing advertisements for extreme fetishes, rape fantasies, degrading imagery, or “barely legal” girls (which is code for molestation fantasies). It’s a far cry from the days of a child stumbling upon a Playboy. Internet pornography is a disturbing introduction into human sexuality, and it’s reasonable to feel alarmed and disappointed.  However, it is also critical that you respond with concern, empathy, and reason instead of anger and judgment. Your reaction could shape your child’s view of sex, and the most important step is to approach the situation that will leave the door open to an ongoing conversation. Here are some tips for talking with your child:

i caught my child looking at porn now what do I do

Try to remain emotionally neutral. This is a hard one, because parents usually have strong feelings upon learning that their child is looking at sexually explicit stuff. It’s really important not to become unglued in from of your child. For one thing, it will increase their shame, which is not helpful to the situation. If you seem too emotional or angry, they are also less likely to listen, and less likely to share. Remember: it’s not an emergency. Take the time to diffuse your own feelings and calm down before you talk to your child.

Normalize the situation. It’s likely that your child feels some shame about the behavior, and it’s important to reduce the shame. Reducing shame doesn’t mean you endorse the behavior.  But it DOES mean that you reduce your child’s fears that they are dirty or perverted for being sexually curious, or for being aroused by looking at sexual imagery.  The pairing of sex and shame is an insidious and toxic combo. Your child needs to know that their sexual feelings are not innately bad . . . but rather something that you would prefer to be expressed in another way.

Talk in positive terms. It’s easy to fall into NO! BAD! language when we talk about porn, but it’s important to explain the reasons to your child beyond you wanting to ruin their good time. Encourage your child to view sex as something good and healthy, and affirm that you actually want them to have good, fun sex when they are adults. Help them take a long-term view of sex with the goal being healthy sexual relationships, educating them on the research that indicates that extensive viewing of pornography produces a decreased respect for long-term, monogamous relationships and can even cause sexual dysfunctions. Teens are old enough to understand delayed gratification. Making rules about porn about goals instead of punitive rules can help your child see that you aren’t just being a prude, but that in fact you have their best interest in mind.

Educate your child on the fallacies of porn. If they’ve been looking at porn, they’ve probably seen it all, so it’s no time to be delicate. You need to have a frank conversation about the mechanics of sex and the realities (and fallacies) of pornography. Time for an education on the male vs. female sexual response and the fact that pornography is a production and therefore not representative of the way a typical sexual encounter occurs. If you haven’t yet, it’s probably time to talk about masturbation as well.

Explain why porn is problematic. For some families, this might include religious convictions. But if you are an adult who is down with porn, it’s still important to help your child understand that explicit material is harmful for the developing brain. The video below does a great job of explaining it, and I think it’s appropriate to watch with any child who is old enough to be interested in porn.

You may also want to talk to your child about the exploitive nature of porn.  Many feminists are opposed because the exploitation of women involved in pornography is rampant. Porn also eroticizes the domination, humiliation, and coercion of women, and reinforces attitudes that condone rape and sexual harassment.  Many believe that pornography contributes to the male-centered objectification of women and thus to sexism. 

Ask them what they’ve seen and if they have any questions. Again, it’s no time to be delicate. Show your child that you aren’t afraid of the subject and that you are there and willing to talk, help, and answer questions. Honestly, when I counseled parents and kids through this, this question often elicited a lot of emotions from kids, because they really did want to talk to their parents about it. Let your child know you can handle what they saw by asking questions like, “Did you see anything that scared you?” or “Is there anything you saw that was confusing to you?” to help facilitate the conversation. This part may not be comfortable. Pretend like it is, and be prepared to answer any questions they have.

Explain your boundaries going forward, and enforce them. After you’ve had the chance to normalize, reduce shame, answer questions, and explain your rationale, it’s time to go over the rules again. If you haven’t previously installed controls on the devices in your home, now is the time. I cannot tell you how many parents have told me, “We didn’t do controls because we talked about it and we trusted them.”  My opinion is that this approach is doing a disservice to children. It’s like slipping a candy bar under their pillow and then talking about how you trust them not to eat it. The best way to approach porn in your home is to MAKE SURE IT”S NOT AVAILABLE TO CHILDREN IN YOUR HOME.  I cannot stress this enough. Last year I wrote a post detailing how to install controls on a Windows computer. Some other Mac-friendly options are OpenDNS and K9 Web protection.

Have you dealt with this as a parent?  Any wisdom or experience to share?  If you aren’t there yet, have you thought about how you would handle this situation if it came up?


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