I just found out that my teenage son is viewing pornography with his friends. I am so upset about this I can't sleep or eat, but I am really nervous about bringing it up because I'm pretty sure he will just deny it and get mad at me. Do you have any tips on how to handle a conversation about this the right way and how I can protect my son?
First of all, don't put it off any longer. You must start having conversations about pornography with all your school-aged children and doing it often. Studies are showing that because of smartphones, children are being exposed to pornography as early as 7 years old at school. So, it must become a topic that is addressed often with all your kids.
Second, don’t panic and react to this problem emotionally. When you react, you will always do so from a place of fear instead of love. It is very important (especially when dealing with your children) that your response be based in love and wisdom, not fear. I'd like to share with you a process (we teach our coaching clients) for finding the most appropriate response to any problem or situation. I think it would be helpful here.
Any response that is emotional and includes yelling at or berating someone is a fear-based response. Fear-based responses don't work, because they are selfish, disrespectful and focused on making you feel better, not giving your child what he needs. They also tend to cast the other person as a "bad person" or "less than" you, which will make them feel unloved and unvalued.
Also, if you respond with fear, your child will miss the lesson completely, because all his attention will be on one thing only — the fact that he has a mean parent.
You must choose a love-based response that keeps the focus on your child and the lesson. This response must come without judgment and make him feel loved and valued. Remember, your teen is not a bad person because he has been viewing pornorgraphy. He is a normal person who has been exposed to porn because of a very natural curiosity. What he needs is some education about why this could hurt him and his life down the road.
Here are some of your options in this case:
1) You can let him know you are really disappointed in him and get quiet and cold towards him for a while, to get the point across, which will basically shame him. This is an immature, manipulative, fear-based response. Your cold shoulder will make it very clear that you see him as worse than you, and this kind of behavior will destroy any connection you had. It is also a selfish, disrespectful approach, which sends a message loud and clear that your love is conditional.
2) You can get angry, blow up, yell, take away privileges, lecture, or respond emotionally. This kind of response is, again, all about your fears. I know you are scared. You are afraid that your child will get into trouble, stray from the right path in life or become a bad person — and all of this would reflect badly on you. But if you make this about you and your fear, your child will resent you for it. This kind of response will again take the focus off the issue (that he is curious about sex and looking for answers) and again make it all about mean parents.
You will also remain in the dark about what is really going on with your child, because this response creates a place where your child will not feel comfortable talking to you about his thoughts and feelings and why this happened in the first place.
The other problem with taking away privileges and punishing him is that it won’t stop the behavior. If he wants to look at pornography, he will have many opportunities to do so when you aren’t around. So trying to force good behavior won’t really work. You must handle this in a way that will help him decide this behavior isn’t right for himself so he won’t do it, even when you aren’t there.
3) You could have a mutually validating conversation with him. If you don't know how to do this, there is a worksheet on my website that explains the steps. Basically this is a conversation where both parties end up feeling valued, respected and heard. Before you have this conversation, you must check your fears at the door and make sure your focus is on listening and validating him first.
You must also make a conscious decision to see him as the same as you — a struggling, scared but divine, amazing human being in process, learning and growing every day. You must not come from a place of judgment and see him as less than you. You must give him permission to be human, make mistakes and be less than perfect and still deserve your love and respect.
Then, you must spend some time asking questions and listening to him (as much as he will talk to you). You can learn important things about your child when you create a safe space where they can share their real thoughts with you. To do this you must come from a place without judgment and listen more than you talk. You must ask questions about what he thinks and feels about porn and his experiences with it, and just listen. You must make sure the number one goal of this conversation is making sure he knows you love him unconditionally, value him and think he is an amazing and good person. The secondary goal will be sharing your thoughts about porn and why it's a problem. But you must put love and understanding first or it won't work.
You might ask him questions about his curiosity and let him know that is normal. You can ask him what he thinks about porn and why it might be dangerous. Ask if he understands how it could affect his relationships later in life. The more questions you ask — which give him the opportunity to express exactly what you were going to tell him anyway — the better.
After you have really listened to him and he feels loved, you could ask if he would be open to hearing your concerns about porn. You can explain why you don’t view it, how it can change the way you see girls and why that's a problem, how it creates unrealistic expectations around sex and can even become addictive. This is your chance to share your values and why you have decided to live the way you do. There is a great blog post about the long-term effects of pornography that may help you understand what to teach your child.
You must help your son see why he should not want to view pornography. You cannot protect him because you will not always be around. He has to understand the dangers and decide to protect himself.
I realize that the love-based approach I described above requires a great deal of maturity, wisdom, love and compassion — but you can do it. You can set aside your fears around this and talk to him from love. If you do this, he may handle it better than you think.
If he does react in anger, understand it is his shame and pain talking. Let it go and don't take it personally. It's not about you. Just keep telling him you love him no matter what, believe in him, and are here if he ever wants to talk.
You can do this.
Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book “Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness” and a life coach and speaker.
Mark Green and Lauren Handley, KSTU