Starting a conversation about porn with your child | Focus on the Family Australia
Starting a conversation about porn with your child
By Catherine Wilson
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If your child were in deep trouble, they’d come to you and ask for help, wouldn’t they? But what if they just couldn't talk about it?

Teen Joseph D. knows what it’s like to live with that kind of stress. By just nine years old, Joe was addicted to online pornography, yet found it impossible to confess to his parents.

Joe’s story is at the heart of the documentary Over18 that’s being presented across Canada by filmmakers Jared and Michelle Brock and their team at Hope for the Sold.

“While you're in it, telling someone is never an option,” says Joe. “And the longer that you keep quiet, the harder it is to tell someone.”

Joe has loving and supportive parents, so why the ongoing secrecy? Why is it so hard for kids like Jo to ask for help?

To answer that, you need to understand what kids are actually seeing when they stumble across pornography online. Pornography no longer means images of partially or fully naked men or women in suggestive poses. Today, kids who are innocently browsing the Internet or playing a game online need only click on an unfamiliar word or a confusing pop-up to be exposed to extremely violent, sexually explicit content. All for free, and without restriction, kids unwittingly get to sample the Internet’s underbelly – an underbelly that’s awash in movie footage where women are being beaten, choked and raped, and themes of male domination, sadomasochism, incest and bestiality are common.

For a child, fessing up and describing what they’d seen just once would be difficult enough. So how could a kid caught in a porn addiction ever open up and explain their impulse to return to scenes like that again and again?

Even girls who have never seen porn still feel its impact on their self-image and social life, but again, it’s not a topic they can easily broach with their parents. There’s no easy way to explain what it’s like to rub shoulders daily with young men whose attitudes toward girls and women are being distorted by porn. How do you casually drop into the conversation, By the way Mum, did you know that boys in my class rank girls according to what they will do? You're either “no sex,” “oral sex,” “real sex” or “rough sex.”

Unless we, as parents, take the initiative and start talking about pornography, our kids are going to be left struggling with its pernicious consequences all on their own. It’s time to stop deluding ourselves that we can shield our kids from ever seeing it; we need to start equipping our kids to resist its pull. Over18 co-producer Michelle Brock urges, “Most children are going to see pornography before the age of 18, so I think parents need to mourn – take a week and mourn the fact that their child will probably come across porn somewhere – and then get to work.”

And right from the start, to be truly prepared, we need to understand the full force of what we’re up against. Kids aren’t getting ensnared in pornography because they’re somehow more debased than other kids. Good kids – great kids – are getting ensnared in pornography because it’s tremendously addictive, and especially so for a child or youth, because of the unique vulnerability of their immature brain. Very few children or teens caught in a pornography addiction are going to be able to break free without unfaltering support, empathy and on-going coaching from their parents.

“When somebody engages with pornography, there’s a 200 percent spike of dopamine to the reward centre of the brain – a region called the nucleus accumbens,” explains Michelle. “That’s the same level of reward that you get from a morphine hit. When kids get this dopamine hit to the brain, their frontal lobe has not fully developed to be able to process that. That’s the part of your brain that is forward thinking – thinks about consequences, thinks about the future – and that doesn’t develop in boys until their early 20s. And so, when a 10-year-old is exposed to porn and gets that dopamine hit to the reward centre of the brain, he is not fully able to process it. That can potentially lead to a decade of addiction without the ability to really protect himself.”

Prepare yourself for the conversation, and for the unexpected

There’s no pretending that cracking open a conversation about porn is going to be easy. Nevertheless, you’ll need to make the conversation as easy as possible for your child.

No matter what your child divulges, it’s essential that you remain calm, and be unflinchingly affirming and supportive. Your son or daughter needs to know that they really can tell you anything and trust that you won’t freak out, blow up in anger or shame them.

Don’t go into this unprepared. First, pray through Luke 8:17, asking the Lord that anything that needs to come out into the light will do so, and that He will fill you with His Spirit of wisdom when you respond to your child. And be encouraged by this advice from John Stonestreet on a recent Focus on the Family broadcast: “Sometimes it’s a far better day when a deep-rooted sin comes to light, even if it’s painful for a parent to see that in the life of their kid, than it is when it’s hidden.”

Once you’ve prayed, run though all the possible scenarios you can imagine in front of a mirror. Practice keeping your face calm and your emotions composed, even as you picture your child revealing the worst: that yes, they have seen pornography, that they were introduced to it by the last person you would have suspected, that they confess to repeated use of porn.

Though it may feel odd, awkward and presumptive, this kind of preparation is important. If your child really does have a dark secret to share, he (or she) will have already spent plenty of time fretting about how you might respond, and you can be sure they’ll be highly sensitive to your reaction. If you show shock or surprise, your child may falsely interpret your expression as disappointment or disgust. And whether it’s real or imagined, that kind of response from you will be devastating to your child.

What to say

One of the biggest hurdles, for many parents, is figuring out a natural way to launch a conversation about pornography. Hopefully the scripts that follow will help you find an entry point that feels comfortable for you.

Your sense of discomfort around this topic may tempt you to make this an intense, one-hour “one and done” conversation, but that’s not what you should aim for. If your child has lots of questions and wants to talk for an hour, that’s great, but for most kids, an initial discussion of just 5 to 10 minutes or so will be best. Your goal is just to ease your child into the first of many conversations about pornography, plus other aspects of your child’s emerging sexuality, and to make their experience so comfortable, they won’t balk at continuing the discussion next time.

To introduce the topic of pornography to a young child:

Right after browsing on your phone (or computer) in your child's presence, you could open the discussion by simply observing aloud, Some people don't make good choices about what pictures to put online. Then you could ask:

Have you ever seen any pictures on a computer or a phone that made you feel uncomfortable?

If necessary, you could add “. . . like seeing men and women with no clothes on.”

Let your child describe what they saw, if anything. Gently explore when and where they saw it, and if anyone else was with them at the time (to determine whether anyone might have deliberately shown them the pictures).

Continue with:

*I'm sad to say this, but some people don't know that they should keep their personal, private parts covered by their clothes. So sometimes you might accidentally see pictures that show people's private parts.

Seeing pictures or movies of private things that we're not supposed to see can give us unpleasant feelings. The pictures might frighten us, confuse us or upset us. If you ever see pictures like that, I want you to come and tell me right away, okay? I can help you deal with any uncomfortable feelings you might have. I'll also answer any questions you have about what you saw.*

If you’d be more comfortable working through an age-appropriate book with your child, Good Pictures, Bad Pictures is an excellent book for children ages 7 to 11. There’s also Good Pictures, Bad Pictures Jr. for ages 3 to 6.

To introduce the topic of pornography to an adolescent:

If you are having this conversation with your son, remember that boys (and men) tend to find face-to-face interactions confrontational and uncomfortable, so look for an activity the two of you can do “shoulder to shoulder” as you steer the conversation where it needs to go. You could open your discussion by saying something like this:

*Sooner or later you are going to come across pornography, and I want to make sure you have all the answers you need so you'll know how to deal with pornography when you see it.

Have you ever stumbled across sexually intense images or movies online that have been hard to get out of your mind?*

Try to get some idea of what your child has seen, when and where they saw it, and if anyone encouraged them to view it.

If your child responds that they haven't encountered porn

Be cautious about this response. Perhaps it’s true that your child hasn’t seen porn. On the other hand, your child’s flushed face and obvious discomfort may suggest to you that they have seen porn, but they’re not ready to divulge that to you yet. Either way, your response should be the same – to be warm and affirming and build a sense of trust in your child, so hopefully they will come to you again soon and tell you the full story. You could respond with:

Thank you for sharing that with me. At your age, it's natural for you to be curious about your sexuality and how the sexual side of a man and woman's relationship works. But I don't want you to go online to find out about those things, because there's all kinds of false and confusing information about sexuality online, as well as the troubling images we call pornography. Instead, when you have questions, I hope you will come to me and I promise I will answer any questions you have.

If your child does reveal some familiarity with pornography you could say:

*Thank you for being honest with me. I know it took a lot of courage for you to tell me that. I understand that at your age, it's only natural for you to be curious about your sexuality and how the sexual side of a man and woman's relationship works. However, I need to warn you that looking at pornography is dangerous. It can really get a hold of you and become a habit that's very hard to shake off. Lots of good people get into trouble with it.

So please continue being honest with me, because this is important: how often do you think you've been looking at porn? Have you found you can't stop looking at it?*

If your child does reveal familiarity with pornography and you’re overwhelmed with grief or anger at what you’ve heard, you may need to buy some time by saying:

Thank you for being honest with me. I know it took a lot of courage for you to tell me. I'm not mad at you and I don't think any less of you now that I know about this. I'm just really upset that I never thought to warn you about pornography before now. You should never have had to face something like this on your own. I'm going to help you with this, but right now I just need to take some time to pull myself together, okay?

Four problems with porn that adolescents need to understand

Hopefully, over time, both you and your child will become increasingly comfortable having brief chats that allow you to answer your child’s questions and build your child’s understanding of why porn is so damaging. Here are some talking points presented in simple, kid-friendly language, to help you convey some essential info to your child.

1. Porn is not real life – it’s fantasy

Porn is created by actors who are acting out a fake and very distorted picture of the physical side of sex. Their goal is to make money by selling pornographic movies and images, so they are intentionally trying to shock their audience.

Some of what they act out could be very harmful to the human body and most real-life couples would not even consider doing those things.

Unfortunately, because they don’t know any better, many young people think that what they see in porn is normal sexual behaviour between a guy and a girl. Much of it most definitely is not normal behaviour.

2. Porn is dangerously addictive

When people first view pornography, they often have a strong and memorable reaction to it. Those feelings are caused by a surge of chemicals being released in the brain. The feelings are so strong, it makes people want to look at porn again and again to re-experience those feelings. People soon find they’re in trouble because they can’t stop craving the feelings porn gives them, but it can be hard for them to ask for help.

As porn pulls a person under its influence, it sucks the enjoyment out of other parts of their life. Pretty soon everything – even things they used to love – seem dull and uninteresting, and porn becomes all they can focus on.

3. Porn teaches selfishness instead of love

Everybody needs more than just the physical side of sex; they also need the deep emotional experience of being loved and valued by their sexual partner. But porn doesn’t teach you how to love someone. It does the opposite. It teaches people to be selfish and unconcerned about the other person. Over time, porn twists people’s thinking so they lose sight of what a loving, respectful male-female relationship even looks like.

Porn sells people a very lonely and empty kind of sexual experience, because the other person involved is just an actor on the screen. There’s no loving relationship with a real person.

In contrast to the selfishness that porn teaches, God wants us to learn to love, serve and respect others. Those are the skills that let us have close, fulfilling friendships, and a great marriage. For a married couple, God’s gift of sex is wonderfully meaningful and joyful, because it reminds them that they get to do life with someone they love, and who loves them back.

4. Porn encourages men to mistreat women

Pornography often shows women being shockingly hurt and mistreated. Many guys who watch pornography eventually begin to think it’s okay to treat the real women in their life badly too, becoming bullying and disrespectful to their sister, mum, girlfriend or wife. Some guys may even start to pressure their girlfriend into having sex or doing other things she doesn’t want to. But it’s not okay to disrespect women in these ways – not ever. No one wants to be bullied and disrespected like that.

It’s awful, too, to think about the women actors. They are real women – people’s daughters and sisters – and they really are being hurt when they make those movies or images. A lot end up with serious health problems. As more porn gets made, more and more young women are being lured into that industry, often without really understanding what they are getting into and the horrible things they will be pressured to do.

*For more help with talking to younger children, see the excellent website Protectyoungminds.org.

For help with talking to your adolescent, see When Your Child Is Looking at Porn *plus other free guides for parents from Covenant Eyes at Covenanteyes.com.

If you suspect your child is struggling with a porn addiction, check out the excellent online program Fortify, plus other resources from Fight the New Drug at Fightthenewdrug.org.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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