Surprised teen talking to parent

Sexting Part 4-What To Say If Your Kid Has Been Sexting

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

This article is the fourth in a series on how parents can address the issue of sexting with their teenage children.  The first part of this series emphasized the importance of educating yourself as a parent and talking to your kids about sexting as well as internet and social media issues.  Part 2 reviewed some of the ground rules to put in place.  Part 3 identified some signs your teen may be trying to hide their tracks on the internet and in their social media use.  This column will cover how to talk to your kid if you discover they have been sending sexts.

What to say if your kid has been sending sexts?  Sexting among teens seems to be about a number of things.  It is way to do something that is considered “bad” or rebellious.  It is a way to flirt.  Sexting allows kids to expose the sexual part of themselves to another person without all the embarrassment of having that person right in front of them.  It is a way for teens to give something personal to their beloved (or belusted).  Sexting provides a way for teens to be raunchy and funny (and to indirectly get some validation of their desirability to others).  It can be a way to demonstrate their courage (on a dare) or confidence (when challenged).  It is a way for teens to imitate the “sexy” men and women portrayed in the media and especially in pornography.  Sexting is a way for teens to emulate their favorite performers by being just like them.  It can be the result of teens being socialized about sex by the pornification of society (e.g., stripper pole classes, children dressed to be sexy, etc.) and the exposure to actual porn as a model for sexual intimacy.  A small percentage of teens (especially girls) sext because they feel pressured to do it.  But mostly sexting is an awkward misguided and naïve attempt by teens to share something personal and intimate with someone they care about, usually because they are too scared or unable to share it in person.  So where do you start if your kid has sexted?

Review your own sex education.  You are going to be talking to your kids about sex, sexuality and relationships.  Make sure you know what you want to say before you get started.  There are a number of books for parents on talking to your kid about their sexual lives.  (Here are some I recommend.)  You need to know these things regardless of whether or not your kid is sexting.

Tell them you know they have been sexting.  Start by informing them you know and y’all need to talk because some things are going to change in their life.

Foster a sense of hope and recovery.  Use words like problem, mistake, bad judgment, poor decision, temporarily lost your mind, not thinking with your brain; that kind of thing.  Avoid absolutes (e.g., always, never, completely, totally, impossible) and extremes (e.g., catastrophe, disaster, destroyed, ruined, horrifying, utter shame and humiliation, etc.).  Talk in a way that suggests this isn’t the end of the world.  “We’ll get through this.”  “There are some things you obviously don’t realize yet.”  “It seems like you aren’t quite ready for all this freedom.”  “There are some things you need to learn about yourself and other people.”

No name calling.  They are not a slut.  They are not a pervert.  They are not evil and sinful.  (Well, they are sinful but no more than any of the rest of us.)  They have not completely ruined their reputation or their future (though the reputation problem can get pretty intense if the sexting is widely known).  They are naïve.  They are foolish.  They are careless.  They aren’t thinking.  They are too trusting.  They are letting their hormones run away with them.  They are misguided.  They are too easily led.  They are in too much of a hurry.  You are disappointed.  You are worried.  You are scared.  You are upset.  You are upset.  You are concerned.  In other words, don’t freak out on them.  It will still be possible for them (and you ) to get past this and have a happy productive life.

Remember that this is a very personal area of their life.  You might think that someone who has just splayed their naughty parts across the internet wouldn’t consider it personal and private.  Well, part of why kids sext is they don’t really grasp how public it is or can become.  It still seems like a personal, private act to them.  And, actually it is (or should be).  So, treat this as a very private issue; a private issue you need to talk to them about.  “We need to talk about this even though it is a very personal private part of your life.  It is kind of awkward but you don’t seem to realize how public it is or can become.  That’s why we need to talk through some things.”

Be sex positive.  Sex is a good thing.  It is a glorious, wonderful, scary, exciting, enjoyable, powerful, delicious and sometimes overwhelming human experience.  It is something to anticipate, savor and treasure.  It has the ability to create a profound sense of intimacy.  Don’t skip this step.  If all you do is talk about how horrible sexting (and sex) is and how bad they are for doing this, you will lose a crucial opportunity to help your kid start to figure out how to handle this crazy sexualized culture that surrounds them.  If you present sex as a bad, sinful, evil thing you will handicap your kids in an important area of their life and your kid will be unlikely to come to you for advice; and they need your advice about this.    You can’t afford to have your kid tune you out.

Acknowledge the temptation, desire and opportunity.  Our culture is saturated with sexual imagery and the allure of sex.  Marketers in virtually every area of commerce use sex as a way to get the attention of customers.  The long overdue recognition that girls and women have a sex life they are entitled to explore without shame has unfortunately left teen girls confused about how to express this new found freedom.  Teen boys have tragically become victims of the objectification of their own bodies leading them to be tempted to display it to gain the attention of others.  And no one is telling teens how to handle all this freedom, permissiveness and opportunity.  It is important to talk to your kids about how their view of sex is being shaped by these forces.

Start the conversation with your sexting teen by talking about sex and sexual desire.  Talk to them about the natural urge to act on their sexual feelings.  Talk to them about how natural it is to be curious about whether others find them sexy and desirable.  Talk about how tempting it is to try to pique the interest of someone they are attracted to by using sexuality.  Talk about how strong the feeling can be to share something intimate and personal with someone you are attracted to and care about.  Talk about how casually and blasé everyone takes sex and nudity these days.  Talk about how easy it is to get attention from others (wanted or unwanted) by being sexual, especially by exposing your body.  Talk to them about the importance of sharing this powerful, fun and very personal part of themselves with someone; under the right circumstances.  Talk to them about the consequences of rash, impulsive actions in the internet age.

to be continued . . .


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