by John Fort
Director of Training
I have done it and if you are a parent I am fairly certain you have as well. My child does something inappropriate and I react in anger. When it comes to a child engaging in some kind of problematic sexual behavior—such as pornography use—the anger response can be even stronger. However, responding to a child in anger when they seek out sexualized content is not helpful.
Anger is not the only unhelpful way a parent can react. When a parent learns their child has been exposed to some kind of sexual information or content, a common response is for the parent to react in panic. For a child, however, seeing their parent panic when the child is already confused only makes things worse.
The Reason for Anger & Panic
Why do parents sometimes react in anger at children’s behavior? I believe the primary reason for my anger in these situations is mostly anger toward myself. Learning my child has seen pornography—whether by accident or on purpose—leaves me feeling like I failed at protecting them. I am angry at myself for not protecting my child, but I take it out on them.
I might raise my voice to my child if I discover they have been accessing porn, but I am actually raising my voice to myself as if to say, “How could you not see the danger signs? Why did you fail to make internet devices safer?” I might also be angry at myself for believing that whatever conversations I have had with my kids about safety were not good enough, and my kid would not have accessed inappropriate material if I had used the right words.
On the other hand, reactions of panic come mostly from fear. When I react in frantic agitation to learn my child has been exposed to something sexual, it is more about my own baggage than it is what my kid has seen. Learning my child has been exposed to something sexual will bring back memories of my own past. Hyperventilating, in this case, is more likely about my own past than my child’s situation.
A Parent’s Baggage
When I was nine I heard some teenagers talking about something I realized was about sex but I didn’t understand what they meant. I asked my mother what a word meant that I overheard and she became frantic. Her voice went up an octave, she waved her hands and acted with clear agitation. I don’t remember exactly what she said, I mainly remember her reaction. I felt scared seeing her react so strongly to my question.
I imagine many parents today had negative interactions with parents about sexual topics. That is a kind of baggage. It makes it harder not to react the same way my parents did since that was the only example I had. In such a case a parent might act in panic, not anger, but seeing a parent panic is not comforting to a child. When my mother panicked at my question about sex I decided never to ask either parent a question about sex again. Instead, I turned to local teenagers, which did not end well for me.
Parents can have other kinds of baggage as well. Some parents experienced sexual abuse as kids. Some read erotic novels or viewed pornography as teenagers. Some had family members who engaged in pornography or promiscuity and watched how destructive that was. Some were teased or objectified in sexual ways as kids. All of these kinds of baggage produce shame.
When a parent learns their own child was exposed to something sexual, all this panic, shame, and fear come surging back all at once. The result can feel overwhelming and agitation can be very difficult to hold back. Anger can also come from a parent’s baggage as anger is often just a mask for fear.
Your Child is not You
Like most parents today, I had no one to help me navigate what I was exposed to as a child. I felt lost and confused. Fortunately, my child is not me. My child, and your child, do have someone to help them work through anything they are exposed to. Children who have someone to talk about what they experience are not nearly as negatively impacted as children who do not.
The good news is that your children can have someone to help them through anything they are exposed to and even things that they get themselves into. You do not have to react the same way your parents reacted. You can react in ways that help your child stay safer in the future.
Alternatives to Anger
Anger is never the best response to a child’s exposure to, or involvement in, inappropriate sexual situations. Anger creates distance between a parent and child when a child needs to be drawn in closer.
Initial exposure to sexualized content and situations is usually accidental or because someone else showed them. Why do children seek out sexualized media on their own? Often out of God-given curiosity. Why do children return to sexually stimulating behaviors? Because it feels good, or it makes bad feelings go away, or to fit in with their peers.
Rather than look at these situations as something to be angry or upset about, you can see these as opportunities to bond with your children.
Whether your child is accidentally exposed, purposefully indulges, or repeatedly returns to sexual scenarios, their insides will feel chaotic. What your child needs in that situation is not more agitation.
When a child encounters inappropriate sexual situations, children need us to invite them into our calm, not for us to join them in their chaos.
1. Here are two really good first sentences to memorize for when you learn your child has been exposed to something sexual.
3. Make your discussion about discovery rather than punishment. What happened? How did it happen? If they sought it out, what drove them? Was it curiosity, peer pressure, trying to medicate a hard feeling, to get a “buzz”? You will need to ask these questions slowly and refrain from any accusing facial expressions or words. This is not an interrogation, just talking about what happened. Share your past if you have had any similar experiences. Notice there is no lecture involved.
4. Plan for next time. Finally, discuss together what the family can do in the future to help avoid this. You might put this part of the conversation off for a different day if steps 1-3 seem to be a lot for you or your child. You don’t have to resolve everything all at once.
Mistakes will be Made
It is okay if you sometimes react in anger. I did from time to time, and my kids forgave me when I apologized. It is okay if you fail at trying to act calm when learning what your child has gotten into. Your kids understand that people do not always react in the most appropriate way, just own up to it. Making mistakes as parents can make us more approachable and relatable to our kids, as long as we apologize.
And if you have already made mistakes, this is an excellent opportunity to connect with your child. You can start by saying, “Remember when I acted this way? I don’t think that was the best way to react. Can we talk?”
You are the right parent for this and your child is in good hands. Give your child better responses than you received.
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