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A mother and father get word that their teenage daughter has been sexting and has sexually explicit pictures of herself on her phone. So they do what many parents might be inclined to do: they demand her password so they can investigate and see for themselves. When she refuses, they ground her and take the phone away. (Jargon, 5-15-2019)

Such is a fairly typical response, but it’s also a prime example of everything you shouldn’t do. Here’s a better way of approaching the situation:

– What Parents Shouldn’t Do –

1. DO NOT demand to see the pictures
It’s natural for parents to want to know what their child is up to. So when a parent suspects their child is sexting, their first instinct is to demand access to all their accounts so they can see for themselves what their teen is up to. But really, what do you hope to accomplish by this, other than having an indelible image burned into your mind while humiliating your child in the process? Are you really interested in seeing pornographic pictures of your son or daughter?

Knowing is enough without actually seeing. I can accept that hot dogs exist without needing to see how the sausage is made. Likewise, nothing good can come from demanding your daughter show you nude pictures she took of herself, possibly while touching herself or otherwise engaged in sexual activity. You can accept it as having happened without having to see the product.

Often times parents do this because they want a basis for punishment. How can I punish my child if I don’t know for certain what (if anything) she did? But punishment shouldn’t be your goal. It rarely accomplishes much of anything, especially in these situations. Your primary goal should be tending to the overall welfare of your child, and this can be accomplished without needing to know with certainty the specifics of the situation. The embarrassment of having their activities exposed and having to suffer through an uncomfortable talk with you is punishment enough.

2. DO NOT shame or attack your child
Don’t get angry and start calling your child a slut (as many parents have done). Don’t attack your child’s sexuality or shame them for their sexual expression. This isn’t helpful, and it’s a form of abuse. You can express your disappointment without attacking their sexuality, which is already an area of vulnerability for them.

Take a moment to examine your own feelings before confronting them. Parents find this revelation upsetting because they have this image of their child as a sweet, innocent, sexless being. Now your kid has gone and done something that shatters this image. But your child has been a sexual creature from the very beginning, and the problem isn’t so much that they’ve done something which is horribly wrong, it’s that they’ve acted in a way contrary to the oppressive beliefs held by most adults. Don’t get mad at them for popping your delusions. Your child can still be sweet and innocent, but they’ve never been sexless. So get over yourself.

– What Parents Should Do –

1. Talk over your concerns
Start with, “It’s come to my attention that…” and then talk about what you know or suspect. There’s a good chance your child will deny it. If they do, that’s fine. You needn’t waste time arguing this point. Just say, “True or not, we need to have a discussion about this topic.” Then talk about the potential dangers of such an activity as outlined in our section on the dangers of sexting:

  • The picture could get out and embarrass them

  • It might be shown to people whom they never intended to see it

  • They could find themselves in legal trouble, since fair or not, their sexuality is still illegal

  • People they’re on good terms with now might later use it for revenge porn.

Follow this up with a quick discussion about safer ways of self-expression. You can do this in a roundabout way that plants the suggestion without sounding like you’re condoning it:

  • I hope you’d at least be smart enough to hide your face…

  • You can tease without having to reveal

  • You can send a sexy picture without taking of all your clothes.

2. State your expectations
You should try to avoid giving kids a long lecture about morality, in part because the premise for such a argument is problematic, but most of all because it’s unlikely to be effective. Especially with tens, the more judgmental and angry you get, the more you elevate the appeal of the behavior in question. Instead, simply state your expectation and the standards you hope they’ll hold themselves to:

  • I expect you to be conscientious about the potential unintended consequences of your actions.

  • I expect you to refrain from posting anything online you wouldn’t want your grandma to see.

  • I would hope to see you conduct yourself in a dignified way in cyberspace.

If you so desire, you can outline a set of consequences should you find evidence they are continuing such behavior. But this is usually unnecessary or even counterproductive. Punishing kids for expressing their sexuality only makes them much more likely to see you as a out-of-touch antagonist. You’re much more likely to get through to them if you take a more reasoned approach and argue the risks rather than arguing against the morality of the behavior.

3. Ask if they need help
If you’ve gotten wind of what is going on, it’s likely others know about it too. So don’t just pile on with parental advice, ask how they’re doing. See if they need help or want to talk about anything. It’s likely your child has been embarrassed, and they may even be facing public humiliation. Their emotions need to be tended to every bit as much as their behavior does.

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