Updated: Sep 1, 2022
How do most parents first react when they discover that their child has engaged in pornography or other problematic sexual behavior? After the initial shock and possible feelings of fear or anger, parents typically think, “I’ve got to fix this!” The question I want to pose is, fix what, exactly?
When a child repeatedly accesses pornography, the pornography itself is not the cause of the problem. When a child engages in some form of problematic sexual behavior, either alone or with others, the behavior itself is not the source of the problem. These are symptoms of an inner problem, not where the problem started.
An Opportunity for Connection
If you discover your child is doing something sexually inappropriate, I would challenge you to think of it as an opportunity to connect. I realize that will be difficult and requires you to step back to take a deep breath first. However, allow me explain the value in doing this.
Children do not engage with pornography or sexual behaviors for no reason. They do not do these things because they are “bad” either. Something has to happen first, before the child seeks these things out. Something has to happen that causes the child to feel a need they do not know how to meet otherwise.
A child may expect to be punished or ridiculed, but when you as a parent react with caring curiosity it flips a switch in the parent-child relationship. The child realizes more clearly in that moment, “Oh, you do care about the inner me! It really is true that your love isn’t dependent on my behavior!”
They Don’t Know Why
It is a natural reaction for a parent to ask a child, “Why did you do that?” when they are caught engaging in problematic sexual behavior. Natural or not, it is unfair to ask that question. I guarantee you that your child likely has no idea. Children will also ask themselves, “Why did I do that? How could I be so stupid?” They don’t know, which likely makes them more ashamed of themselves.
If you have asked your kid why they did that, it is okay, you have done no permanent damage. We all ask the wrong question of our kids from time to time. You can be ready for next time with a better response.
An Opportunity for Discovery
After assuring your child that you love them, you can help them discover why they did what they did. This may take more than one conversation, but that is okay. More conversations only means a stronger connection between you and your child in the end!
Boiling things down to the very basics there are essentially two reasons a child would engage with sexually stimulating behaviors:
Trying to block out a painful thought or feeling.
Trying to make sense of something they have experienced.
Thoughts and Feelings
Examples of thoughts and feelings that cause a child to escape through sexuality include:
I am not good enough
I am not safe
I am never free to say or do things I want to
I can’t trust others to love me
I could list many more examples, but I think you get the picture. Thoughts, beliefs, and feelings can be too difficult for a child or even teenager to face alone. Without clear alternatives, children may turn to sexual stimulation. Dopamine does an excellent job of temporarily shutting these negative feelings down.
Sexually stimulating behaviors, which includes porn use, can temporarily make them feel better, good enough, safer, freer, and loved. Of course, all of this is artificial—they are not really suddenly good enough, safer, freer, or more loved—but it feels real enough to a kid.
Experiences that cause problems include early sexual experiences and abuse, but they can also include non-sexual experiences that felt very scary. Sexual stimulation can be an attempt to make sense of sexual situations in the past or they can be a way to block out painful memories of the past that are not sexual.
Sometimes the past experience was accidental porn exposure that made them feel very excited and good inside. They may want to return to porn, or whatever stimulating event they had, to get that feeling again. It can be that simple.
Four Simple Steps to Healing
Ask your child questions to discover what thought or experience is behind their behavior. This may take a few conversations before you uncover where this all started. Knowing the source, no matter what it is, helps both you and your child understand the “why” behind their behavior.
Explain that it is understandable why they would do what they did, knowing the reason behind their behavior. This helps your child feel normal and understood. This builds connection between the two of you.
If you have examples of times you reacted poorly to feelings or past experiences, this is the time to share those. This deepens connection between you and your child even more.
Brainstorm with your child other things they could do to meet the need they were trying to use porn or sexual behavior to meet. If they wanted to feel excitement, help them brainstorm other ways to seek excitement that are less harmful. If they have a painful emotion, fear, or thought, help them talk through that and discover other ways to comfort themselves or seek comfort from others. If they have experienced some form of abuse you should seek help from a professional to know how to proceed.
You and Your Child
Your child is not bad if they did one of these things, they are just acting immature. Your child is much less likely to associate their sexuality with shame when you treat their immature misuse of sexuality as an opportunity to learn. This is especially true if you share your own stories of immature behavior in the past. Working through the “why” gives a positive spin on conversations that could otherwise be very difficult and painful.
You did not manage your sexuality perfectly when you were younger and neither will your child. Your child “messing up” is an opportunity for you to help them do better in the future. You can help your child respond in more productive ways to things like the need for excitement, freedom, and to cope with feelings and past experiences.
Get more help on this topic through our online parent-child course, A Family Game Plan for Tackling Porn Use