The pornographers have organized a stealth attack against our culture, hijacking our sexuality and then selling it back to us, often in forms that look very little like sex and a lot like cruelty. The only solution to this is a movement that is fierce in its critique of sexual exploitation and steadfast in its determination to fight for what is rightfully ours. ~ Dr. Gail Dines
If and when kids see pornography or become regular viewers, it is normal for parents to experience a complicated range of emotions. If the first reaction is anger, it should be directed toward the pornography industry – not the kids.
The best reaction is to COMPOSE Yourself! At Culture Reframed, we understand how daunting it can be to raise children in a hypersexualized media culture that normalizes violent, mainstream pornography. Because of this, we have developed a model for helping parents respond in an appropriate and thoughtful way if and when they discover their young person has viewed pornography.
There are two components to being “composed.” The first is the child-focused response. This involves helping your child kindly and compassionately to reflect on and process their emotions and behaviors. The child-focused COMPOSE Yourself! model is outlined below and adaptable to all ages.
The second component is the parent-focused response, supporting parents to be mindful of their thoughts and feelings about sex and pornography. The parent-focused COMPOSE Yourself! model can be accessed as a supplementary resource on the Culture Reframed Parents Program website.
is for CALM. Stay calm and don’t panic! Consider that the calmer you are, the calmer and more receptive your child will be to receiving your support—strategies to achieve a personal state of calm are provided in the parent-focused COMPOSE Yourself! model, available here.
If it’s a sudden discovery, let your children know that they haven’t done anything bad, but take time before having a discussion. Keep in mind that your child has a different understanding of sex, sexuality, and sexual concepts than you do as an adult. If they see you overreacting rather than responding in a calm and purposeful manner, it may lead to thoughts that they are a bad person and add confusion to the negative impact of the images they have seen.
One strategy is to give them some time to compose themselves, as they may feel ashamed or even scared. You could even engage them in something fun as a distraction before having the conversation. Ask them to tell you when, in the next 24-48 hours, they’re ready to talk about it.
is for OWNERSHIP. Set the tone for a conversation that steers clear of shaming and blaming. Be curious—clarify details and find out if anyone else was involved.
Ask questions like: Was it an isolated event that was the result of curiosity? Was it accidental or deliberate? What device was your child using? Did it happen at home, at school, or at a friend’s house? Did someone show them the images during an online chat? If so, was that person known to them, or a recently added contact? When did it happen? Was it a “one-off” incident, or have they been watching pornography for some time?
For everyone’s safety and privacy, remember to keep the number of people who know about it to an absolute minimum. This stage is crucial in understanding what level of intervention and support may be required.
Rather than grilling your young person for answers, take a step back, do some detective work, and consider how else you might ascertain all the information. You don’t have to ask all these questions at once. It may take time for your child to open up to you, so be patient.
is for MOOD. Explore how this has impacted your child. Let them know that their feelings are normal and valid, no matter what they are, rather than anything to be ashamed of.
If they’re younger kids, you can ask them if it made them feel “sick in the tummy” or “yucky.” Let them know you understand. Empathize with them and assure them that you may have felt the same way if it were you in that situation.
Kids may experience arousal and sometimes orgasm, depending on how long they were engaged with the content. Help them understand that just because something feels good, it doesn’t mean it is good for them. Validate their emotions and help them make sense of their reaction.
Remember to manage your own mood and continue to stay calm, as your child will mirror your emotions.
is for PARENT. Be the type of parent your child can feel both supported by and safe with. This will provide a comfortable space for your child to ask questions.
It may take a while for your child to think about the questions they have, so this will be an ongoing topic. If sex and pornography are something they are not used to discussing with you, they may be asking others or hiding their emotions from you. Let them know that you provide a calm, safe, and accepting place for them to come home to. (This is important no matter what the issue!)
Be aware of your own values and consider how you will guide your children. Read books and talk to other parents who may have had similar experiences. Teach your child critical thinking skills by engaging them in thoughtful conversations about images on television or in public spaces. Inquire about how these images make them feel, and talk about how these images reduce people to objects.
It may be helpful to review Module 1 in the Program for Parents of Teens: Parental Influence on Teen Values, and Module 9 in the Program for Parents of Tweens: Family Decisions, as this content further explores family culture.
is for OVERRIDE. The porn industry has created this situation, but you can now help to override its power with positive actions and empathic listening.
The “override” approach will look different, depending on the age and developmental stage of your child. An important element is to help them consider how they can be part of the solution, rather than be manipulated by the porn industry. Young people hate feeling that they have been brainwashed, and they can be incredible agents of change. Tap into that “defiance” as a way of motivating changes in attitudes and behaviors.
Discuss the alternative with them. If they and their peers were to believe everything the porn industry wants them to believe, what would the personal, relational, social, and cultural consequences be? Talk about how things could look if people mobilized to fight back and resist the harms of a pornified culture. Talk about how you will problem-solve together if they lose sight of this goal. Punishment is not the answer, as this will cultivate shame and shut down further discussions.
To understand the impact of pornography on children and young people, access Module 4 of the Program for Parents of Teens: Media Literacy, Pop Culture, and The Pornified Standard, and Enrichment 1, Porn & the Brain.
is for STRATEGY. Keep a cool head and work on a long-term plan rather than panicking or acting in the moment. Seek professional help if needed.
Encourage healthy, open discussions, and help your child to explore how empowering it feels when they have the courage and confidence to “do the right thing.” If your child knows what is and what is not acceptable behavior according to a set of pre-determined boundaries, you will have a solid foundation upon which to build expectations of future behavior. Filters and monitoring apps can assist in reducing access to pornography while your young person is learning to develop self-discipline.
If you think your child is habituated or addicted to pornography, this will require a different strategy and, often, more support and accountability. Don’t be shy about getting help! Professional intervention can equip you with a targeted strategy and provide much-needed reinforcements.
is for EVALUATE. Check in with your child regularly. Help them to develop the skills they will need to make healthy decisions, and be clear that you will parent and partner with them.
Letting them know you are a partner in this journey offers a framework that will allow you to look out for them and be available so they can talk with you. Monitor online activity and stay attuned to their behaviors. Depending on your child’s level of interaction with pornography, life may quickly resume its balance, particularly if their exposure was a single, isolated incident.
If porn use is habitual, setbacks are to be expected. It is important that you check in on your children and monitor how they are feeling, especially if there are behavioral changes (e.g., telling lies, being secretive, bed wetting, or anxiety). Trust your parental instincts if you suspect your child is not okay. Review your strategy, and seek assistance from professionals.
To address any deeper-level concerns, Module 3 of Enrichment 2: Developing a Support Strategy provides a step-by-step guide. In addition, if you are yet to work through the parent-focused COMPOSE Yourself! model, we encourage you to do so. This will provide additional opportunities to reflect on how you can effectively support your child or teen through any porn-related harms and challenges.