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Kids, Pornography, and Shame

Scary title huh? We don’t want to think about kids and pornography in the same vein regardless of context. Unfortunately, the reality is that first pornography exposure happens often during early adolescence or even childhood. You read correctly, childhood. I’m talking about playground and recess aged kids here. As parents in the digital age, I think most of us are aware that our teenagers have access to inappropriate content at their fingertips; however, we are less aware of the proliferation of it targeting younger children. As a result, we are often caught off guard about how to talk about pornography with young children. Sadly, being unprepared can often lead to some instinctual reactions, that while quite normal, can have unintended consequences in the messaging that kids receive. Mainly, that they did something wrong and that makes them “bad”; shame is not productive nor helpful for healthy sexual development.

            Shame, as a parenting strategy, is not effective at creating healthy change in behaviors (notice the bolded…healthy). In fact, it is just the opposite. While shame may enact change in behaviors, it does so by undermining self-worth and value. Often with the universal emotion, shame, we feel like we are fundamentally flawed as human beings and irrevocably broken. Now with the parents I’ve worked, this isn’t the message that they are trying to instill in their children; assuredly, they are trying to empower and support their children. This is the reason why I think it’s imperative that parents be prepared with the messaging and a script, of sorts, for these conversations. Here are some of the most common questions that I get asked about dealing with pornography exposure and young children aged 6-12 years old:

When should I talk to my child about pornography?

            If your child is using the internet then you need to start having age and developmentally appropriate conversations about pornography. Yes, if your 5 year old is watching videos or playing games then they can come across it, even with filters and other safeguards.

Example: Sometimes adults put stuff on the internet that looks like it’s for kids, like cartoons that show body parts that we’ve talked about being private like a penis or breasts. It isn’t appropriate for kids and it can be really confusing. We want to you show us if you see something that feels confusing, like it might be for adults, but you aren’t sure. We won’t be angry or mad, we love you and want to be able to play your games safely.

How did my child start looking at pornography?

            Typically, a child’s first exposure to pornography happens in one of two ways: they either accidentally click on a link that takes them to a porn site or a friend shows them. Kids are curious and they tend to share their curiosity with their peers. Sadly, kids can be labeled as “bad” or being a “bad influence” when a child reports that their friend Timmy showed them a picture, video, or link that includes pornographic images. This sends the same messaging that was discussed above, that being curious about sexual imagery, sexual acts, or sexuality in general is “bad” or “off limits”. If we want our children to learn about sex from us, their parents, then we need to take ownership of having the conversations.

            Thus, talk to your child about their curiosity. Work to normalize their curiosity about sex and the feelings that they experienced. Create an environment that is safe, even if you or they are uncomfortable, to discuss sex and pornography and your beliefs and values regarding them. They will get their sexual education from other sources regardless if we abdicate this role in our children’s development.

Example: Joey, thank you for telling us when you clicked on that link; you did exactly what we’d talked about you doing. We’ve talked about how sex and sexual feelings are normal and healthy, I wonder if you’re curious about any of the images that you saw? What did you feel when you looked at the images? Sometimes it feels really exciting to see things that we don’t know a lot about, like naked body parts or sexual acts, these feelings are normal and nothing to feel ashamed about. We value sexuality and feel that explicit sexual images are harmful to that development because they can portray sex in a way that isn’t realistic or healthy.

How do I teach my child that porn isn’t realistic?

            For very young children, framing it as the actors are playing pretend puts the concept into a form that they understand as they often engage in pretending. Keep it simple, short and provide an opportunity to ask questions if they remain curious.

Example: Joey, you and your friends love to play superheroes right? Sometimes you even dress up as your favorites superheroes and pretend to save the world. The movie that you saw, the people are actors and are playing and pretending too. They were playing,  sex is a way that adults play, but they were playing pretend in that movie.

            Older children typically can conceptualize the difference between real and pretend without the fantastical examples; however, as pornography depicts real acts it can sometimes be difficult for them to understand how it isn’t real. I like to use an example of something that is also real but exaggerate like driving in the Fast and Furious movies. Go on YouTube and find a driving scene and watch it together and discuss how, while some of the basic concepts are real, the actual movie isn’t. For example, it was filmed on a sound stage or movie lot with a professional driver doing the stunt maneuvers. Adult films are also filmed as a movie production with actors, the maneuvers are scripted and practiced, the vocalizations and facials are exaggerated, etc. So, while the act itself is real, the depiction of the act isn’t.

While I just skimmed the surface, I hope this gives parents some ideas to start the conversation. This subject is scary and can be very intimidating for parents to explore with children, especially young children. However, parents have the opportunity to influence the narrative that children are exposed to in a way that creates a safe environment for healthy sexual development without shame.

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Six Sexual Health Principles to Discuss With Your Partner

I often hear stories from men and women who discover their partner has sexual secrets. Sometimes those secrets involve pornography, sometimes they involve infidelity, sometimes they involve fantasy or sexual preferences. The individuals who share these stories with me often feel betrayed because the expectations they had about the sexual agreements within their relationship were not kept. The first problem to address is that most of the time, these sexual agreements were unspoken.

I want to encourage couples to make these unspoken agreements spoken. All couples should talk about their expectations for their sexual relationship. In order to facilitate this discussion, here are six principles that constitute healthy sexuality. Spend some time with your partner and discuss each one, what it means to each of you as individuals and how it relates to you as a couple. (One word of caution, avoid having this discussion during or after sex. Those times are likely to bring with them heightened vulnerability, which if the discussion is difficult in any area, can lead to increased defensiveness and conflict. The discussion will go much more smoothly if you schedule it for another time.)

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The following 6 principles of sexual health were developed by Doug Braun-Harvey. Learn more about his these principles in his books Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction & Sexual Health in Drug and Alcohol Treatment

1. Consent

Consent in this context means that someone has given permission for something involving their body to occur. Are there sexual behaviors in your relationship that you’d like your partner to ask specific consent for each time? Are there sexual behaviors that you don’t feel your partner needs to ask first? Talk about these, and create clear guidelines to shape how consent looks in your relationship. Remember that feelings about specific sexual behaviors can change, and it’s okay to change your sexual agreements in the future.

2. Non-Exploitative

Non-exploitative means that one partner does not take advantage or manipulate the other into sexual behaviors. This includes using power dynamics to coerce the other person. Are there behaviors that one partner participates in hesitantly? Use this opportunity to talk about what those behaviors mean to each partner. If there are exploitative behaviors in your relationship, this is an area where reaching out for help with a therapist may be necessary to resolve them and set healthy boundaries.

3. Protection from STIs, HIV, and Unplanned Pregnancy

If either person has had previous sexual partners, have they been checked for sexually transmitted infections or HIV? What is the plan surrounding birth control?

4. Honesty

Are both partners able to be fully honest about their sexual history, and is there room in the relationship to honestly discuss fantasy and sexual preferences?

5. Shared Values

Creating sexual agreements are crucial for couples, and the largest part of the discussion will likely revolve around values. What behaviors fall within your value systems as individuals and as a couple? If there are value differences, can you create workable compromises? If there are value conflicts within a relationship, a professional can help explore resolutions that feel workable to both partners.

6. Mutual Pleasure

Sadly, many individuals grow up with the idea that sex is something men like and women tolerate. When this is the background, women can feel used and resentful about sex, even when they’re otherwise happy in their relationship. Breaking out of this mindset is going to be difficult if the couple has not found mutually pleasurable sexual activities. If one partner wants a specific type of sex exclusively, and the other partner doesn’t enjoy that activity, neither partner will be able to truly experience the kind of sexual relationship that is fulfilling and strengthens the relationship.

If after reviewing these six principles, you find some areas that you and your partner need help with, schedule an appointment with Alice today.  801-944-4555.

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A New Way to Look at Porn (and Other Compulsive Behaviors)

All of us experience stress. Beginning in childhood, stress is a normal part of daily life. This tension will build until we seek some kind of comfort. In our childhood, we likely sought solace from our parents (picture a toddler who clings to her mother’s leg, branches out to explore, then returns to the security of her parent). As adults we exhibit similar behaviors :we seek out our safe places to help us gain confidence to explore and take risks, or to cope with the stress of life.

If we reach out to a loved one and they understand us, or are “attuned” to our needs, we feel the comfort of human connection. This builds our emotional resilience, or our ability to cope with future stress. These are the foundations of building a secure attachment. Secure attachments increase our ability to tolerate stress and creates a positive cycle, helping us thrive in spite of the challenges life throws our way.

On the other hand, if we reach out and our loved one rejects us in some way, we might feel isolated. Humans are a mighty resilient species, and many individuals are able to find ways to cope despite the lack of a secure attachment figure. Sometimes however, we seek comfort in ways that are not in line with our personal values. Problematic object-focused comfort-seeking strategies can include overeating, social media or pornography use, or drugs or alcohol. When our attempts at comfort-seeking go against our value system, we are likely to feel some shame, which can lead us to continue our problematic comfort-seeking. This creates a negative spiral, which can lead to compulsive behaviors, emotional frailty or rigidity, and insecure attachments as we seek to hide our behaviors from those around us.

Even the most problematic comfort-seeking behavior serves a purpose; if it didn’t, we wouldn’t keep turning to it in spite of the problems it causes in our lives. Understanding the purpose the behavior serves and learning (or relearning) how to form secure attachments to other people are the beginning of overcoming unwanted compulsive behaviors.

If you identify with this pattern of behavior and want to change, schedule an appointment with Alice at 801-944-4555 today. She works with individuals or couples who are seeking healthy ways to cope with stress and heal hurt relationships without shame.

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What To Do If Your Child Is Viewing Porn: Nightside Interview

What To Do If Your Child Is Viewing Porn: Nightside Interview

What to do when your child views pornI recently spoke with Ethan Millard and Alex Kirry of KSL’s NewsRadio Nightside Project about what parents can do if they discover that their child is viewing porn.

Pornography is a loaded topic: the easy accessibility of it combined with a curiosity about and interest in bodies and sexuality that children naturally have can lead to problems and questions. We’ve all heard the horror stories of how porn addiction can lead to broken families and destroyed lives. It’s quite a task to speak to your children about these issues and can be even more emotionally daunting if they’re already involved in it in some way. Here are some strategies for how to handle a situation in which your son or daughter is viewing pornography:

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Fight the New Drug

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A few months ago I attended a presentation with my teenage son at Canyons School District titled “Fight the New Drug”.  As a therapist, I was expecting the typical “why porn is bad” -type of platform.  What I found was a fresh approach that was all-inclusive, carrying out an anti-pornography message across borders of religious beliefs, political agenda and social backgrounds by presenting it as a public health issue, rather than as a moral, political or religious argument.  Historically, pornography used to be a matter of personal opinion.  Some people felt it was natural, normal, even expected to be consumed.  Others felt it was “bad” or “wrong” due to their personal religious beliefs or political views.  However, few people, if any, seemed to have concrete evidence to support their view.  FTND’s mission exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography  by raising awareness using only science, facts, and personal accounts.

Teens learn how they are impacted  on 3 levels:  Personally, (recent finding in neuroscience), relationally (personal stories) and socially, (connecting the link to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation), in a delivery using multiple creative mediums that captivate youth!  Founded locally here in Salt Lake City, Utah as a non profit organization campaign in 2009, they have carried their message to over 300 schools and colleges in North America, reaching thousands of teens (it’s target population).  They also deliver through social media and have a massive following that has created a powerful social movement online.  Their slogans can be seen on T shirts worn by Hollywood stars like “Porn Kills Love”, “Fight for Love” or “Stop the Demand”.

What impressed me most about this presentation I attended and what I find sets it apart from any others I’ve seen, is their online recovery program, “Fortify”: A Step Toward Recovery”, free to anyone under age 20.  Most young people (I never see in therapy), suffer silently, already deeply trenched in a porn addiction, too embarrassed or ashamed to reach out and ask for help.  Fight the New Drug offers anonymity where  teens (and adults for a nominal fee) can finally seek help NOT just feel guilty.  The website also offers a free book “Parents guide to addressing pornography with children” to assist families.  FTND encompasses 4 programs: Media, Mobilization, Protection AND Recovery, a solid, comprehensive non profit that few others offer.

Check out fightthenewdrug.org today.

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