With the advent of the Internet, parents are finding it increasingly difficult to shield their children from pornography. Now, in addition to the exposure kids might encounter from classmates who borrowed one of their father’s magazines, most school-age children and adolescents are spending large amounts of time online for homework or entertainment reasons. Attorney General John Ashcroft has estimated that nine in ten teens have been exposed to pornography. Unfortunately, many of these teens are susceptible to developing addictions or compulsions to these images.
The term “addict” may seem severe. Most parents will initially minimize the problem, hoping their son or daughter is simply “experimenting.” Experience has taught me that, in many cases, at least one of the parents will have faced similar struggles when he or she was younger. Today, however, Internet pornography is the fast ramp to sex addiction. Coupled with a greater moral decay in the culture and the fact that children’s minds are still are still in the process of developing to maturity, addiction can happen quicker than we parents like to think.
Not long ago, I was a guest on Focus on the Family’s teen call-in radio show Life on the Edge Live! During the hour, several adolescents called in to discuss sexual integrity. Even having previously treated adolescent addicts, I was surprised that the first four callers identified themselves as sex addicts – three of which were females.
My own practice and experiences such as those on the call-in show demonstrate that the problems of teenage pornography and sex addictions are real, devastating, and increasing. When faced with their teen’s struggle, most parents don’t know where to begin to get their child the help he or she needs.
In many situations, the first reaction is to determine who is to blame within the family. It is important to realize, however, that bad things still happen to good families. This does not absolve certain parties from taking responsibility where it is needed. Everyone needs to take ownership of his or her piece of the puzzle.
For example, parents need to ask if they have provided a comprehensive sex education that truly equipped their child with the winsome truth expounded in the Bible. Setting proper foundations for understanding a Christian sexual ethic is a crucial step in protecting children from later sexual disorder.
Parents will also want to re-evaluate the types and amounts of media they have allowed in the home. People tend to absorb the messages that bombard them in popular media; more so with teens and young children. What have your children been listening to and watching? Is their media reinforcing respectful messages about sexuality and the dignity of the person, or is it working to erode these foundational principles in your child’s mind?
Another often-overlooked problem is the sad reality of sex abuse. Most sex addicts have suffered sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and treatment of sex abuse is foundational to overcoming sex addiction.
The adolescent addict also has areas of responsibility. Has he or she been honest about the sexual struggles? Have there been other excesses like alcohol or drugs? Has a peer or perhaps an adult been a bad influence? Most important of all, has the adolescent made a full disclosure to his parents so that the family can become equipped to deal with sex addiction?
Parents need to realize that their teen is likely suffering from extreme shame and embarrassment. Authoritarian dictates are not likely to encourage your child to open up and share the extent of his or her struggles. Compassionate love and understanding, such as Jesus demonstrated to the woman caught in adultery, is likely to help your child feel safe enough to disclose the full story.
Many families will already have experienced serious communication breakdown with their teens. How parents approach their teen in this situation will likely determine whether unhealthy patterns of communications will continue to disrupt and frustrate the relationship or whether a new foundation of openness, trust, and safety can be built and sustained throughout the struggle.
What to expect
Parents will need to remind themselves that they are often prone to minimizing what they know or suspect to be the truth. Parents also need to realize the resistance they will encounter from their teen. Most addicts, regardless of age, will deny their struggle. They may even shift the blame and become verbally aggressive. Others may agree immediately that they have sinned or hurt others, and promise too quickly that they will never do it again. Getting caught hardly changes the heart.
Of course, it’s to be expected that everyone will feel awkward, maybe even embarrassed. Regardless of the discomfort, however, when there is evidence of illicit sexual behavior and possible addiction, parents have to take the lead.
Principles, not personalities
Chances are this encounter will exacerbate personality differences already evident in the family, but parents and teen alike need to understand that this issue is not about personalities but about principles. Ideally, parents will have educated their children about the principles or core values that pertain to personal integrity. When these principles are violated, parents don’t need to make this a personal issue, even though the wound will be highly personal.
Those who have not undertaken this core training will experience greater difficulty reaching the teen. Compounding the problem will be any moral lapse or habits that the teen witnesses in the parents’ lives. It is extremely difficult to admonish a child for seeking out pornography if the parents have a few video cassettes they claim to be marital aids. Children are experts at sniffing out hypocrisy.
If parents are morally compromised in this situation, there are only a few choices they can make. They can either let the matter drop, thus resigning their teen to a cycle of pain, shame and addiction, or they can make the decision to eliminate those harmful aspects of their own lives and work toward bringing healing and restoration to the entire family.
Youth culture often counters parental values; adolescents may claim the right to express sexuality in whatever ways they desire. Without moral absolutes, they are prone to experimentation and believe that being true to one’s self is the greater good.
Boundaries and accountability
The fact remains that parents are responsible to a large degree for their children and for what their children do. For example, when an adolescent violates one or more civil laws pertaining to sexual conduct, his parents will typically become involved in the court hearings as well. Taking up their moral responsibility, parents of teenage addicts will need to state clear boundaries so that the guidelines and consequences are obvious.
Sadly, simply stating clear moral guidelines won’t change the heart of our children. Nevertheless, parents should be clear. Adolescents are to be accountable for their conduct, especially when trust has been violated.
Some initial guidelines for children would involve the types of media they are exposed to and the times and places of exposure. For example, parents would want to regulate Internet usage to specific times of the day or only when they are present. They may need specialized software to help them achieve these measures. Other restrictions could include limiting Internet use for homework purposes only and limiting TV viewing.
The guidelines parents set should not be limited to media in the home. Considering the seriousness of your child’s problem, guidelines should also be developed for conduct outside the household, with a signed agreement clearly stating consequences for infractions.
The reader can see how this could easily become a case of “parenting with an iron fist.” These measures need to be moderated by your family’s situation and your unique relationships. Above all, you must enter into these measures making sure that you are acting out of love and a motivation to help your child toward healing. Just as important, your child must perceive that you are acting with such a motivation. Heavy-handedness without appropriate ongoing communication and relationship can drive a teen further away from you and drive a continuation of his or her acting out.
Ideally, fathers should discuss these matters with sons, and mothers with daughters. Follow-up is important and, at least initially, these times of accountability may need to occur daily so that the teenage addict can check-in.
Safeguard other children
The most difficult question that can emerge is how to safeguard other children in the home. We want to think the best of our loved ones, regardless of age. It’s hard to imagine that a family member may actually pose a hazard to another family member. Where sex addiction exists, however, a careful evaluation for risk factors is always warranted.
Understandably, parents will want to protect younger children from the knowledge that an older sibling is addicted to pornography or other sexual behaviors. In fact, many times, the younger children remain relatively innocent, and perhaps the parents have not yet initiated sex education. Nevertheless, there are times when parents will need to err on the side of caution, and share with younger children that an older sibling is in trouble sexually, and therefore, won’t be left alone in their presence without parental supervision.
Every family situation differs in type and severity. For this reason, it’s not possible to offer specific advice in a brief article. Fortunately, however, help and hope is available though Focus on the Family’s Counseling Department. For a confidential assessment and referral to a specialist, call (719) 531-3400 x7700 weekdays 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (MST).
Seek professional help
If your child struggles with pornography or act outs sexually in other ways, professional help will be critically important. Often, Christian parents seek the help of a pastor, a Sunday School teacher, or perhaps someone from school. While all of these people have key-support roles to play, most likely none are specialized in the treatment of sex abuse and/or addiction.
The specialist can equip you to know how to approach your child. You will also learn how to monitor the situation, and develop more or less support depending on your particular circumstances.
Just because your teenager seems to be addicted today to pornography does not mean that he or she must remain addicted tomorrow. Kids of all ages are incredible resilient, especially when their legitimate needs are being met in meaningful ways.
A reality check
If your teenager is diagnosed with sex addiction, it means this condition did not occur overnight. To some degree, there has been a progression that most likely dates back to the first time your child was exposed to pornography or some other form of sexual abuse.
Because our children are in various stages of development where some degree of sexual experimentation is likely, it can be difficult to pin down whether or not a serious problem actually exists. The secrecy that surrounds sexual sin also makes it difficult to detect what may be happening in the private lives of our children.
As we work to restore our children to sexual and spiritual health, we must understand the role intimacy takes in this process. Sex addiction is never really about sex, but about the void in one’s spirit. Even when a teenager has a faith-based life in Christ, he or she will still be faced with quite a bit of sexual temptation. If he or she can develop self-control in this area, most likely self-control in other areas will follow.
In every case where self control abounds, we can express our heartfelt gratitude to God who loves our children even more than we do.