How to Respond When Kids Think Porn Is the Norm

A teen covers his face with his hands as he sits in a darkened room in front of a computer.
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Not long ago, I had an enlightening talk with a 16-year-old boy who’d just seen one of Hollywood’s more violent and sexually explicit movies.

“What did you think?” I asked.

“I liked the action,” he responded.

“What about all the violence and sex everyone is talking about?” I prodded. “How did those things make you feel?”

He shrugged. “I’m used to it. Didn’t feel anything.”

Used to it? I was taken aback. Used to cruelty and sexual objectification? Either this young man had become desensitized to the effects of pornography, or he was simply lying because he wanted to continue watching these types of movies.

Sadly, this young man’s nonchalant view toward sexually explicit material is more common than most parent would like. The internet, commercials, movies and television shows have continued to normalize explicit sex. What’s worse, smart phones have made access to sexual content quite easy for today’s teens. In a recent study on teen technology, researchers found that teens who considered themselves “addicted” to their smartphone were significantly more likely to pursue sexually-themed material.

How do we combat a worldview that dismisses concerns over the damage pornography is doing? Here are some topics to address if you believe your child has been desensitized by a culture of pornography:

Understanding desensitization

During adolescence, a child’s brain still has a lot of growing and maturing to do, and it can more easily fall prey addiction. An addiction to pornography can actually alter the brain and dramatically affect an individual’s personality over time. Dishonesty about the impact of this addiction is one of the first clear signs that something is wrong.

My client insisted he’d felt nothing while watching this graphically sexual movie. It’s an expected response. A pornography habit drives young people into a corner, pushing them to try to protect a pleasurable habit than to do what they know to be right. This process begins to numb their conscience, leading to the belief that viewing pornography is a harmless sign of growing up.

I’ve helped several young men who’ve confessed an addiction to pornography. It wasn’t an easy road to healing, but after much self-reflection, these boys came to recognize how pornography was altering the way they looked at people, particularly girls they were attracted to. They recognized that porn had caused them to see females as objects to be consumed and preyed upon.

One young man said he’d become extremely anxious around attractive women because he noticed his thoughts went straight toward sex rather than listening and connecting. Pornography had caused his mind to embrace a fantasy that each social encounter with a woman had sexual potential. Years later, as he learned to pursue authentic relationships with people and God, he began to see the terrible lie of pornography. This young man has recently told me that the key to his rescue was in the pursuit of these real relationships with God and other people.

“Everyone does it, right?”

A study published in Developmental Psychology found that teens using pornography became much more open about their sexual beliefs and behaviors than kids who didn’t use porn. That’s probably no surprise to parents of adolescents: The more kids do something — and the more aware they are of others doing that something — the more that something becomes “no big deal.”

The widespread use of pornography numbs kids to the reality of its devastating impact. In a culture that offers no direction, we must help the young regain a moral compass and a desire to pursue reality and real relationships. This starts with asking young adults to decide whether pornography is a problem, and if it is, what it is costing them in current relationships and the ability to develop relationships. This is a great first step toward authenticity.

I tell parents that the road to healing from the devastation of porn starts with encouraging our young people to engage in a period of self-reflection. This starts with a series of simple challenges that will help your teen become more sincere in how he views others and himself:

Challenge him to list what is true about himself. Then ask him to reflect on this list and ask himself if this is who he wants to be.

Challenge him to observe what he thinks when he is talking to others, especially an attractive person. How well does he listen to the person? Truly listening is the initial clue that someone cares.

Challenge him to intentionally decide to treat everyone as a valuable person, regardless of how the person looks or what the person has to offer. He gets to practice caring and loving, which opens up the opportunity for him to also receive genuine love.

Help your child see that if he truly wants to feel a satisfying sense of belonging, worth and competence, it begins with an honest look at himself and his learning to love others.

Healing in family

Healing continues as your child begins to grapple with facts about who he has become and to quit play-acting. This healing is most effective and long-lasting when it takes place within the context of community with family members and caring friends.

Kids do best when they have access to a strong family and a strong faith community. This gives them a nurturing environment to learn how to set goals, form a positive self-image and develop healthy friendships.

It’s critical that your child knows that you love him and are working with him on this matter because you want what’s best for him. Help him understand that you desire him to have satisfying and healthy relationships in the future. You want him to learn how to love and be loved.

Look for opportunities for wise and healthy conversations about sex — and prepare yourself for those moments. For example, you may see your son look at a woman in a sexual way. This may trigger frustration. You may be tempted to scold your child. The first emotion is not within your control, but the thoughts and subsequent actions are.

How can you respond wisely? You might say, “I noticed that you were checking that woman out. What were you thinking as you looked at her. What feelings did you have?” You want to help him recognize the temptation to treat others as objects to be consumed. Explain that you want him to feel satisfaction and happiness, but that you want him to discover the real deal and not settle for fantasy.

It’s important not to lecture but to offer insight and straightforward talk filled with grace. Help young people see that pornography leaves them thirsty — while true and authentic love satisfies. Your goal is to demonstrate grace, understanding and love. And your goal is your child’s freedom. Help your kid understand true freedom, the freedom to make his own wise choices.

Your response

A child viewing pornography can create a lot of fear for you, a fear that can create anger. Avoid shaming a child, even when emotions are ramped up. Manage your emotions first.

An example of shaming a child is, “Stop being a pervert by visiting these porn sites!” A different way you could state this is, “Your choice to keep viewing pornography confuses me. What is it that you are looking for?”

Shame involves trying to make a child feel bad and targeting his overall identity. Grace involves recognizing that these are decisions based on misperceptions and deceptions. Grace gives a child wise boundaries and helps the individual pursue growth and hope.

Your goal is to take your child from blindness to sight, to recognize the reality that pornography really is a “big deal,” but that there’s a better deal offered: to pursue loving relationships with God and other people.

 

Daniel P. Huerta is a licensed clinical social worker and the vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family.

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