“I recently found out my child has been searching out pornography on the Internet and I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to panic and assume that my child needs counseling. But I also don’t want to ignore warning signs and wish that I had taken action sooner. What should I do?

counseling

I hear questions just like this all the time from concerned parents. I think it’s the universal parent dilemma, and can be applied to so many areas of parenting. Should my teen get a job to learn how to work, or should I have them focus only on school? Should I keep my kids from playing any video games at all or is a little OK in moderation?

As parents, we worry about balancing the various needs of our children. With the issue of pornography, parents have two things to balance: protecting children from the harms pornography can cause, and using resources effectively. Counseling can be expensive, so you want to be judicious about it.

I actually believe that the majority of the good work that needs to happen to help children and teens deal with the effects of pornography can and should be done in their own homes. Even when counseling teens who struggle with porn use, I heavily involve the parents in the process. Individual therapy sessions with the child are paired with family therapy sessions as well as parent consultations.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself, as a parent, to help determine if you should consider seeking professional help. I’ll also share a few things you can work on in your home to help your child keep a healthy distance from sexualized content in media. If you decide a therapist would be helpful, I’ve got some tips for finding a qualified counselor who can help your child.

Related: My Porn Addiction Started at Age 10; Ten Tips from a Father in Recovery

Questions parents should ask themselves

Has my child experienced a traumatic event?

Children are naturally curious, so it won’t come as a surprise that they will be curious about bodies and sexuality. However, traumatic events in the child’s life could create internal distress that results in a child looking for a strategy to reduce emotional pain – to move beyond curiosity into coping.

Pornography use can become that coping strategy in some cases. If your child is turning back to pornography regularly and you’re aware that they have a traumatic event in their past, professional counseling help may help address the trauma.

Is my child being secretive, even after they’ve agreed to be honest?

Children who continue to keep secrets after they’ve agreed to be honest generally have one of two things going on. They are either experiencing high levels of shame, which leads them to want to do anything to avoid disappointing others. Or they actually want to continue the behavior and are being secretive to keep their parents from doing more to stop the behavior.

Counseling can work in either of these cases. Shame can be difficult to confront without outside help. In some cases where children experience high levels of shame, they actually come from what is called a “shame-prone family.” Those families will often need help to make progress in confronting shame, not only with the child but also with the entire family system.

In the second case, you may have a child who is going to be more difficult or challenging than the average child. Some children seem to be born with a stronger desire to be in control of their choices and are likely to reject parent’s attempts to provide structure, or even support, when dealing with pornography.

Counseling, in this situation, should focus more on helping parents implement and enforce proper boundaries with the child to maximize the likelihood that the child will retain a sense of freedom of choice, but will keep their behaviors safe and in line with family rules and expectations.

Has my child been viewing violent pornography, child pornography, or other more deviant forms of porn?

Pornography can range from static images that contain nudity all the way to various kinds of violent or deviant behaviors shown in videos and other forms – many of which can really be confusing and even harmful to children. If you know that your child has been exposed to some of these forms of pornography, I would recommend at least a single counseling session to assess whether the impact needs to be addressed with professional help.

Is my child immediately at risk for hurting another child?

This one is tough to determine, but if your child has been showing another child pornography, or if you suspect that there is a risk that your child will experiment sexually on other children, I do recommend seeing a professional. In my therapy office, I see that children who experience sexual abuse at the hands of another child or an adult are much more likely to perpetrate or experiment on other children. While this isn’t always directly related to pornography, the two can be linked. Again, in situations like this, being a bit overly cautious might be a good idea.

Is the problem escalating?

Maybe your child started out rarely running into pornography online but now seems to be seeking it out. Or they’re looking at it more frequently (even if they’re telling you about it). Or what they’re watching is escalating in severity in some way. If you see the problem escalating, I think it’s time to at least check in with a professional to evaluate the situation.

Understanding what young people are experiencing today regarding pornography can help you be an effective advocate for your child. Get our free list of 5 Things Teens Wish Their Parents Knew About Porn at the end of this post.

What you can do to help at home

I really believe that a majority of children do not need professional counseling. They need invested and educated parents. They need emotional support and a family that is committed to confronting shame and perfectionism. They need boundaries and expectations. Here are a few tips I recommend parents implement in their homes, even if pornography has not become an issue in the family.

Setting boundaries

Media and electronic device boundaries are crucial. Put together family rules and expectations (or boundaries) about media and device usage. Hold children (and adults!) accountable for sticking to the boundaries and make the sure consequences are clear when rules are broken. For example, a boundary may be that children don’t keep phones in their bedrooms at night. The consequence may be losing use of a phone for a period of time if this boundary is broken.

Developing a healthy lifestyle

Children who are actively involved with friends (in person), being physically active, engaging in hobbies or learning new skills, playing sports, or learning a musical instrument have more ways to enjoy the world around them without getting lost in screens. Learning to deal with painful emotions is important. Kids need to learn how to engage in healthy relationships. As parents, we should do what we can to create opportunities like these and to teach our children the necessary skills to stay engaged in life in healthy ways.

If you have a child who is being impacted by pornography, you know how important it is to prepare children early to know how to get away and stay away! Get started with younger kids with Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds.

Now Available! Good Pictures Bad Pictures Jr: A Simple Plan to Protect Young Minds is HERE! CLICK HERE to learn how to protect kids ages 3 – 7 from the dangers of pornography.

Regular feedback

It’s not enough to have a single conversation about any of these topics. Bring up the issues with your children regularly. I recommend doing it in a more relaxed way than having some kind of interrogation or interview session. Kids are already worried about disappointing their parents. Make it as easy as possible for them to be open and honest. If you find that relaxed dialogues aren’t working, it may be time to be a bit more formal. And if that doesn’t work, counseling could help. When you’re getting feedback, you’ll want to know things like:

  • When do you notice being most drawn to look at pornography? (time of day, when feeling certain emotions, being alone, etc.)
  • What can we do together when you’re feeling drawn to pornography to help you stay safe?
  • What strategies that we’ve talked about are helping?
  • What strategies that we’ve talked about don’t seem to be helping much?
  • How are we doing at helping you feel safe to talk to me when you’re struggling with anything?

Related: The SMART Plan for Parents: Helping Kids Who Have Seen or Sought Pornography

How to find qualified counseling

When you feel like a counselor is a good next step, you can do a little investigation to find the best fit for your child. Look online and find therapists or counselors who have well-managed websites with good information. A poorly managed website may be an indication of a lower level of professionalism overall. You can also ask friends or family for local recommendations.

Ask to speak to the therapist before scheduling a first appointment. Most good therapists should be able to make time for a free, 15-minute phone consultation to answer questions before you schedule a first appointment. For example, I’m extremely busy as a therapist, but I still make time for every single person who calls in to ask me questions. That’s the level of care and concern you should expect from your therapist.

When looking around for the right counselor, I recommend a few things to look for:

1. A counselor or therapist with a professional license that is regulated by the state you live in. You’ll want someone with training in mental health treatment, not just someone who knows a lot about pornography. “Coaching” isn’t a regulated profession in most states, so by opting to receive coaching, you could be putting your child at risk for working with an unlicensed individual without proper regulatory oversight by state agencies.

A therapist or counselor should be licensed in the state in which you reside, especially if the therapist lives in another state. Many therapists these days offer “coaching” sessions online to avoid the issue of professional license requirements. Be very careful around this issue. Therapists who practice in states where they are not licensed are actually breaking the law in many cases.

2. Where possible, a counselor or therapist whose practice is primarily dedicated to helping people who struggle with pornography. Many therapists are “generalists” who will attempt to help with just about any issue that comes through the door. When you find someone who specializes, you’re more likely to get the level of help you need. Ask the therapist or counselor how much of their practice revolves around this issue. Look for a straightforward answer.

3. A counselor or therapist who has a plan. If the therapist asks how you feel each week, it’s a nice gesture, but a trained and experienced therapist will be able to explain their basic protocols – the tools, assignments, and interventions that they’ve seen work with past clients. The therapist will have goals and will know which interventions should help your child work toward those goals. Ask the therapist to help you understand the plan and goals.

Related: 7 Signs a Child is Viewing Porn that Parents Often Overlook

This entire process can feel very overwhelming for parents. Do what you can today. Doing something, even if it’s not perfect, is better than doing nothing. Start where you are and continue to educate yourself so that your future efforts will continue to improve in effectiveness. Your child can make progress and overcome this challenge with your support. You can do this!

You deserve support to! Join other parents in our Protect Young Minds – Parent Discussion Group on Facebook to share ideas for helping kids who have been impacted by pornography.

Click below to get our free list of 5 Things Teens Wish Their Parents Knew About Porn – it’s great info from our friends at Fight the New Drug!

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Dr. Adam Moore
Dr. Adam M. Moore is a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-owner of Sela Health, which operates mental health counseling offices in Lehi, Provo, and Mapleton, Utah; and Las Vegas, Nevada. Sela Health therapists have provided over 38,000 hours of counseling since the company's inception in 2013. In addition to managing his counseling practice, Dr. Moore hosts a mental health podcast called Pocket Therapist. He also manages My Recovery Portal, a website that has provided on-demand addiction recovery content to people all over the world. Dr. Moore regularly engages in public speaking events on the topic of pornography and sexual addiction recovery, and has presented workshops to over 12,000 people since 2013. Currently, Dr. Moore serves as president of the Utah Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

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