Tuesday
Feb102009

"Sexting" is the new flirting

Recently, an article appeared in the newspaper about the increasing number of teens who are sending pornographic images of themselves (or their body parts) to other peers in an attempt to flirt or "joke around." The article noted how more and more of these kids are being charged by law enforcement for creating and distributing child pornography. This is a problem. The technology seems to be moving forward much quicker than the laws.  Therefore, kids are being caught up on laws designed to catch sex offenders.  This article is a reminder about the importance of discussing not only online behavior and the legal ramifications of their behavior with your teen, but also sexual behavior with your teen. As with many decisions that kids make on their own, the decision to send pornographic images of themselves to other kids is misinformed and can cause them problems that they do not think about or consider. Therefore, because parents are stepping in as their teen's frontal lobe (brain, judgment, decision-making ability), parents have to spend some time discussing the implications of this behavior with their teen.


Having frank discussions of sexual material a parent's teen is one of the more uncomfortable things to do as a parent. Not only is it discussing personal behavior with the teen, but parents often fear that it might lead to discussion of their own personal sexual behavior. They are concerned with answering the "What did you do when you were my age" question that can come up in these discussions. Parents need to know that there are ways to enter into this conversation confidently and that they can avoid these uncomfortable moments with their teen if they think ahead about the conversation a bit. Here are some tips for handling this uncomfortable, but critical, conversation:

  • Setting Choose a good setting for the conversation. Choosing to talk about sexual behavior in front of other family members is not a good choice, nor is it a good choice to interrupt a teens personal time to have this conversation. Take them out, one on one. Boys do really well with conversations driving in the car, for example. Taking a teen to dinner or out to a neutral location is good. Taking a walk together is a good choice, as long as they are not planning to bring their friends with them. Plan ahead about where would be the best place to talk.
  • Listen, listen, listen. This is critical. Teens, like most people, do not like to be lectured. Ask open ended questions and really listen to the response. Do not formulate in your head what you think they might say, but listen to what they actually say.
  • Be honest. Speak from your heart Use "I statements." Most people respond well to "I am worried about..."
  • Validate their feelings Their feelings about the topic are real and important. When they say something, listen and understand their perspective.
  • Treat the conversation as a start. You will not be able to address this type of behavior in one conversation. Let it unfold over time. Start the conversation and let them know that it is alright to discuss this topic.
  • When the uncomfortable questions come up, listen and respond  Do not discuss your own personal sexual preferences, behaviors or fantasies with your children, but give them information. They need some context. For example, if they ask how you flirted with boys (or girls) that you liked, give them examples that are not sexually oriented. Talk about your feelings. If they ask when you first had sex, tell them that you are not comfortable telling them that and apologize. Ask them why that is important to them and answer this question honestly. They might want to know how early is "too early." Explain how people are different and that it is a personal decision.  Teens need to be reminded that the times when you grew up were different regarding technology.  There were no cell phones, emails, voicemails, texting, digital photos, web, Facebook, MySpace.  That has changed everything and has put them in a different situation than adults were in as teens.  This is an important piece of the current context.

Sexual behavior is a difficult topic to discuss with teens and is as equally uncomfortable for the teen as it is for their parents. However, with a little pre-thought, you can avoid some discomfort. Sometimes, difficult topics can be discussed over many shorter easier conversations. Honesty and respect for their feelings is critical in these conversations, as with any conversation between two people who care about each other. If, however, you feel unable to have this type of conversation and need further coaching, or might want to have the conversation in the presence of a neutral third party, contact a mental health professional. We are trained to have difficult conversations and are well equipped to help you navigate these rough moments smoothly.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have further questions or would like to discuss this topic further.

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