Talking to your kids about explicit texts they are sending or receiving isn't easy. Experts offer ways to navigate that personal conversation.

By Isadora Baum
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So you think your teen is sexting—now what? On one side, you want to talk to them about it, but you also feel a bit awkward to sit your kid down and say, “Hun, we need to talk about those text messages you’ve been sending.”

Truth is, sexting—sending or receiving sexually explicit messages and/or photos via mobile—is pretty common among teens today. Research published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2018 found about 15 percent of teens are sending them.

Parents should treat sexting as they would any type of sexual behavior, says Jeff Temple, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and director of behavioral health and research at UTMB Health in Galveston, Texas. If it's desired on both ends and there's trust that no one will share photos or texts elsewhere, then it’s probably OK. "However, if a young teen is sexting, or the sexting is coerced or nonconsensual, or it is an adult requesting a sext from a teen, then it's definitely a reason for concern,” says Dr. Temple.

That’s why it’s important to start a conversation about sexting and educate your kid on the potential consequences. Experts offer a few pointers to help you navigate the sexting conversation with your children.

Keep your cool

If you’ve found out your kid is in fact sexting, don't show signs of surprise or anger. Aside from being relatively common, sexting also doesn’t mean your child is misbehaving or deviant. "It means they are growing up in a world dominated by digital media," says Dr. Temple.

When the time comes for you to talk it out, don't do it when you're heated. "Choose a calm time to say you'd like to discuss something that you feel is important,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College. It might be easier to keep the conversation general: “Tell your child that you are not personally referring to what they have or have not done and that you are discussing a general phenomenon.”

Talk about the consequences

Let them know anything texted can be saved, sent to others, made public, and come back to haunt them later in life, advises Dr. Saltz. The research in JAMA backs this up: It showed 12 percent of teens have forwarded a sext without consent. "Remind them that they should only text what they would be happy to have someone else see," adds Dr. Saltz.

But don’t use scare tactics when trying to get this message across. “Try to avoid saying something like, 'If you send a nude picture, you'll never get into college or get a good job.' While this may happen, it is unlikely, and you may lose any credibility you had on the subject," says Dr. Temple.

Instead, come from a place of guidance and compassion. “Remind them that if they find themselves in trouble or over their head, you will help them first and reserve judgment," says Dr. Saltz. It’s important they know they can come to you with questions and for help.

Have an honest conversation about relationships

Take a proactive approach and emphasize what healthy relationships look like and how to handle them over social media. Keep in mind, lessons about healthy relationships can happen way before your child is even thinking about sexting—as long as they are age-appropriate.

"For example, elementary school-aged children can be taught to ask for permission before hugging someone and to limit their time in front of screens," says Dr. Temple. "As children age into middle and high school, it can shift to more direct conversations about sexual consent, which includes not pressuring others to send naked pictures to them.”

Don’t police your child’s phone

Trust that your kid will take your advice and respect their privacy. If you tell them you'll be checking their phones and monitoring what they're doing, you're likely going to scare them and make them feel uncomfortable.

Aside from the fact that your teen can probably still figure out a way to hide their activity, this approach can also be damaging to your relationship. "Policing their phone could build distrust and make them less likely to seek out your guidance when they really need it," says Dr. Temple.

Just remind yourself, sexting is a contemporary way that adolescents are exploring their sexuality, which is a natural part of growing up.

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