Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., shares how to navigate this potentially awkward moment in a way that addresses your teen's sexual development in a healthy and safe way.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
November 26, 2019

Dear Uncomfortable Dad,

My mom impulse would be to wash out my eyes with soap and scream into a pillow. I really, really wouldn't want to sit down and have a conversation, but I would know what must be done.

Yes, we need to talk to our teens about porn.

Illustration by Ana Celaya

Most psychologists with experience in this area recommend not doing what I say I would have done above—screaming, aka "over-reacting" in front of your child. So, the first step is to allow yourself an impulse gut reaction, but not in their presence. Then, when possible, process with the other parent before sitting down to talk about it with your child.

Research shows that parents have more influence on their child's sexual behavior than any other source. When parents keep an open dialogue about sex, teens are more likely to make better decisions, such as delaying sex and taking steps to prevent STDs and pregnancy when they do have sex.

If a parent over-reacts (read: me screaming into a pillow) it could cause more harm to your teen's sexual development and comprehension than the actual porn itself (depending on the specifics). If we want to support our teen in healthy development, we need to encourage healthy sexual development and not respond in ways that equate sex with shame.

Every family has its own values around sex and sexuality, and that is also an important part of the conversation, which will affect what you say and do. But they should not become an excuse to avoid the conversation. Let's admit that porn these days is a far cry from the stashed Playboy magazines from 80s childhoods. Teens can access porn from anywhere if they have a phone with access to the internet. While most experts agree that it is indeed appropriate to set controls that filter out online access to porn, the problem is there is no way to filter all possible paths to find porn. You can't just set those controls and walk away. Hopefully that helps you find your resolve to approach the porn conversation with your teen and the following tips can help you do it in a calm, open way.

Prepare Your Talking Points

Depending on their age and how often sex talks have happened in your family, your teen may be staring at the floor avoiding eye contact with you and doing everything they can to end the conversation. It helps to know what you want to convey to them: Do you want to let them know that curiosity is normal? What do you want to communicate about sex versus porn sex, and why you suggest not watching porn? (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a good guide for going beyond "The Talk" here.)

Ask Questions and Engage

Even though a lecture may come naturally, it's more likely to be a two-sided conversation if you ask your child some questions to elicit how viewing porn may have affected them. It may have scared them or brought up more questions, depending on what they came across. Make time for answering those questions, while showing with your calm, neutral demeanor that you can handle it. You can turn what is an alarming discovery at first into an opportunity to cover topics important for your teen's overall sexual development.

A Teen Weighs In

In collaboration with our 'Teen Talk' column, where teens write to help parents understand what's really happening in their world, we asked one of our teen columnists how she would want a parent to handle this conversation. She stresses the importance of parents having a real, open, and honest conversation about sex with their teens. "As important as it is to come to me as a concerned parent, come to me as a real person and please don't condemn me," says teen writer Alexia Lewis, regarding conversations between parents and teens about sex. "We teens feel bad enough, weird enough, and alone enough. The last thing we need is our parents telling us there's something wrong with us too. As teens, we're growing into our own young adult selves, and we can only do that successfully when we have some sort of support."

The Bottom Line

Being curious about pornography is normal, and now oh so accessible online. But there's a fair amount of data revealing how the content can set up both males and females for having unrealistic expectations about sex. When viewed excessively, it can also have negative consequences for future adult relationships, even creating risk for sexual dysfunction.

So, after recovering from another reminder that your teen is no longer your baby, remind yourself of your mission to raise a happy and healthy young adult. This includes preparing them for meaningful and respectful adult relationships, which does involve sex. One of your jobs is to teach them that this is not the same as porn sex. Even if you have to freak out first.

Submit your parenting questions to 'Ask Your Mom' columnist Emily here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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