How to talk about sexting with your tween or teen

by Parent Co. June 17, 2015

picture of three people holding cell phones

Sexting. Some parents have difficulty just saying the word, never mind admitting that their child might – just might – be participating in it. Our sweet, innocent 3rd and 4th graders have suddenly become tweens and teens, and they are growing up in a world very different than the one most of us grew up in – a world surrounded by technology. These kiddos can receive immediate, accurate answers to academic questions or link classrooms and share poems with students in Ghana and Kansas. They can keep up with their distant their grandparents each week via Skype. But this invaluable technology has also introduced our children to texting, social media, YouTube, cyberbullying and yes, even sexting. With the awesome comes the icky. As parents we can stay in denial and try to convince ourselves that we have the ability to protect our kids from Internet dangers like sexting, or we can get educated, grab our courage and meet our kids where they already are – smartphone in hand. Contrary to popular belief, technology is NOT the problem. The problem is our lack of preparation around this issue. It’s the lack of intelligent conversation we have with our kids and our fear of the unknown. Remember, our job as parents is to teach, prepare and work alongside our kids as they learn to navigate the world of technology filled with all the pluses and minuses. Parents come to me confused on how to handle the issues surrounding their tween/teen and technology. This subject often either leads to power struggles between parents and their kids that negatively impact their relationship. Then, the entire topic of responsible technology use gets lost in the mix of fighting and battling. It can even lead to an “if you can’t beat them, give up and let them” attitude with no structure, conversation or boundaries in place. It’s not unusual for me to ask a room full of concerned parents “What do you know about your child to ensure that you have set up a structure that will work for her?” Silence. “Uh, structure?” Often the story is, “My son turned 13, and all he wanted was a phone. All of his friends have them, and he was dying for his own so he could text and stay connected. Now, just a few months later, it’s a mess. The phone bill is sky high, he’s on the screen all the time, he’s neglecting homework and family. It’s a nightmare.” Okay. Let’s back this bus up a bit and see if an analogy will make it clear where we get tripped up. Before handing someone the keys to a car, which person has:
  • Reached a certain age.
  • Passed drivers education.
  • Practiced driving for hours with an experienced driver.
  • Proven they can handle the responsibility of paying for a car or gas.
Right? And even if parents are scared to death that their son or daughter will get in a serious accident, we can’t stop them. We know this, and so we accept it. We prepare our kids, and we prepare ourselves for the inevitable. We don’t fight against it – we work with it. And that is what makes the difference. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when it comes to preparing our kids to handle technology. In many cases, parents skip those steps and go right to the “car” – then realize that their child may not have the necessary skills to adequately navigate the tricky terrain of internet use. When parents can reframe the idea of technology and create a plan for preparing themselves and their kids for its inevitable arrival, everyone wins. With a specific concern like sexting, the situation becomes a bit more serious and, as a result, a parent’s fear factor increases. The idea of talking openly and frequently with kids about sex is tough enough; now we are forced to combine sex and technology in the same conversation. No wonder parents are sidelining these conversations until they can no longer avoid them. Here’s the thing, no matter what you do to prevent it, there is a strong likelihood that your child will either sext someone or receive a sext from someone. The goal is to come to terms with this and do what you need to do as a parent to prepare yourself so you can discuss the situation openly and honestly with your child. Include technology in the conversations you have with your children about healthy and unhealthy relationships – sexual and not sexual. If you aren’t comfortable talking about the topic, how do you expect your child to open up and talk to you about it? Our kids need to know we have the confidence to tackle any difficult conversation with love, respect, and understanding. Here are a few tips to make the process easier.
  1. First, do what it takes to find the courage, to talk with your tween/teen about the various scenarios that might come up and how she/he might handle them.
  2. Ask questions. Find out about your teen’s cyber IQ. How tech savvy is she? Does she realize once something gets out there in cyberspace you cannot get it back? Or does she really think that once the image disappears from Snapchat it is gone for good?
  3. Work in other areas of life with your child to ensure that he has the tools to navigate tricky subjects. Does he accept responsibility? Does he value himself and others? Does he practice empathy and respect? Does he crave attention and long to fit in?
  4. Come to fair and reasonable guidelines with your child around technology use and include sexting in the conversation. Have a plan and stick to it.
  5. Remember your kids need to know they can trust you. Following through on an agreement demonstrates this. They may be mad at first, but the bigger message is – you do what you say, which means you can be trusted.
  6. Respect your child’s privacy. Have faith in your child’s ability to keep the agreements. This doesn’t mean turn a blind eye to what is going on, but it does mean that you don’t have an app that sends all your children’s texts to your phone, too. Finding out what is on your teen’s cell phone is about trust and respect.
Demonstrating that you understanding that being a teen is hard enough; Let your child know that you understand and that the added element of technology, social media, and sexting is one that you didn’t have to figure out when you were 12, 14, and 17-years-old. If you focus on those aspects of the relationship, your teen will invite you in – on her terms. And it’s more than just saying that you’re there if they need you. If your child does get in trouble, it is what you do next that matters most.


Parent Co.

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