Now that we have covered the basics on how to approach difficult conversations with our kids (see previous article A Conversation: 5 Helpful Helpful Hints on How To Have Difficult Conversation With Your Kid) we can start to gain some language around specific topics. Due to developmental differences in processing information I have categories these topics into two age groups. Children (ages 5-11) and Teens (ages 12-17). It’s important to use age appropriate terms, questions and explanations when approaching topics that may cause stress for your child.
Many people reading this article will think that talking with your young child (5-10) is not necessary and maybe even inappropriate. In my experience as a therapist, this is now a necessary topic to discuss with our children due to their access to devices (phones, ipads, computers) often alone in their rooms, the back of the vehicles, at school or at childcare. Research now tells us that the average child who sees pornography for the first time is six years old. Yes. That is correct. Age 6. Grade one.
Keep in mind. Children at this age do not seek out pornography. They are exposed to it in indirect and accidental ways. When children access a search browser (such as google) and type in a phrase (example: apple pie, milk and cookies…) invasive sexual images may appear. Many games will have pop up videos that circulate on the edges of the screen, and sometimes older friends will share images or videos they have seen. Children are not naturally attracted to sexually explicit content at this age, and when they encounter it they do not know how to process it on their own.
For the elementary age we want to approach this conversation with sensitivity and openness. Initiate this conversation when no one else is around. Try having one parent approach this topic and not both, to avoid the feeling that the subject is very serious and overwhelming.
Children do not have the language to express what they have seen, and often do not know that what they have seen makes many adults uncomfortable. Instead of asking directing if they have seen pornography (they will not know what this means) start slow, with no expectations.
Conversation starter example:
“Have you ever seen anything on the computer/ipad/telephone/tv (choose the one your child accesses the most) that makes you feel uncomfortable? Like, a squishy tummy, or surprised or weird?”
“What do you mean?”
Your child might give you a blank stare or leave the room. If this happens take it as a sign they are very uncomfortable (flight response) and gently re-approach the subject in a day or two.
If your child response with ‘what do you mean?’ repeat the question. Maybe add, “like someone might have not had clothes on”.
If your child responds with ‘yes’, stay calm. Do not try to gain all the details, or place blame on anyone. Ask your child what it was like for them to have seen this and just listen to their experience. Then make a brief plan about how to protect them from this in the future.
I recommend not allowing children in this age range to be alone with a device. Instead make it a rule that they must be in a public space when on a device. This means Netflix or Minecraft is not viewed in rooms with closed doors or where an adult is not walking by. Second, I would advise software that blocks and reports sexually explicit material, as research indicates elementary aged children encounter less invasive material when blocks are in place. Keep in mind that online blocks do not completely protect your child and this conversation needs to continue.
Your goal is to create a safe and open atmosphere where your child can come to you and process difficult issues. Try to avoid blame, showing discomfort, and finding out all the details. Instead, ask a few questions but give lots of space (silence) for the child to share and process in his or her own way.
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