Protecting kids from harmful media can feel like playing Whack-a-Mole. In case you are too young to remember this arcade game, the basic idea is to hit as many “moles” as you can before they hide back in their hole. When one goes away, more pop up! While whacking elusive moles is loads of fun, keeping kids safe from harm in an ever-changing media world is exhausting and mind-boggling. Just when you think you’ve cleared out all the potential avenues for dangerous content, another one rears its ugly head.
Unfortunately, it’s not if, but when your child will be exposed to pornography. As hard as we try to ferret out every “mole”, there will be times when our children are away from us and we can’t monitor what they see. Their friends may have devices without protections and restrictions. Sometimes just looking at billboards while driving down the road or walking in the mall can seem hazardous.
Develop a safety strategy
Even schools may not be as safe as we wish. Both of my daughters were exposed to pornographic images while doing research for school projects. They were on school computers protected by filtered Wi-Fi.
Even though they couldn’t un-see what they encountered, they both turned away from the porn and told a teacher and me. They engaged immediately in another activity to take their minds off the disturbing images. Our family followed up with the school to decrease the chance of this happening again. We helped our kids with the questions and concerns they had as they processed through what had happened.
Why did they turn to us and follow the safety strategies we had in place, even when they felt embarrassed? Two reasons: One—we already had several conversations about porn before these situations happened. Two—we made it clear to them that if they ever saw anything that made them feel bad about what they had seen, we were a safe place for them to come to talk about it. This tone in our family dynamics reduced the shame that comes from viewing porn. While it didn’t diminish the shock they felt, they had a plan of action to put in motion.
Overcoming shame with empathy
Many kids will feel shame when they encounter pornography—whether it was intentional or by accident. This shame will motivate them to try to keep their encounters a secret. As parents, it’s crucial to reduce the shame around pornography so that our children can have the opposite response—to come towards us instead of running away from us. How do we become a safe place for our kids about topics as hard as pornography?
Tip 1. Make your house a “no shame zone.”
I used to think that in order to get my kids to stop doing something, I needed to make them feel really bad about what they had done. Somehow, I thought my disapproval would be enough motivation to stop whatever behavior I wanted to snuff out. But since one of the “side-effects” of shaming is that it makes people want to hide and keep secrets, we must be aware of how we handle negative behavior.
Why the hiding? Shame is a self-conscious emotion that makes us feel that we are unworthy, inadequate, and disconnected. We don’t want others to reject us, so we hide the shameful behavior. So no matter what behaviors our children exhibit, it’s important to separate what they’ve done from who they are.
Shame says, “ I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.” We want our children to know that engaging in pornography on purpose is harmful and that they can change their actions. We can label their actions without labeling their identity. It’s hard to have the motivation to make good choices when you think of yourself as “bad.” But when kids can separate their identity from their actions, they are empowered to make better choices next time.
Tip 2. Use empathy as an antidote to shame.
Empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Even if you never shame your kids, they may engage in self-shaming. They might think that because they saw something “dirty,” it means they are now dirty.
When we empathize with our children, they feel that we understand what it must feel like to be them in the situation. When someone is empathetic to us, it teaches us we are not alone. As we sense compassion towards us, we have a model for how to have compassion for ourselves.
Parents are in a unique position to be “emotion coaches” to their kids, teaching them how to have empathy for themselves and others. You can do this by helping kids express what they are feeling, validating their feelings (even negative ones!), and talking about the cause and effects of these emotions.
Empathy sounds like:
- I am so sorry you ran across that during your research project. I bet that was really confusing for you. When those pop-ups flew up, it’s understandable that you felt really scared and unsure of what to do.
- It’s natural for you to have sexual feelings. It’s how you were wired to work and there’s are good reasons you have them. Pornography, though, exploits those feelings and makes it hard for you to have real relationships later on down the road. Let’s work together on a plan to keep you safe.
- I can understand that when your friend showed you those videos on his device you didn’t know what to say. It can be hard to speak up for yourself when you’re afraid to hurt your friend’s feelings or you don’t want them to think certain things about you. Let’s brainstorm some ways you can cope with this situation if you run into it again.
Tip 3. Handle your own shame with empathy out in the open.
Sometimes as parents we fall into the trap that we need to appear perfect. We think our kids won’t respect us if we show weakness or imperfection. In reality, when we don’t talk about our mistakes, we are communicating that the goal in life is to seem perfect outside while trying to hide the imperfection inside.
The problem is the “imperfect” eventually eats away at us and we become overwhelmed by its presence. This is true for both adults and children. Our kids need us to model healthy ways to deal with failure, temptation, and mistakes.
This may mean that at the dinner table, you talk about a presentation at work that you’re boss didn’t like. Instead of calling yourself a bad name, you share some ways you’re going to do better next time. Maybe you’ll set aside more time for a project or ask a team member for help. Your kids will learn that grown-ups face challenges and solve their problems with courage and self-compassion. It affirms to your child that part of your job as a parent is to help then navigate tricky situations and come alongside them no matter the situation.
Tip 4. Help kids cultivate empathy for others.
Your kids might like the idea of “zooming in and out.” This means to “help children learn to zoom in, tuning in carefully to others, but also to zoom out, taking in multiple perspectives and people.”
Help your kids “try on” the perspectives of different people involved in a given situation. You can take any personal, cultural, or world event and discuss it from different viewpoints.
If you have older kids, talking through how vulnerable women and children get trapped into the porn industry or sex trafficking can help them see the devastation that goes on in the industry. Some tweens and teens are very justice-minded and the unfairness and cruelty of sexual exploitation can be a motivation to reject pornography.
Part of developing empathy for others simply boils down to this: understanding the why and how to care for those around them. This is a powerful quality to help kids be more resilient to pornography, because they will be more aware of the way it harms others.
Remember, empathy lets your children know you hear them, you’re with them, and you accept them, no matter what the circumstances. It signals that you will respond with love without shaming them. Cultivating empathy for others also helps them recognize that porn is harmful, not just for them, but for others. The more kids understand empathy while navigating hard situations, the more they will have self-compassion, making them less likely to escape into pornography to hide from their own failures and inadequacies.
Want to try an experiment today? Look for an opportunity to respond to your child with empathy, and we’ll bet that they will feel your love and care in a powerful way!
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