With the advent of the Internet, parents are finding it increasingly difficult to shield their children from pornography. Now, in addition to the exposure kids might encounter from classmates who borrowed one of their father's magazines, most school-age children and adolescents are spending large amounts of time online for homework or entertainment reasons. Attorney General John Ashcroft has estimated that nine in ten teens have been exposed to pornography. Unfortunately, many of these teens are susceptible to developing addictions or compulsions to these images.
The term "addict" may seem severe. Most parents will initially minimize the problem, hoping their son or daughter is simply "experimenting." Experience has taught me that, in many cases, at least one of the parents will have faced similar struggles when he or she was younger. Today, however, Internet pornography is the fast ramp to sex addiction. Coupled with a greater moral decay in the culture and the fact that children's minds are still are still in the process of developing to maturity, addiction can happen quicker than we parents like to think.
Not long ago, I was a guest on Focus on the Family's teen call-in radio show Life on the Edge Live! During the hour, several adolescents called in to discuss sexual integrity. Even having previously treated adolescent addicts, I was surprised that the first four callers identified themselves as sex addicts – three of which were females.
My own practice and experiences such as those on the call-in show demonstrate that the problems of teenage pornography and sex addictions are real, devastating, and increasing. When faced with their teen's struggle, most parents don't know where to begin to get their child the help he or she needs.
In many situations, the first reaction is to determine who is to blame within the family. It is important to realize, however, that bad things still happen to good families. This does not absolve certain parties from taking responsibility where it is needed. Everyone needs to take ownership of his or her piece of the puzzle.
For example, parents need to ask if they have provided a comprehensive sex education that truly equipped their child with the winsome truth expounded in the Bible. Setting proper foundations for understanding a Christian sexual ethic is a crucial step in protecting children from later sexual disorder.
Parents will also want to re-evaluate the types and amounts of media they have allowed in the home. People tend to absorb the messages that bombard them in popular media; more so with teens and young children. What have your children been listening to and watching? Is their media reinforcing respectful messages about sexuality and the dignity of the person, or is it working to erode these foundational principles in your child's mind?
Another often-overlooked problem is the sad reality of sex abuse. Most sex addicts have suffered sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and treatment of sex abuse is foundational to overcoming sex addiction.
The adolescent addict also has areas of responsibility. Has he or she been honest about the sexual struggles? Have there been other excesses like alcohol or drugs? Has a peer or perhaps an adult been a bad influence? Most important of all, has the adolescent made a full disclosure to his parents so that the family can become equipped to deal with sex addiction?
Parents need to realize that their teen is likely suffering from extreme shame and embarrassment. Authoritarian dictates are not likely to encourage your child to open up and share the extent of his or her struggles. Compassionate love and understanding, such as Jesus demonstrated to the woman caught in adultery, is likely to help your child feel safe enough to disclose the full story.
Many families will already have experienced serious communication breakdown with their teens. How parents approach their teen in this situation will likely determine whether unhealthy patterns of communications will continue to disrupt and frustrate the relationship or whether a new foundation of openness, trust, and safety can be built and sustained throughout the struggle.
What to expect
Parents will need to remind themselves that they are often prone to minimizing what they know or suspect to be the truth. Parents also need to realize the resistance they will encounter from their teen. Most addicts, regardless of age, will deny their struggle. They may even shift the blame and become verbally aggressive. Others may agree immediately that they have sinned or hurt others, and promise too quickly that they will never do it again. Getting caught hardly changes the heart.
Of course, it's to be expected that everyone will feel awkward, maybe even embarrassed. Regardless of the discomfort, however, when there is evidence of illicit sexual behavior and possible addiction, parents have to take the lead.