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When You Discover Your Child Is Viewing Pornography: Insights from a Therapist

For more resources to help individuals and loved ones impacted by pornography use, visit ChurchofJesusChrist.org/addressing-pornography.

It’s a common experience: I’m sitting in my dimly lit therapy office, me on my chair with a parent and a child on the plump leather loveseat. The parent is nervously explaining what they’ve discovered about their child’s pornography use while the child is staring at the Safavieh rug, hoping to disappear in its intricate patterns.

Frequently the question arises, “So, is this an addiction?” Parents and kids want to know. Or rather, they hope I agree with their preconceived opinion on the matter. These issues are scary, so I ache for the families that find themselves here. But I also ache for a different way of looking at the situation. A way of looking more like the Savior seemed to.

The Wisdom of Jesus

Jesus was always sharing disruptive stories. I love that about Him. Stories like a “householder” paying all his laborers the same wage, regardless of how long they’d worked (see Matthew 20:1-16). Or taking the uninvested talent from the poorest steward and giving it to the richest (see Matthew 15:14-30). Why not equally distribute the wealth?

Paul understood Jesus’s wisdom well, which often looks illogical at first glance. “Let no man deceive himself,” Paul wrote. “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (Corinthians 3:19). It can be easy for us to forget that our instincts don’t always serve us.

Take, for example, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican:

 “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:9-12).

On paper, this Pharisee is looking pretty good. He’s avoiding the bad deeds and pursuing the good. But Jesus wasn’t too impressed.

“And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

The wisdom of the world measures righteousness behaviorally. How bad was the sin? How often does it happen? It’s not that these things are unimportant; it’s just that Christ was always measuring things from the heart, not necessarily the outward behaviors.

So what would it look like if we took this same heart-based approach with our children as it relates to pornography?

Changing the Question

Scientific research is catching up with Christian wisdom—it’s clear that pornography can be toxic. So it makes sense that when we discover that one of our children has accessed pornography, the immediate question is “How bad is this? Is my child addicted, or is this just a habit?”

The distinction between addiction and habit seems to be incredibly important at that moment. And I can’t say that the severity of the problem is unimportant. The severity of pornography use and the role pornography plays in a child’s life has a huge impact on brain development, agency, emotional regulation, relationships, and spirituality.

As a clinician, I do assess for severity and for impact. But when I counsel parents of kids and teens, “addiction versus habit” is not the distinction that matters most. If I imagine Jesus sitting down with a teen at the foot of their bed asking about the pornography, the conversation I imagine doesn’t sound like the standard check-in. “How long? How often? How could you?” Instead, I think He may have had a more heart-focused discussion. “Will you share your burden with me? Can I serve you? I’m here to help; what do you need?”

The invitation here is for us as parents to focus less on the severity of problems and focus more on another metric—openness. Remember, the publican probably had more severe problems than the Pharisee, more sins. But he was also redeemed because he was open and humble. The Pharisee was closed and prideful, leading to his condemnation despite having “smaller problems.” Determining whether or not our child is technically addicted doesn’t really affect our parenting approach. If they are addicted, we need to help as best we can. If they aren’t addicted, we’ll still help as best we can. Since parents are in a support role the question that will most impact parenting style is “Are they open?” If so, we’ll witness their experience then collaborate solutions. If not, we’ll bond.

If They’re Open, Witness Then Collaborate

Openness, as we’re discussing it here, is simply the ability to acknowledge a problem and talk about it with others in a real way. You’ll know whether or not your child is open because when you lovingly bring up pornography use, you can access their hearts—their feelings, their inner world—or you can’t access them much at all. An open child may feel embarrassed and uncomfortable, but they won’t run away, attack, or shut down.

The first step here is to witness your child’s experience. Step into compassionate curiosity and simply ask gentle questions, then listen. The goal here is to understand and empathize with your child’s inner experience of pornography. Listen to their conflicting emotions. Listen to their justifications. Listen to their bad ideas, mistaken beliefs, and righteous aspirations. Listen as they try to make sense of this confusing topic.

Now, even with an open child, they’ll rarely provide a 20-minute monologue on their sexual development. Don’t focus on huge conversations unless that’s a natural communication style for the two of you. Instead, seek out small moments, little comments that illuminate your understanding of their experience.

After you’ve spent patient time feeling out your child’s inner life, they may indicate that they feel understood and loved by you. They’ll lean into you, their emotions will smooth over, they’ll murmur a “thanks” when they’re finished talking. Once you’ve arrived at this stage, you can start to offer your gentle influence.

An open child will be receptive to suggestions and will engage when you ask questions like, “What’s the best way to slow down the pornography use?” Or, “Sounds like loneliness is a big theme here. How can we help you with that?” Let them propose their own solutions but nudge and advise here and there. If they start shooting down your ideas or try to evade the conversation then you’ve gone too fast. Like approaching an unfamiliar horse (or hippogryph, for that matter), go slow. If they spook, go back; go slower.

As you work in this way with an open child, you’ll find that over long years they begin to mature, gain strength, and effectively overcome problems. This issue is rarely overcome through miracle cures. It’s more often slow growth, like an oak.

If They’re Closed, Bond

The truth of the matter is that most children and teens are not open, at least not about sexual matters. If you can’t get two words out about pornography before your kid leaves, shouts, tells obvious lies, or enters a comatose state while you lecture, just know that you’re not alone. Many of us also avoided these discussions with our parents.

If this is the case for you, I’d encourage you to shift your focus away from stopping the pornography and instead center on bonding with your child. Leave pornography on the back burner and go back to the basics here.

What does bonding look like? Imagine you’re at your favorite Mexican restaurant and your child has several bottles of salsa—mild, medium, and hot. Teens will usually test people out by giving them the mild stuff first. How well can you take it? If you can handle it, they’ll give you the medium salsa. If you gag, express distaste, or cry, they’ll switch back to mild or nothing at all. If you can take the medium salsa with a bit of grace and even fun then they’ll bring out the really hot stuff.

Mild salsa first. At a rudimentary level, it’s finding a way to spend time together and to get to know each other at the day-to-day level. Find shared activities or hobbies. Play, laugh, and joke if you can. Learn about their day. Ask about their interests and friends and then give zero judgment.

Even these basic conversations may seem hard for some, so start with just taking them out for a burger, and don’t fight in the process. Maybe you start by working fewer late nights so you can just clock more hours with them and be present.

Some of you already have this foundation in place and can focus on deeper bonding by listening to their feelings about topics that are less threatening than pornography but that still carry some risk, perhaps friendships, political or religious views, or their life ambitions. This is the medium salsa, and if you can handle it without sermons or pious judgments, they may eventually bring out the hottest salsa they have, including their sexual issues.

Now, some families will work their way through this mild emotional material, then the medium, and ultimately the child will become more open about their sexual development. However, some kids will simply never go there. But if that’s the case, at least in the meantime you’re building as much relationship as possible rather than pushing them away even further.

Return to the Heart

Parenting is no joke. It can be among our greatest challenges, in fact. And we’ll all have our share of parenting fails. We can end up too controlling, too distant, too angry, too passive—maybe we’re all of those within a single bedtime. But at least when we recognize that we’re off track we can always return to the heart—a simple prayer, some meditation, time with the Spirit. We can recenter and refocus on our kids’ hearts, seeing things from their eyes. This typically involves focusing less on behaviors and more on their inner state and the quality of the relationship. “For the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1

Samuel 16:7).

As we look on the heart, we’ll be following the Savior’s disruptive logic and we’ll be following the example of our Father in Heaven. And what better aim could we have as parents?

For more resources to help individuals and loved ones impacted by pornography use, visit ChurchofJesusChrist.org/addressing-pornography.

Lead image from Getty Images
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