Article by Stefanie Armstrong, MS, LIMHP:  “Ahhh. this is going to be so nice…I’m going to fold clothes and watch a documentary (one of my most favorite things to do).  It’s going to be a relaxing afternoon.”  Can you tell that I enjoy even the simplest of things?  As I opened up the Netflix app I was stunned to find under the “continue watching for Stefanie” a list of shows like “Hot Girls Wanted” and “Love Seen” and to find that these shows have been almost finished!  I immediately panicked and searched my brain for the reasons: maybe someone else had our account password, maybe my husband decided to watch these, maybe someone took one of the tablets (a cousin or friend of one of the boys) and watched these shows.  And maybe (this was last on my list) one of my boys ages 10, 9 and 4 was watching these….my stomach sank and dismissed this and went back to, “well maybe it was my husband.” I was not going to believe it was one of my kids.  I’m pretty sure I know what you are thinking right now: “Isn’t she naïve!” Well, my response: I like to think I’m hopeful!  But, there I was rationalizing this in my mind. I just couldn’t make sense of it as Mike and I don’t watch these things together and he has never had this desire.  That sinking pit began to grow…it may be one of my kids.

So when my husband came home from work, I asked him calmly, and of course his answer was not what I wanted.  It was, NO!  He said it had to be one of the cousins who often come to visit. Yes, it appears that he, too, is just as naïve as I!  I began to get very nervous.  As a child mental health therapist, this was a nightmare for me.  I know what happens when children’s minds are exposed too early to inappropriate images.

As a former school counselor, I have some pretty amazing questioning skills. One of my jobs was to investigate such issues as who threw the pickles on the ceiling of the cafeteria and who put shaving cream on the mirrors in the boys’ bathroom.  I learned that the best investigative method was to present the infraction to the group of possible offenders and then separate the possible offenders and question them individually.  So when my 3 boys arrived home from school, I turned on my school counselor self and sadly discovered that my middle son, the one who seemed to have inherited all of the most challenging qualities carried by my husband and me, was the offender.

“Mom you know those pictures of girls that Uncle Jim has hanging in his garage?” Isaac asked me with huge crocodile tears welling up in his eyes. “My brain just got addicted to those pictures and I just had to watch the girls kissing. One half of my brain was telling me it was wrong and the other half of my brain was telling me to do it. It was just so hard to stop.”

At this point, full realization hit, and I realized that my son’s amazing, naïve and well-protected (or so I thought) mind had been exposed.  Crocodile tears began to come over me.

He began to question me: “Mom are you going to ground me from my tablet? Mom are you mad? Mom are you ever going to let me play with my tablet again?”  And on and on….he was so scared that he was going to be in trouble. And that’s when I stopped and asked myself, “What’s going to teach him that this is wrong?”

  1. Ground him from his tablet until further notice.
  2. Tell him he is grounded from marshmallows for one week.
  3. Make him sit in his room alone and “think” about what he’s done.
  4. Raise my voice, “I can’t believe you did this. You know better! Do mommy and daddy watch these things?  Do we EVER allow you to watch anything over PG?  Haven’t we discussed appropriate things to watch and what not to?”
  5. Ground him all weekend to his room.
  6. All of the above.
  7. Or…..talk to him, use words, and attune to his feelings of “being addicted.” Discuss what that means and tell him how important his brain is to me and how important it is that his brain not be exposed to things that are not safe for anyone’s brain.

I chose #7…..not because I am a therapist, but because I know that using my sadness and anger to punish him would not teach him that our relationship is more important than those inappropriate images and that I can be with him through the hard times when his brain gets “addicted.”  I want to teach him that he can come to me when his life is confusing, and we will problem-solve, not blame and shame.

So we made a plan that I would put the parental controls on the Netflix (I cannot believe I didn’t do this before), his daddy and I will be more aware of his tablet time, and we will check on him to make sure his brain doesn’t get drawn in again to things that are not healthy for his brain and his body. At the end of our talk, we hugged and said “I love you,” and he trotted away asking for two marshmallows.  I said yes, not because I was rewarding his behavior, but because our talk was hard work and he loves marshmallows.

–Stefanie Armstrong, MS, LIMHP

Clinical Commentary:

Our emotions related to our children’s sexuality and potential exposure to sexual images and experiences can lead us to react to their behaviors in ways that punish, shame, and shut the door to communication, teaching, and problem-solving opportunities.  We cannot help our children navigate through the world of technology and sexuality if we have a relationship that is disconnected.  A punitive approach leads children to become more secretive and shut down to the guidance of the adults in their world, leaving them to manage in isolation.  When we can remain emotionally present, we strengthen our influence during these critical moments of our child’s development.

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