If you have a teenager it’s just a matter of time until you have to deal with sexting in some form. This morning in a Facebook parenting group I read the gazillionth post which basically said “Help! My teenager is sending inappropriate pictures online! What do I do?!” Cue the concerned parents with their endless lists of spyware devices and apps. And then there’s me, with my lone little voice, disagreeing with the masses.
To clarify, I certainly think that parental controls have their place. We have the Disney Circle device and it’s one of the best purchases we’ve ever made for our family. Our older teens have their own phones and their schools give them ipads. Our younger kids (3 through 11) have no phones or ipads. We have one shared Kindle for the household and it’s stored in my bedroom, completely locked down, and used very sparingly (usually in therapy waiting rooms). We are not a permissive household when it comes to technology.
However, when a child is quickly approaching adulthood, our priorities as parents shift from controlling their environment to stepping back and trusting that we’ve done our job of building a strong moral foundation within our child. And yes, despite my best parenting efforts, our family has dealt with it’s share of sexting and other inappropriate online shenanigans.
I’m going to share with you my unique response to the sexting craze. Please note that in the specific question to which I was responding, the child was 17 years old. My advice would be very different with a younger teen. But at 17, our children are nearly adults. As we all know, adulthood does not automatically null and void all parental interaction or expectation. But it does grant certain freedoms when out and about in the world, which must be taken into account when parenting an older teen.
It’s also worth noting that that this advice was given by me as the mama of children who’ve experienced trauma, and it was originally intended for other parents of children who’ve experienced trauma. You’ll notice some references to that known history of trauma. So tweak these words as needed for your own situation, but I believe strongly that this approach works regardless of background.
“I have a very different approach to this that most will probably disagree with. But it’s worked wonders in our family. At 17 your daughter is old enough to figure out how to get around any parental guidance or oversight. When our daughters were 17 they would either buy their own phone or friends would give them old phones that they would hide from us to use on wifi – if not home wifi then somewhere else.
With our oldest daughter we tried all kinds of things to control her phone and internet use and it all backfired. With time I learned to accept that at 17 there are some things I simply can’t control. It’s basically the teenage version of a toddler who decides not to eat a certain food or a 1st grader who swears. There’s not much I can do ultimately. So instead I fall back on the relationship.
We have a conversation. ‘Hey sweetie, I think we need to have an uncomfortable conversation. But first, I want you to know that I understand you’re growing up and I can’t control everything you do. I can’t make your choices for you. You’re not getting in trouble. There won’t be a consequence from me. This is just a conversation. I saw the snapchat photos you sent. It seemed scary to me that you’d make yourself that vulnerable to people you don’t know very well. I wonder if you did that to get those men to notice you and like you. After everything you’ve been through in life it would make sense that you want their attention. Sex certainly does grab attention, especially from men. And it probably makes you feel very powerful – you’ve felt so powerless in so many scary situations that I can see why you’d want to use sex to feel powerful now. But this can also be dangerous – it puts your safety at risk when men you don’t know are only thinking about your body and not your mind, when they don’t have the opportunity to get to know you as a person. I’m also worried that someday you may regret sharing so much of yourself with so many people. Once those photos are out there you can’t get them back. Some day you may find a special man to have a really meaningful relationship with, and you might regret that you shared such intimate parts of yourself so freely with these other men. I wonder if there are other ways for you to feel powerful and make relationships with people in a safer and less intimate way. You are an amazing person and you don’t need to do this to make people like you. Of course this is your choice, but I love you and I hope you know how valuable you are.'”
My final piece of advice: If this is too hard to say in person leave a note in their room or – better yet – send an online message. Never be afraid to use technology to your advantage! Teens can’t resist the urge to read a private/direct message.
Jasmine is foster parent in the Chicago ‘burbs. She and her husband currently have seven kids living at home including their biological, adopted, and foster children. Follow Jasmine’s Facebook page Close To Home to see more of their everyday adventures.
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