How should I respond if my child sees pornography? This is an important question I am asked often as a counselor. For the purpose of this article, however, I want to ask the question in a slightly different way that I feel is more helpful, or at least more accurate, to many parents’ experiences.
“How should I respond when my child sees pornography?”
Instead of if, let’s say when. It’s a slight change but most likely the reason you are reading this article. Reframing the question this way helps you as a parent be prepared for what will likely be your reality as you raise your children in this digital age.
Whether it is an accidental glimpse of an image, a classmate sharing something on their phone, or a curious search on their own phone, laptop, or tablet, your child will likely see porn. Pornography is readily available, and sadly, statistics tell us that the average age of the first exposure to porn is just 11 years old. In most cases, this happens in the child’s own home. As a parent, your response when this happens is very important. In light of that, allow me to offer one more reframe.
When your child sees pornography, instead of considering the situation a crisis, see it is an opportunity to shepherd your child. It may be an opportunity you wish you could avoid and never had, but, like many moments in parenting, this situation can lead you to deeper dependence on the Lord for wisdom, discernment, and grace. Though you may experience many emotions — saddened that your child has been preyed upon by such a wicked industry, scared of how this experience may affect your child, and angry that this is your new reality — I urge you to prayerfully see the chance you have to turn for good what the world means for evil. As a parent, you can use this as a teaching opportunity, a gospel opportunity, and an opportunity for change.
A teaching opportunity
When you find your son or daughter has viewed or was shown pornography, you have an opportunity to teach and guide them biblically about sexuality. Teach them about the sinfulness of our hearts and minds and the need to submit desires to God’s good plan (James 1:14; Psalm 25:4-5).
It’s an opportunity for you to teach your child about their own sexuality and God’s good design for sex. Talking to kids about anything related to sex can be uncomfortable. Often, parents feel unsure of what to say or how much to explain. Sometimes they worry about sharing too much. Other times, they wonder if their kids know more than they realize.
The best way to talk to your kids about sex is to talk early and often. Avoid making the conversation a one-time event. Instead, let these talks be short, intentional, and as often or regular as needed. One-time, event-like talks tend to create an environment where sex is talked about once and never again.
Help them to understand that sex is God’s design, and having an interest or curiosity about the subject doesn’t mean they are bad. It means they are human. Avoid conversations that communicate that sexual interest is bad. Instead guide them in understanding that sex has a God-designed, proper place. Teach them God’s plan for sex within marriage between a husband and a wife; these two things always go together (Hebrews 13:4), and that God sets wise and loving parameters around sex for our good and the good of others.
Instruct them in what it means to honor God with their desires and their bodies — and what it means to honor others’ bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). Teach your child what are appropriate and inappropriate pictures; this includes pictures they see of others or have taken of themselves. It is an opportunity to teach them about the incredible value people have as image-bearers and how we should never use other people — or pictures of them — in ways that do not honor them or the God who made them (Gen. 1:27; Psa. 139:4; Rom. 12:10).
A gospel opportunity
This is also a gospel opportunity. The hope and forgiveness of Christ meets us in our sin, and you have an amazing occasion to bring this gospel to your child when you find out they have viewed pornography. The fact that porn even exists shows just how far our hearts have strayed from the Lord and reminds us of how much we all need Jesus.
Communicate to them that pornography is a sin, and like other sins, it points directly to our need for Jesus. Viewing pornography is not an unforgiveable sin, but it reveals a need for cleansing, and we are all offered that freely in Jesus.
Whether your child saw pornography willingly or accidentally, it is an opportunity for you to remind them of the forgiveness we have in Jesus. People who make or engage in porn can have their sins totally forgiven. And children who curiously explored pornography can also find abundant grace from God when they confess and repent. Remind them of the promise of 1 John 1:9 that says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The kindness of God is available for all who turn to him.
An opportunity for change
Finally, when your child sees porn, it is also an opportunity for change. As Christian parents, we pray the first and most significant change is spiritual. If your child has not trusted Christ, then a new heart born of his Spirit is their first need. And, if your child is a believer, this is an opportunity for them to draw near to Jesus in places in their lives that may have been kept hidden until now. It opens the door to a new and deeper commitment to repentance and following God in their life. If your child’s relationship with the Lord has been indifferent or superficial, pray for heart change to come about as a result of the discovery or confession of pornography. The Lord uses discoveries like this to draw people out of darkness and into his marvelous, healing light (Psa. 32:3-5; 1 Pet. 2:9).
Christian parents long for God to use situations like this to bring deep internal transformation in the heart of their child. While heart change is the most important goal, finding out your child has viewed porn is also an opportunity to make needed external change.
Consider this as an opportunity to begin evaluating or implementing family parameters around screen use. Is your home internet service secured with protection and filtering against pornographic content? Consider installing software to help secure your network and devices (Some examples include Covenant Eyes or Circle.).
Other needed changes may be where your child uses their Wi-Fi-enabled devices and how much time they are allowed to spend on them. Educate yourself on what are healthy limits, and start implementing them. There are websites and agencies designed to help parents navigate this. The Federal Communications Commission and other government agencies have valuable resources to help parents keep kids safe and guide them in setting reasonable limits.
You can also pick up a copy of two small books I have written for parents on the topics of sex and screens. Raising Teens in a Hyper-Sexualized World helps parents of elementary, preteens, and teens have conversations about the messages of sex that bombard kids today. Raising Kids in a Screen-Saturated World provides helpful tips for bringing wise and managable balance to screen use.
But finally, when you find yourself asking the questions, “What should I do when my child sees porn,” remember: it is an opportunity for you to lean more desperately on the Lord as you parent. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, even when your heart is discouraged, afraid, or confused. Don’t lean on your own understanding, but prayerfully seek him for guidance, and he will direct your path (Prov. 3:5-6).
God can redeem even the most heartbreaking situations and use them for good. Look to him, and prayerfully depend on him as you use this situation as a teaching opportunity, a gospel opportunity, and an opportunity for change.