On Your Mind: He was looking at women online

onyourmind“I recently walked into my 14-year-old son’s room and found him surfing the Web on his smartphone. He didn’t realize that I saw what he was looking at – the Victoria’s Secret website. He quickly put down the phone when I walked in. I haven’t said anything to my son about it because I don’t want to embarrass him. I told my husband and he thinks it’s no big deal. But now I’m worried because there are a lot of images and videos online that are much more graphic than Victoria’s Secret and my son might be looking at those, too. We don’t know how to set up filters on our home network. Am I making too big a deal out of this?”

By Zachary Austin,  Licensed Associate Marriage Family Therapist (LAMFT)

You need a game plan. Parents should be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to discussing sexuality with their teenager.  As you know, teenagers are naturally inclined to explore and discover which means that your son being interested in pictures of Victoria Secret’s models isn’t all that surprising. Teens look for information about sex and the changes happening to male and female bodies during puberty, and they get a lot of this info from friends and the media instead of their parents.

By the time some parents have their first conversation about sexuality with their teenager, at least a portion of their teen’s sexual knowledge comes from bad or incomplete information about sexuality as well as unrealistic or unhealthy depictions of sexual behaviors. When parents talk about sexuality with teenagers AFTER this has occurred, it can be an embarrassing, uncomfortable experience — for you and your teen. That’s why parents need a game plan and should start talking about sexuality with their kids as EARLY as possible.

If you’ve put off “the talk” for far too long (and don’t feel too bad because many parents do the same thing), the first thing you should do is talk to your spouse so the two of you can get on the same page about what you’ll tell your son about appropriate sexual conduct. Here’s a list of the topics you should be prepared to talk about or answer questions about during “the talk”: acceptable language about sexuality, personal hygiene, sexual orientation, masturbation, media messages on sexuality, pornography, forming relationships, courtship boundaries, appropriate sexual interactions with others, sexual safety and protection, contraception, and abortion.

Now let’s talk about how smartphones play into all of this. The Internet is not completely evil because it can, in fact, be used for access to good, responsible information about sexuality. BUT parents should absolutely be alarmed by the potential dangers here. One study suggested that the average age of exposure to Internet pornography in America is age eleven!

This means that your game plan also needs to include talking about what is and isn’t okay to do online. And you should definitely have Internet safety and monitoring systems in place in your home. If you don’t know how to set it up, find someone who does.

If you’re wondering about what to expect during the next few years of your son’s development, here’s a general guide that covers early, middle and late adolescence:

Early Adolescents (approximately 11-13 years of age)

During the earliest stages of adolescence, a teenager is wondering, “What does it mean to be a sexual person?” Perhaps surprising to some, teenagers at this stage hope for a welcoming attitude about sexuality from their parents. Though lighthearted joking about puberty can break the tension and help start a conversation about sexuality, be careful about going too far with “teasing” and jokes.

Teenagers during this stage can be very perceptive of parents’ attitudes regarding sexual issues and are susceptible to messages of shame and guilt about being curious about sex. Keep conversations relaxed yet informative, avoid lectures, and ask your teen what kind of information would help him most.

Middle Adolescents (approximately 14-16 years of age)

During the middle stages of adolescent development, teenagers more consistently and openly express their sexuality. Sexually explicit conversations with peers, sexual jokes, flirting and courtship, interest in erotica, solitary and mutual masturbation, physical affection (hugging, kissing, hand-holding), foreplay (petting, making out, fondling) and monogamous intercourse (stable or serial) are all considered to fall within the “normal” range of adolescent sexual behaviors.

“Normal”, however, does not necessarily mean “acceptable” with regard to parental expectations and moral principals. Parents must be careful to balance autonomy with accountability in this stage. Boundaries, expectations, and consequences for sexual behaviors are initially defined based on parents’ values and principals, but the teenager is aware that this support is temporary until she is more capable and ready to define and manage her own sexual values and principals. Teenagers who learn how to live by their own values tend to feel better about themselves.

Late Adolescents (Approximately 17-19 years of age)

During late adolescence, teenagers think more about the role sexuality plays in relationships. Teenagers in late adolescence may begin to consider issues of sexual ethics. They begin to get a better grasp on the physical, social, and moral aspects of sexuality and sexual behaviors.

Decisions such as abstinence, celibacy, monogamy and fidelity may cross their minds. As teens become adults, it’s important for them to develop confidence in their ability to succeed in their relationships independent from their parents when the time comes for them to “leave the nest.”

Parents of teenagers in this stage must partner with their teenager in the decision-making process rather than make decisions for them. For example, when a parent accepts their teenager’s choice to be sexually active, the parent should also inform him that a decision to have sex should also include decisions about pregnancy and STD prevention. In doing this, parents manage to avoid being too rigid (“Do what I say or else!”) while also not being too disconnected (“Do whatever you want, I don’t care.”). This helps to further build trust in the relationship between parent and child at a critical transition point.

Your willingness to talk to your son about sexuality is a great thing. Some mothers aren’t willing to do it. Helping your teenager develop an accurate and responsible view of sexuality is a big deal, but “the talk” doesn’t have to be the painful experience some make it out to be.

In fact, “the talk” can actually be an opportunity to build greater trust and attachment between you and your child. My hope is that this post may help you get that conversation started and that those conversations will do just that.

Zachary Austin,  Licensed Associate Marriage Family Therapist (LAMFT), is an Ozark Guidance school-based therapist at Lakeside Junior High School and has worked extensively with teenagers. Therapists at Ozark Guidance would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback.

Disclaimer: This RESPONSE does not provide medical advice It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on nwaMotherlode or Ozark Guidance websites.