Relationship Connection: Does my-12 year-old need to see a counselor for pornography issues?

Photo by fizkes, iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Question

I discovered that my 12-year-old son has been searching for hard-core pornography in our home. Even though we have filters set up, he’s found a way around them and was only recently caught.

He’s remorseful, but I have no idea what else we can do besides talking with him and encouraging him. I’m hesitant to have him meet with a counselor because I don’t want him to feel like he’s going to be labeled as an “addict.” I’m not sure how serious this really is. He says it’s not been going on very long. He’s so young and, yet, I don’t want to underreact and miss a chance to help him.

When is a pornography problem for a child serious enough to go outside of the family for help? Any suggestions you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

Answer

I appreciate and respect your desire to proceed carefully with your 12-year-old son. He is in a critical stage of identity formation and the way you and others handle his struggles can significantly impact the way he sees himself in the future. You want to put his mistakes in the proper perspective and make sure you get the right kind of help for him.

At the same time, you’re smart to care about the impact watching hard-core pornography will have on his future development. The majority of pornography available online actively promotes rape myths, contains violence against women and objectifies women as a commodity. These attitudes and beliefs do not contribute to healthy families or society.

Before you decide whether to formally address his behavior with outside support, I hope you’ve made it abundantly clear to him that his mistakes do not define him. His curiosity and interest in bodies and sexuality is completely normal, but needs to be guided toward healthy answers and examples. You don’t want his normal and healthy curiosity to be hijacked by a distorted counterfeit that will not set him up for success in future relationships. I hope you’ve been able to reassure him of his worth and value to you and his family. Hopefully your home is a safe place for him to learn and grow from his mistakes.

The word “addiction” is a loaded word for many people. I’ve seen the use of that word completely shame and discourage individuals who sincerely wanted to change their behaviors. I’ve also seen the same word provide a much-needed reality check and motivation for other individuals who minimized the seriousness of their actions and the impact on themselves and others. Because of the polarizing nature of this term, it’s critical to proceed carefully before deciding whether or not your son has an addiction.

I want to share some thoughts recently shared by Elder Anthony D. Perkins in his keynote address at the Utah Coalition Against Pornography Conference recently held here in St. George. His remarks provide valuable insight in the effort to identify the seriousness of someone’s pornography use. He says:

I am concerned that many teenagers and young adults with whom I have worked are too quick to label themselves as an addict. In religious communities, there is this sense of, ‘I’d rather be labeled as a heroin addict than a porn addict.’ For young people, just thinking that they are addicts does some real damage — they retreat from their religious and social communities, and they don’t feel worthy of romantic love so they stop dating. Because of this addict label, many youth and young adults lose hope in being healed.

On the other hand, I am concerned that many older people — particularly those in outwardly content marriages—are too slow to admit that they have a pornography addiction. In their minds, and often in the minds of their pastor or bishop, addiction is about frequency of use. Usage frequency may define addiction for substance abuse, but not for sexual behaviors.

We would all agree that the person who compulsively watches pornography several times a day is clearly addicted. He or she obviously covers this behavior in secrecy. But the person who binge watches pornography for two nights, every three months, over decades, engages in the same type of secrecy. He or she may also have an addiction, even though it is engaged in less frequently.

Experience has taught me that every story is different, and it is difficult to know how severely a person is affected by pornography. Therapists use the following gauge to try to determine how to help someone. Think of these levels like signal strength on a mobile phone, with more bars representing a stronger porn signal to a user’s brain.

Exposure occurs with children and adolescents, rarely with adults, when a person innocently stumbles upon pornographic material. Youth can even feel intense shame, as if they have done something very wrong by looking. Experiences like this are opportunities for parents to teach their children in their homes about the power and beauty of our God-given sexuality and the blessing of human intimacy, what to do if they are exposed to porn and how to prevent behavior from becoming more serious.

Experimentation occurs when a younger individual has repeatedly and intentionally accessed pornography. She knows that it is wrong, but she is confused by why something bad makes her body feel good. Parents and religious leaders can help such youth learn about proper human intimacy. Experimentation can last up to a month, but if it occurs longer than that, our young friend may be developing a dependency on pornography.

Exception occurs when a person is caught using pornography. The user usually explains ‘this is an exception, it was my first time’; however, this is often a lie and an indication of an unwillingness to change. Parents and religious leaders are limited in what they can do to help individuals who take this defensive approach. Spouses are torn: on one hand they are devastated by betrayal; on the other hand they are sometimes told by their bishop, pastor, or religious leader that ‘this is not so bad because it could have been worse.’

Exclusivity occurs when people protect their pornography use with secrets and deceit. They have entered into an exclusive relationship with an addiction to cope with life’s stress. It is not helpful to suggest that their problem is a ‘habit’ and recommend a simple behavior change as the solution. Many individuals faithfully attempt to pray or read the scriptures more and still falter. The reality is that pornography use affects people physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually and relationally. They need tools to counter these aspects of their addiction, usually through therapy and support groups.

To summarize, there is no question that clinicians can accurately diagnose addiction, but the rest of us should be careful about labels. A teen may mistakenly think she is an ‘addict’ doomed forever, while a married man may incorrectly think that his occasional use is ‘not an addiction’ — and neither the teen nor the man can summon the will to get the kind of help they need and do the hard work necessary to overcome pornography. But if they properly understand the problem, they can obtain hope, begin to believe that healing is possible and gain the capacity to change.

Please, no matter the level of pornography exposure and use, never abandon hope that healing is possible.

As stated, most young people are dealing with early exposure and experimentation. Please start here with your son. Try to understand the patterns of what he’s viewed, how often and how it’s affecting him. Chances are, this is early detection and will be something he can work through without major intervention. Reassure him he’s not a bad person and that your concern is a reflection of the danger of the material he’s viewing. Help him understand that your concern isn’t a reflection of his worth and value. He’s a good person, feeling normal feelings, but in a way that will diminish his God-given desire to bond and connect with others.

Two of my favorite resources for parents working with their teens is the book “Fortify” by Fight the New Drug and the guide from Educate and Empower Kids on how to talk with your teens about pornography. Both of these resources will give you plenty of conversation starters and tools to help your son understand what is happening to him.

Young people need support as they figure out their emotions, their bodies and relationships. They don’t need scrutiny or harshness. Regardless of your choice to involve outside help, I hope your son knows that you have his back and want to help him make sense of the strong emotions and feelings he’s experiencing right now.

Counseling becomes more important for a young person when they are stuck in repetitive patterns of use, when there is pre-existing trauma (sexual, physical or emotional), serious family issues or other mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety, etc.). Even though I clearly think counseling is a useful resource, I would never want parents to believe they can’t begin helping their own child through these issues and outsource everything to a professional. Parents are a tremendous resource and will provide the best support and encouragement for a young person trying to overcome a pornography issue. If you feel your efforts aren’t working or if your son isn’t improving, please don’t hesitate to seek out a competent professional who specializes in working with these issues.

Your response to your son will have a significant impact on how he sees himself. You can assess the seriousness of this problem, take appropriate action and still continually affirm the worth and value of your son. He can know that he made a mistake, but he’s not a mistake. Whether he sought it out or was accidentally exposed, he’s going to feel ashamed. Therefore, it’s imperative that you reassure him that he’s not a horrible person. He needs to feel hope and reassurance that he can live a life free from the pull of pornography.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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5 Comments

  • DRT December 13, 2017 at 8:48 am

    Oh for heaven’s sake, a 12 year old boy looking at pornography. This is an age where there is a combination of curiosity, along with raging hormones. There’s nothing unusual about a kid looking at pornography. It’s gone on forever and isn’t going to stop no matter how much the hypocrits love to point their fingers and accuse other people. It’s a manufactured addiction that is just another way to control people and make them feel insecure.
    I’m sure there are people who actually have a porn addiction. But that is the vast minority.
    The biggest change in porn is the access to it. Instead of Playboy hidden under the mattress, or copies of certain issues of National Geographic or even old catalogs showing people modeling underwear, there’s ready access via the internet. The worst part of it is the hard core porn available. Every thing from kiddie porn to snuff video is available there. That is something to be concerned about, big time.
    But it is not a big problem for a kid to be inquisitive and look at some porn. The problem is when the parents blow it out of all proportion. The problem is when there is enough of a stink raised that the kid has to lie about it, and fake sorrow for viewing it. Usually the sorrow is real enough, but it isn’t sorrow over viewing porn, it’s sorrow over being busted over it.

  • comments December 13, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    I plan to give up all forms of pornographic material. I think it isn’t good for the mind regardless of the moral aspect of it. I may well have gone thru periods of being addicted to the material; I don’t know. I still slip up and watch cams from time to time, and I need to give that up as well. As far as what to do with kids watching it, I don’t think there are any easy answers, and I think even a licensed counselor like Geoff doesn’t really have a clue in this area. I don’t know what all this hardcore internet porn will do to a developing brain, but it can’t be good, right? And our entire culture is way to pornified in all types of media. I talked a few weeks back about how even a netflix series based off a marvel comic book had many scenes of hardcore porn in it, and I find this disgusting. And all this is a perspective coming from an “atheist”…..

  • think4urself December 14, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    Only in Utah would a therapist quote a member of the LDS church. Though he is safe to assume the inquirer is LDS since the church has blown pornography in to a way bigger problem than it ever was. Kind of like their whole food storage tactic. Always need something BIG for members to focus on so they steal clear from the damaging history of the church.

  • Brad December 14, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    Maybe he is just doing it to show an adult the error of their ways by shaking the tree in a cheeky way???

  • .... December 15, 2017 at 6:25 am

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

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