The sending and receiving of sexually charged images and words via digital devices—a.k.a. “sexting”—is a relatively common practice amongst young people. Parents, having grown up amongst different norms, often feel lost in how to help their children navigate digital waters that will include such communiques. 

Children will be exposed to the reality of sexting long before most parents imagine and are greatly benefitted by talking about the issue prior to exposure. Here are some tips for how to discuss sexting in your home.

Have body-positive, non-shaming conversations. 

It’s easy to let anxiety or fear drive conversations around sex and sexting. Our children, however, need us to be able to regulate our own emotions so that we can make space for theirs. Need a script? Try out this conversation: 

“As you text with friends, you are likely to receive some that make you feel all sorts of ways. Words and pictures might be sent that make you feel sort of excited and also weird. Some of these might include naked photos or comments related to sex. You might even find yourself wanting to send texts like these. This is pretty normal. I’d love to help you think through how you want to handle the temptation to send sexts as well as what you want to do when you receive them.” 

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Such caring language can be a huge help in keeping the conversations going. 

Have these conversations now

Late elementary school-aged children will encounter sexting sooner than most adults imagine. Helping them be prepared can go a long way in how they handle the challenges related to both.

Help children understand impulsivity. 

The ease of sharing via devices makes impulse control especially important. In the realm of sexting (and online communication in general) helping children learn and practice a pause before sending or responding to texts is a huge gift.

Here’s another helpful script to get your kids thinking about how they’d respond: 

“Let’s pretend it’s the middle of the night and you have your phone. Friends who are having a sleepover begin sending you photos of themselves with little or no clothes on and dare you to do the same. You’re feeling pretty excited that they chose you to send messages to and you are also excited about how they might respond. You don’t want to seem like a loser. What are some ideas of how to act in this situation?” 

Brainstorming some responses will give them tools when the time comes that they need them.

Watch how you speak about others. 

Practice non-judgmental awareness. Our kids are watching us. When they hear us put people down for behaviors that they themselves may have engaged in or been tempted to engage in, they get the clear message that we will put them down as well. 

If you learn of a sexting “scandal,” be careful not to shame the parties involved. Use the situation, instead, to talk through critical thinking skills and decision making with your child.

Find someone safe to talk with so you can do the above. 

None of this is easy. The easy options, in fact, are to put our heads in the sand and to make unrealistic demands upon our children to simply resist and obey. When we have places where we can be supported and cared for as we ourselves navigate these murky waters, we will be much more able to suspend our own reactivity in order to educate and nurture our children through approaches and missteps to sexual exploration on- and offline. 

Resist the temptation to believe that everyone else’s children are perfect and have never struggled! Instead, find those who can share authentically with you and who will support you as you, in turn, support your child.

Basically, children need to know that their bodies are wonderful, that it makes sense that they feel proud of them and that it is important to thoroughly think through what might happen if they share naked or provocative images of themselves. 

They need to feel that adults understand their sexual impulse and exploration, acknowledge the “normalcy” of enticing online sexuality and that we want to help them navigate this reality in their lives. We also want them to know we are not afraid of these realities and will not overreact if they find themselves in a bind. We want them to come to us, even if they’ve made a misstep—especially if they’ve made a misstep. We want to be their loving resource.

More than ever, children need parents who will help them navigate. They need to know that parents and other caring adults are in touch with the new norms in culture and will be able to handle their own feelings well enough to help them deal with the unbelievable and never-before-navigated waters of life in this time. 

For them to believe they can come to you when they have made a mistake, they must know you will be able to tolerate the discomfort without becoming discombobulated or shaming them.