Finding scandalous texts on a minor’s phone is every parent’s nightmare. (Well, one of them at least.) That said, your teen is in the process of discovering their sexuality, and also seemingly on their smartphone all the time…so let’s just say stranger discoveries have been made. Nevertheless, sexting is a serious situation and dealing with it appropriately as a parent will require a clear head and some solid advice. For this reason, we suggest you take a deep breath and read on for an expert perspective—courtesy of clinical psychologist, Dr. Bethany Cook—on what to do when you’ve caught your teen sending explicit messages.
First and foremost, Dr. Cook emphasizes that parents should not overreact. Finding an explicit text message on your child’s phone is uncomfortable and downright scary. That said, it’s imperative that you not rush to judgment and start condemning your kid. Per Dr. Cook, if you come at your teen with guns blazing, the most likely outcome is that they will go into “fight/flight/freeze” mode, which means “they are no longer functioning from the logical part of their brain (i.e., the frontal lobes) and may overreact, lie, run away or respond in any type of manner they feel necessary to ‘survive’ your rage.” Needless to say, this scenario is not an ideal setup for a productive conversation about sexting—and yep, that’s the next and the most important step.
Sit Down and Talk About It
OK, now for the tricky part—finding out more about what the hell is going on. But how are you supposed to do that, exactly? Here are some pointers to help you navigate the conversation.
Find out if it’s consensual
When it comes to teens and sexting, the devil is in the details. In fact, the devil is in one particular detail: consent. Regardless of how you feel about it, your teen has reached an age at which sexual curiosity is, well, normal. As such, the thing that matters most is that your child engages in this process of discovery in a way that’s healthy for both parties involved and socially appropriate. “If it’s a consensual and age-appropriate adolescent relationship, there are ways to educate and empower children instead of shaming and raging about the way they chose to express their newly developing sexual feelings,” explains Dr. Cook. In other words, what you just found on your teen’s phone might make you cringe, but the expert says it’s wise to keep an open mind when it comes to your kid’s sexuality: “You may never feel comfortable expressing your sexuality in public, whereas your child may feel differently. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just different.”
How old is this person?
This one is actually an integral part of the consent question, since power differentials and predatory behavior come into play when the romance isn’t between two (roughly) same-aged peers. It probably goes without saying, but if your 15-year-old is sexting with someone who is 18 years of age or older, it’s a no go. Similarly, it’s important to know what the other person’s relationship was with your child prior to you finding the sext. Was this person in a position of authority (i.e., a babysitter, pastor, tutor, etc.)? Finally, does your gut instinct tell you that this person may be shady or taking advantage of your child? Dr. Cook describes all of the aforementioned scenarios as red flags, and as such recommends parents press pause on the conversation and proceed to contacting the police. (More on that below.)
What was the end goal?
Another important thing to consider is that sex may not have been the aim of your child’s lurid text. “Ask your child what they wanted to happen by sending the pictures/words,” advises Dr. Cook. “Did they want to win someone over? Make someone jealous? Turn someone on? Comply with a request? Initiate sexual intimacy?” The psychologist tells us that the answer matters—namely because relationships in the time of social media are a whole new ball game and in order for parents to help their teens navigate that world, they must first “connect and talk to them about what and how they share stuff with their friends.”
Congrats on making it this far. Now it might be wise to take a break. “It’s important for both parties to be rested and in control during this conversation because it will be laying the foundation for how you move forward with regards to talking about sex and intimacy,” says Dr. Cook. As such, the expert suggests scheduling a follow-up chat within 24 hours so you both can give your minds a rest and think about other things for a little while. That said, if you both feel up for more talking, by all means, soldier on.
Remember how we mentioned that the end goal of your child’s behavior should be part of the discussion? Well, it comes into play again at the problem solving stage of the process. Social media and technology are go-to communication tools for teens and, as Dr. Cook explains, “many times, until someone shows us a different way of seeing something, we use the same tools for all problems.” At the end of the day, it’s the parent’s job to alert their child to the “special and sometimes irrevocable life altering results that stem from who we choose to partner with,” as well as how we choose to communicate our intentions. In other words, once you understand the end goal, you have an opportunity to talk to your teen about other ways to send the message they were intending.
Do damage control
Depending on the situation, it might be wise to do a little online digging to ensure that “unflattering words and images” are not floating around the internet and potentially damaging your teen’s reputation. If you’re concerned, but don’t think you have the tech skills required for the task, you can even hire someone to handle it for you.
Let them know you love them no matter what
Chances are you’re not thrilled to have discovered your teen sexting, but don’t let your feelings stand in the way of an opportunity to meaningfully connect with your child. Dr. Cook emphasizes that it’s important to remind your child that you love them under any circumstances, and this is no exception to the rule. Also, Dr. Cook points out that the part of the brain responsible for good judgment isn’t fully developed until the age of 25, so it’s not totally reasonable to be outraged when they do something stupid. In fact, she suggests parents share some of their own past mistakes and what they learned from them, while also addressing the potential long term impact of their choices when it comes to technology. Above all, the expert recommends an approach that focuses on “guiding and helping [your teen] grow, not insisting they remain a child by ignoring their actions and requiring them to comply.”
Decide Whether the Police Need to Be Involved
After a thoughtful conversation with your teen to better understand the circumstances surrounding the sexts you discovered, you are in a far better position to make an informed decision regarding next steps. In general, Dr. Cook says that she doesn’t “see any benefit in creating drama where there isn't any (i.e., two teens simply being teenagers in 2022),” and usually recommends parents calmly handle the situation at home and with the other party involved. However, there are obvious exceptions: If the conversation you had with your teen revealed anything illegal or suspect, now would be the time to protect your child by contacting the police.
Check In Regularly
You just had a very productive conversation with your kid, and chances are you’re both feeling that much better because of it. Why not arrange to have that kind of tête-à-tête on the regular? Dr. Cook suggests setting aside one day a month (say, every third Wednesday) to have a chat with your child. If scheduling conflicts keep getting in the way or conversation doesn’t seem to flow naturally, Dr. Cook recommends getting a journal in which you and your teen can write notes back and forth about hard-hitting topics as an alternative. Bottom line: When you make an effort to keep the connection going, you increase the odds of your kid opening up to you about other tricky situations and circumstances in the future.