What do you do if your child discloses that they struggle with pornography use? Do you cry? Get angry? Punish the child? You might feel scared about how their pornography use may impact their future. You may feel shocked or hurt, and that is understandable. You might even feel like you have failed as a parent.
Our minds can jump to conclusions about what the decision to use pornography might mean about our child. One common but problematic misconception is that viewing pornography is the same as being addicted to it. This is a problem because when something is labeled an addiction, it can diminish a person’s power to effectively combat their behavior and make changes. Instead, if pornography is conceptualized as a bad habit, it can help individuals retain their power. It’s likely that your child might have heard about the idea of being “addicted to porn,” and yet pornography addiction, like other sexual addictions, is extremely rare. In fact, individuals who compulsively use pornography commonly mistake a habit with an addiction, especially when they morally disapprove of their own behavior.1,2
One of the best things you can do if your child discloses pornography use is to slow down and listen to them and their experiences without judgment. Realize that if there is a desire to change, there is hope that things will get better. Assure your child that using pornography is not the same thing as being addicted to it. In this article, we provide some suggestions to consider as you seek to better understand and work through this struggle.
Be Careful of Shame
Speaking about pornography can be emotionally charged because of the strong beliefs people hold regarding it. Because people often hold strong negative beliefs about using pornography, users may feel intense emotional pain accompanying their pornography use as their behavior is contrary to their own sense of morality.1,2,3 Parents might inadvertently add to their child’s burden by expressing distaste because of their own strongly held convictions about pornography.
After viewing pornography, some children may feel guilt or remorse. Others may feel shame or identify themselves as “bad” because of what they have done. Guilt is a healthy response that separates the individual from their behavior and can help motivate them to stop using pornography; on the other hand, shame equates the individual with their behavior and can reinforce their attraction to it.4 Because of negative religious beliefs surrounding pornography, religious individuals are more likely to feel shame in connection with their pornography use.2,4,5,6
Shame can produce what is known as a “double spiral.” 4 Children who are predisposed to feeling shame might find pornography especially enticing.4 When they use pornography, their shame and hatred of themselves grows, which can reinforce their desire to turn to pornography to console and distract them from what they feel. As a result of their continued pornography use, they may feel lonely and isolated from their parents, peers, and those who love them, and that very loneliness can reinforce their desire to use pornography.7 Children caught in this spiral of self-hatred may need outside help to reaffirm their worth.4 This outside help can come from you, a trusted religious leader, or a professional. Showing your child love in the middle of their struggle with pornography can help them feel connected and can diminish their loneliness. Loving your child also models compassion and can help them learn to exercise self-compassion. Showing your child love and compassion can help them break the shame-pornography spiral.4
Parents can create a safe place where children can disclose their pornography use without fear of punishment. The sooner a child feels safe to talk with you, the sooner you can help them. It can be healthy to have a discussion with your child who struggles with pornography use to differentiate between whether they feel guilt or shame. Explain to them the difference between being “bad” and making a choice that is not positive. Talk to them about the loneliness they might feel and what things they might do to increase connection with people they love and trust. Consider the scriptures below to help you understand how God feels about the suffering of His children.
Studies show that individuals who do not exert control over their sexual desires or instead exert obsessive control over their sexual desires in their day-to-day lives are at a greater risk to feel out of control in their pornography use.8 When it comes to pornography use, feeling out of control is connected to feeling powerless, hopeless, unworthy of love, abandonment or punishment by God, and greater self-hostility.2,4,9 As a parent, you have an opportunity to discuss the nature of sexuality with your child and support them as they learn to exercise the appropriate amount of control over theirs.
Consider whether your child adequately understands the divine nature of their sexuality. Sexuality and passion are God-given and an inherent part of each of us. Although God has commanded that His children reserve sexual expression for marriage, adolescents blossoming into adulthood are still sexual creatures. Experiencing arousal and desire are normal, healthy things for adolescents to feel as they mature into adults. Sexuality and sexual desire are like a flowing stream. Individuals can try to barricade it and build a dam, but it can overflow. Alternatively, they can choose not to control it and it can run wild. Ideally, your children will learn with time to mindfully approach their sexuality and gain the power to redirect it.
One tactic that might be especially helpful for young children learning to mindfully approach sexual desire is to invite them to sit still when they feel it. Sexuality doesn’t have to be scary and they don’t need to run from it. Invite them to breathe deep and acknowledge the sensations they feel. Reaffirm that these feelings are God-given. Do they know what triggered these feelings? Was it spontaneous? What do they want to do because of them? Non-judgmental awareness and acceptance enhance an individual’s ability to act more intentionally instead of reactively to what they feel. Your children can learn to be agentive in response to sexual desire and “bridle” or control and direct their passions (Alma 38:12).
Do what you can to teach about the sacredness, beauty, and joy of sexuality in your home. Children’s expectations about sex and sexuality are most impacted by the first information they receive on sexuality.10 Make that safe, informative place your home. Teach your children how to redirect their sexual energy to productive and creative ends so that they can gain mastery. You may find these resources below helpful as you approach conversations about sexuality:
Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments by Jeffrey R. Holland
A Better Way to Teach Kids About Sex by Laura Walker, Dean Busby, Chelom Leavitt, and Jason Carroll
Conversations About Intimacy and Sex That Can Prepare You for Marriage by Chelom E. Leavitt
Learn the Consequences
Help your child understand that individuals can use pornography to distract themselves from unpleasant emotions and reduce their stress quickly.11 It can provide escape and euphoria to those who feel bored, overwhelmed, or distressed by quickly accessing their sexual response.7,11 Self-medicating with pornography may lead individuals to come to rely on it for relief and to struggle to cope without it.11 Don’t hesitate to engage your children in conversations about the complicated effects of pornography use. Your honesty about the short-term “benefits” will help your children believe in the long-term “costs.” As you earnestly seek to understand what compels your child to use pornography, consider the role pornography plays in helping them cope with the hardships of life. You can seek greater connection with your child by brainstorming what needs they are trying to meet by using pornography. What alternative coping mechanisms are available to replace their pornography use?
Let the Savior’s Love Light the Way
If you feel uncomfortable talking about your child’s pornography use, remember the example of the Lord. Jesus Christ chose to start His public ministry by witnessing of His divinity at a well to a Samaritan woman (John 4). She came to the well alone when the sun was at its brightest to draw water. Usually, women traveled in groups in the cool of the morning or the evening to draw. The time of day and the fact that she was alone suggests that she may have been a social outsider. Although the reason of her exclusion is debated (e.g., she could be an adulteress, barren, or refused to conform to Greco-Roman and Samaritan norms), when the rest of the world might have shunned her or looked down on her, Jesus Christ went out of His way to Samaria to find her and let her be the first to whom he offered “living water,” or eternal life.
When another woman was brought before Jesus having been taken in adultery, Jesus spoke to her accusers, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He did not condemn the woman but challenged her to, “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). The Lord understands the complexity of our challenges. He doesn’t desire to condemn, but to help and heal His children.
One common phrase used to describe Jesus’s motives is “moved with compassion” (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13). Compassion is defined as seeing the suffering of others and having the desire to relieve it. It is incomplete when it doesn’t include compassion toward one’s self. Christ offers “living water” to all who thirst for it and are in need of compassion. As a parent, you may still struggle against feelings that you have failed your child if you discover they are using pornography. Seek to have compassion not only for your child, but for yourself as well.
God has said “the worth of souls is great” in His sight (D&C 18:10, see also Luke 12:6-7). His whole work is to help see us home with Him after our sojourn on this earth is complete. Part of that journey is learning to use our agency wisely, while being subjected to a mortal experience that is filled with temptations. God never forgets our infinite potential, even when we sin. If your child feels the negative effects of pornography use, remember your child’s infinite potential. Help and healing are possible. Seek help from available sources. Stay close to God, seek out loved ones, spiritual leaders, or professionals specialized to help as you feel prompted.
1. Grubbs, J.B., Wilt, J.A., Exline, J.J., Pargament, K.I., & Kraus, S.W. (2018). Moral disapproval and perceived addiction to internet pornography: a longitudinal examination. Addiction, 113(3), 496-506. DOI: 10.1111/add.14007
2. Grubbs, J.B., Exline, J.J., Pargament, K.I., Volk, F., & Lindberg, M.J. (2017). Internet pornography use, perceived addiction, and religious/spiritual struggles. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(6), 1733-1745. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-016-0772-9
3. Guidry, R., Floyd, C.G., Volk, F., & Moen, C.E. (2020). The exacerbating impact of moral disapproval on the relationship between pornography use and depression, anxiety, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 46(2), 103-121. DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2019.1654579
4. Chisholm, M. & Gall, T.L. (2015). Shame and the x-rated addiction: The role of spirituality in treating male pornography addiction. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 22, 259-272. DOI: 10.1080/10720162.2015.1066279
5. Patterson, R., & Price, J. (2012). Pornography, religion, and the happiness gap: Does pornography impact the actively religious differently? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 51(1), 79–89. DOI: 10.1111/jssr.2012.51.issue-1
6. Perry, S.L. & Whitehead, A.L. (2019). Only bad for believers? Religion, pornography use, and sexual satisfaction among American men. The Journal of Sex Research, 56(1), 50-61. DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1423017
7. Butler, M.H., Pereyra, S.A., Draper, T.W., Leonhardt, N.D., & Skinner, K.B. (2018). Pornography use and loneliness: a bidirectional recursive model and pilot investigation. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 44(2), 127-137. https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601
8. Leonhardt, N.D., Busby, D.M., & Willoughby, B.J. (2020). Do you feel in control? Sexual desire, sexual passion expression, and associations with perceived compulsivity to pornography and pornography use frequency. Sexuality Research and Social Policy. http://dx.doi.org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1007/s13178-020-00465-7
9. Leonhardt, N.D., Willoughby, B.J., & Young-Peterson, B. (2018). Damaged goods: Perception of pornography addiction as a mediator between religiosity and relationship anxiety surrounding pornography use. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 357-368. DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1295013
10. Pfaus, J. G., Kippin, T. E., Coria-Avila, G. A., Gelez, H., Afonso, V. M., Ismail, N., & Parada, M. (2012). Who, what, where, when (and maybe even why)? How the experience of sexual reward connects sexual desire, preference, and performance. Archives of Sexual Behavior,41, 31–62. 11. Bőthe, B. Tóth-Király, I., Bella, N., Potenza, M.N., Demetrovics, Z., & Orosz, G. (2020). Why do people watch pornography? The motivational basis of pornography use. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. DOI: 10.1037/adb0000603