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 the bishop because I don’t want him to feel like he’s committed this horrible sin and feel labeled as an “addict.” I also don’t want to put him in front of a counselor just yet because I don’t think it’s that serious. 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 serious enough to go outside of the family for help? Any suggestions you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
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, as President Spencer W. Kimball taught, to “apply a bandage large enough to cover the wound—no larger, no smaller.”[i]
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. 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 an interesting label. I’ve seen it completely shame and discourage individuals who sincerely wanted to change their behaviors, but felt judged and condemned. I’ve also seen the term 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 wise counsel recently shared by Elder Anthony D. Perkins in his keynote address at the Utah Coalition Against Pornography Conference in St. George, Utah. 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!”[ii]
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.
Involving the bishop is a personal choice that should be decided by seeking direction from heaven with your son in a spirit of openness and safety. Your son benefits more by seeing the bishop as a resource to help him move forward spiritually. Early and accidental exposure is very different than repeated patterns of seeking out material and hiding it. Depending on the depth of his involvement, he may need to see the bishop for help with the repentance process. You will have to work together and seek inspiration to know what’s the right amount of support for him.
Young people need support as they figure out their emotions, their bodies, and their spirits. They don’t need scrutiny or harshness. Regardless of your choice to involve the bishop, I hope your son can see your bishop as a safe place to talk about his spiritual welfare instead of someone he needs to fear or avoid.
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.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at email@example.com
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] See Faith Precedes the Miracle (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975), p. 178.