Question

I just found out (20 minutes ago) my 11-year-old has read an inappropriate young adult novel. The novel is about 16-year-old girls who form a friendship at their Shoplifters Anonymous group. The book has inappropriate language and graphic sexual content. I am beyond crushed and upset.

My daughter received the book as a gift a few months ago. After reading the synopsis at the back I told her I would have to read the book first to see if it was appropriate for her. I placed it on the top shelf of a bookcase (beyond her reach) and forgot about it. Tonight, while tucking her into bed I noticed the book on her nightstand. 

I picked up the book and skimmed through it and noticed inappropriate language and sexual content. I asked her how much of the book she had read, and she said, “all of it.” When I asked her to tell me what the book was about, she only detailed the shoplifting and friendship the girls in the book experienced. 

I told her the book was not appropriate for her and was very upset she read it after I told her I needed to read through it first. I told her I would now read through the book and we would discuss it later.

I am freaking out. I was not anticipating having to give the sex talk to an 11-year-old, not to mention having to now talk about certain graphic sexual acts.

What do I do? What do I say? I am crying for the lost innocence of my child and the cavalier way this has been introduced to her. Please help.

Answer

It’s overwhelming to discover our children being introduced to ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that we don’t support. As conscientious parents, we carefully curate our homes to be free of damaging influences as our children’s brains and bodies develop. However, despite our best efforts to insulate our children from opposing ideas, they eventually discover the very world we don’t want them to see. Even though you’re overwhelmed with complex emotions right now, you’re wise to reach out for guidance so you can guide your daughter through this important stage of her development.

In the movie, “The Village”, writer and director M. Night Shyamalan introduces us (spoiler alert!) to a group of well-meaning modern-day parents who create a 19th-century-like utopian community in the woods to shelter their children from the evils of society. It takes great effort to protect their children from discovering modern life. Tragically, there is an attempted murder inside the village and the parents have to decide how they will handle this breach of innocence while seeking outside medical help for the victim. This unexpected twist throws the parents into a crisis they hoped they’d never have to confront. While there is something quite refreshing about the purity and innocence these parents were able to create in their village, there is also a nagging sense that this Eden-like state couldn’t last forever.

This movie has always moved me as a father because I relate so directly with the struggle to protect my children’s innocence while also accepting the reality of the fallen world they will eventually need to confront. This is a universal dilemma for parents as we wrestle with how to maintain our influence while our children move away from our direct supervision. We’d love to believe that we can forever protect them from harmful influences. However, this simply isn’t God’s plan for any of us.

You didn’t fail as a parent in the same way God didn’t fail as a parent when Adam and Eve discovered their nakedness. In fact, Heavenly Father noted that Adam and Eve were now becoming “as one of us, to know good and evil.”[i] Even though her introduction to this world happened in a way that overwhelms you, it’s important to remember the bigger vision of helping her make sense of these things for her own growth and development.

Now that your daughter has been exposed, you have to quickly update your strategy so you don’t overwhelm her with your grief and guilt over the loss of her innocence. She needs your presence and direction now more than ever.

Let me share with you two things you can do immediately to help respond to this situation. I’ve already set the foundation for the first suggestion, which is to quiet down your own reactivity and fear. The goal can’t be a return to innocence. Instead, the goal is to calmly and confidently help her make sense of the normal and healthy developmental path she’s walking. If you’re panicking and overwhelmed, she will get the message that something is wrong with her curiosity and desires.

Don’t confuse your frustration that she broke your rule about reading a book you hadn’t vetted with your panic that she’s now been introduced to graphic sexual content. Let her know that you are disappointed that she disobeyed your request but let her know that you’re now going to help her make sense of the things that she’s read. Keep the big picture in mind and recognize that you now have an opportunity to influence and support her as she learns about the world of bodies, sex, emotions, and relationships.

My second recommendation builds on the first recommendation. Instead of punishing her for her curiosity, this is an important time to share accurate and healthy information that aligns with your values. There are helpful resources I will share in the footnotes that you can access immediately so you don’t have to fumble your way through these discussions.[ii] If you’ve delayed having the “sex talk” with your daughter, now is the time to put everything she’s just read into a bigger context of what’s healthy and unhealthy. She needs to know it’s not shameful to talk about bodies and sex. She needs to know the correct names for all body parts for both girls and boys. She needs to know that her curiosity and interest in sex is normal and God-given.

There is a lot to cover and you may feel like you’re now behind since she’s discovered graphic sexual content. Please don’t diminish the important influence you can have on her life. You have the ability to help her translate and make sense of everything she’s read and more. She needs to know you’ll be by her side as you ask her what she understands and then you continue sharing healthy and accurate information.

Remember that the days of “the talk” with our kids are a relic of the past. Instead, we need to engage in “the talks” with our kids on a regular basis about their changing bodies, their powerful desires, their emotions, and the messages they’re receiving on a daily basis from peers and media. You can learn effective ways to continue these discussions with your daughter instead of trying to restore her back to a state of innocence that won’t serve her own personal growth.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc05gV4t9A0B8-TDT1EfWhQ?view_as=subscriber
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com 
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
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[i] Genesis 3:22

[ii] Here are a few resources I trust:

https://thehealinggroup.thinkific.com/courses/help-my-child-just-looked-at-porn-now-what

https://thehealinggroup.thinkific.com/courses/yes-you-can-talk-to-your-kids-about-sex

“A Better Way to Teach Kids About Sex” – https://www.amazon.com/Better-Way-Teach-Kids-About/dp/1629723738/ref=sr_1_1?crid=WQ73XJMWOS8K&dchild=1&keywords=a+better+way+to+talk+to+your+kids+about+sex&qid=1598538722&sprefix=a+better+way+to+talk+%2Caps%2C190&sr=8-1.

ProtectYoungMinds.org