When you discover one of your kids has been viewing porn or struggling with other sexual behaviors, it can be tempting to cross your fingers and hope that whatever your kids are going through, they’ll just outgrow it.
But what if they won’t? And how can you know?
This question matters, because how you do or don’t respond matters. If you come down too fearful or negative when your kid is curious or innocently exploring sexual feelings, you risk communicating that sex and sexual desire are themselves bad or sinful. On the other hand, especially in the Internet-age, parents who dismiss all sexual interest and behavior as “just a phase” leave kids vulnerable to stumbling into faulty sexual information and addictive pornographic content.
For example, if you discover pornography on your son’s computer and assume it was just curiosity when it has actually been going on for years, you miss the opportunity to help him break free from an escalating porn addiction. On the other hand, if you react strongly to what came up when your daughter had simply searched up a word she heard at school, then you may leave her thinking, “If Mom and Dad got that upset about what I looked up today, then I better never let them find out about those other sexual things I’ve experienced.”
So how can we know if a son or daughter’s sexual behavior is just normal teenage stuff or a sign of a deeper problem that will require help, perhaps even outside professional help?
When Is It Normal Sexual Curiosity?
There are typically two seasons in kids’ lives when they are discovering their bodies in significantly new ways. The first is during the first year or two of life, as children’s neural pathways are being established and they are developing their earliest sense of self as a physical creature. The second is during adolescence, as kids’ brains are going through major renovations and their bodies are transitioning from childhood to adulthood.
Interestingly (and a bit disconcertingly, I admit), during adolescence, the parts of the brain that oversee things like risk and sensation are coming online powerfully, but the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for exercising judgment, remains significantly behind—not fully maturing until sometime in their mid-twenties. This means that while it is natural and good that our kids are developing sexually, their capacity to make good decisions about how to manage those sexual feelings will not be fully functional for another decade or more. This puts parents in a tough spot as they try to both bless and guide their kids’ burgeoning sexual selves.
Add to this that with the digital age’s ease-of-access to all manner of content, the distance between curiosity and addiction has narrowed. In years past, a son or daughter might find one pornographic magazine in a field, look at it for a week, and then throw it away. Although a problematic experience, it pales in comparison to a kid who, after searching up a sexual image online, suddenly has access to literally millions of hardcore, graphic sexual videos. Or as another example, in generations past boys who felt more feminine than their peers or girls who felt more masculine would usually move through these feelings to feel comfortable with their God-given, biological sex. Today, those same kids find online communities that cheer them on to embrace a transgender identity, hormone treatments, and bodily surgery.
So, what are the lines between normal sexual curiosity and concerning sexual behavior?
First, during both the toddler and the teenage years, kids may experience curiosity about their genitals, including fondling themselves as toddlers or experimenting with masturbation in adolescence. This is normal development. However, when a child or teen begins to use masturbation as a form of emotional regulation, then there is reason for concern. For example, if your teenager begins using masturbation in a compulsive way to feel better after stressful days, to comfort herself when she’s lonely, or to get to sleep at night, these fall outside of normal development. Rather than learning to regulate his or her emotions in other, non-sexual ways, he or she is turning to masturbation to bring relief.
Second, an interest in looking at the opposite sex, curiosity about sex, and romantic and sexual feelings can all be expected. If your son or daughter is seeking answers or even seeking to see nude figures, don’t be alarmed. However, any time our kids are taking their questions, feelings, or searches online, we need to take it seriously. Granted, for our kids, going to the Internet can seem like an obvious choice. The Internet will never embarrass them for asking sexual questions, tell them to ask again later, or restrict their screen time. But the Internet will also not look out for your kids’ well-being. Their age-appropriate questions and curiosity will likely lead them to faulty ideas, unchristian worldviews, and even graphic pornography.
With this in mind, at every stage of your child’s development, do your best to be their go-to for whatever questions or curiosity they have. If you discover your son or daughter has been looking online instead, it will be important for you to do your best to honor the importance of their searches, while also redirecting them to safer, more trustworthy sources.
In addition, it will be important to explore the following with them:
- When did your son or daughter begin viewing sexual content online? (How long has this been going on?)
- How frequently have they been viewing it?
- What is the nature of the content they’re viewing? (e.g. nude images of men, nude images of women, men and women having sex, same-sex couples having sex, violent sexual activity, etc.)
As a general rule, each of these categories provides some insight as to whether your teen could benefit from experienced help. The longer a teen has been viewing pornographic content and the more frequently he or she uses it, the more likely they have developed a habit that they will need help to overcome. Likewise, the kind of content he or she is viewing can say something about whether their brain is becoming desensitized to “lighter” content and is moving on to harder core material. When this happens it’s an indicator that their brain chemistry has begun to change and will require help to return to a healthy normal.
If the content they’ve been searching out deals more with questions about gender or LGBTQ+ issues, you’ll want to encourage open and honest dialogue to figure out what has piqued their curiosity about these topics. And again, it is vital that you do all you can to honor the importance of their searches while steering them toward safe, reputable, and godly sources. Sadly, these are in short supply, but you might begin with the following:
- Is God Anti-Gay by Sam Allberry
- Gay Girl, Good God by Jackie Hill-Perry
- Born Again This Way by Rachel Gilson
- https://lindaseiler.com (help addressing transgenderism)
(Although Regeneration does not typically work with teens, if you are a parent and struggling to walk with a teen struggling with sexual issues, we can help. Please contact us for one-to-one coaching.)
Is It Normal Teenage Angst and Moodiness?
Beyond just sexual issues, it is universally accepted that the teen years can be difficult, for both kids and their parents. Expressing emotions like anger, irritation, and annoyance with parents is to be expected. Likewise, kids in adolescence will pull away from their parents, preferring the company of their peers. We may not like it, but it is a normal part of their differentiation process.
In her book Untangled, Dr. Lisa Demour compares the teen years to when a child learns to swim. At first, the child clings to the side of the pool, afraid to let go. As she grows, she lets go more and more, venturing to deeper water, but always returning to the side of the pool from time to time to rest and reassure herself. Each time, she also kicks off that side of the pool to propel her back into the deeper waters. Damour’s point is that a healthy Mom and Dad are like the side of that pool. They provide support and safety when the teen needs it, but they are also the recipients of some hard “kicks” as their kids push away from them to return to the world of peer relationships and greater independence.
How can parents recognize when this “pushing” is normal and when it may be unhealthy or problematic? In my book Treading Boldly, Daniel Weiss and I listed some signs that a teen may be struggling with more significant relational or emotional health problems that will require experienced help. These include the following:
- Excessive sleep or trouble sleeping
- Dramatic decline in school performance
- Isolation from family and friends
- Excessive screen use
- Weight loss, loss of appetite, or significant weight gain
- Aggressiveness or sharp increase in anger
- Cutting or self-mutilation
- Excessive moodiness
- Frequently breaking curfew, lying about location or who they’re with, or sneaking out
- Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
- Trouble with the law
- Suicidal thoughts or ideation
There are other warning signs, but this provides you an idea of what to look for that indicates it may be time to reach out for professional help. If in doubt, talk with your child’s healthcare provider or a licensed professional. Needing outside help is not a sign that you have failed as a parent, nor is it a sign that your son or daughter is a uniquely bad kid. The world our kids are growing up in is a tough one and every parent needs support along the way. A professional can help determine whether your teen is dealing with something like depression, substance-abuse, a mental health disorder, or another serious problem requiring professional intervention.
In addition, if your relationship with your son or daughter has ruptured to the point where communication is impossible and you do not have the relational capital to get even a little cooperation, then seek outside support. By doing so, you model for your kids that healthy people ask for help when they need it. Even if your teenage son or daughter refuses to go with you, talking with a professional mental health care professional, gifted pastor, or experienced spiritual coach will help you process your anger and pain, establish healthy boundaries with your teen, and bring your best self to your parenting.
“Normal” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Good”
In all of this, one thing is clear, today’s “normal teenage stuff” only means that it is a common experience among teenagers and their parents. But even though many other kids engage in the same activities, this doesn’t mean the behaviors are healthy or good. There are plenty of “normal” experiences that both kids and adults have that are actually very problematic.
After reading this post, this may no longer surprise you, but for example, according to the CDC, between 2018 and 2019, just over 15% of adolescents reported having had a major depressive episode, over 30% reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and almost 20% reported having seriously contemplated suicide. In addition, over 70% of young males and over 30% of young females ages 13-24 intentionally seek out pornography at least monthly.
The first century city of Corinth share similarities with our own culture in its sexual permissiveness. In fact, one of its mottos could be applied to most people’s views on sex and sexuality today: “Everything is permissible!” As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, he urged his readers to think more deeply about this assumed “live and let live” sexual ideology. “Everything is permissible,” he wrote, “but not everything is beneficial,” “Everything is permissible, but not everything is edifying,” and “Everything is permissible, but I will not be mastered by anything” (see 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23).
Paul is inviting Christians to look more deeply than cultural norms. He’s inviting us to look at where even our “normal” or acceptable behaviors are leading. And he’s inviting us to look at our hearts.
In Truth, There Is No “Normal Stuff”
In Luke 6:45, Jesus tells us that what we do and say comes out of the overflow of our hearts. The context of this passage isn’t about judgment, it’s about each of us recognizing that our behaviors and words come from deep down, in the fabric of our lives. This means nothing is just “normal” stuff, at least not if we mean that it’s nothing worthy of our attention. Whether you see positive or troubling behavior in your kid’s life, you have an opportunity to tune into the deeper waters of their hearts. What a gift parents give their children when they seek to regularly (albeit imperfectly) attune to their kids’ hearts. In every season, we can seek to focus not just on our kids’ outer behavior, but more so to graciously shepherd the inner movements of their thoughts, questions, and feelings as well.
Every kid struggles, and parenting well comes at a cost and with no guarantees. When they need help, by all means, let’s help them as much as we can. When we reach the end of our know-how in helping them, let’s be loving enough to face our fears, swallow our pride, and seek out the help they need.
And through all of this, our job when our kids struggle significantly is the same as when they are flourishing: to love them with as much of the love of Jesus as we can and entrust the future to Him.
 Mueller, Walt, Dr. The Space Between: A Parent’s Guide to Teenage Development (Zondervan, Grand Rapids), 2009, p. 63.
 See Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier (Regnery, 2020).
 Weiss, Daniel and Josh Glaser. Treading Boldly through a Pornographic World: A Field Guide for Parents (Salem, Colorado Springs), 2021, p. 128.
 https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html, accessed August 23, 2022.
 The Porn Phenomenon, A Barna Report produced in partnership with Josh McDowell Ministry (2016), p. 32.