My Son Saw Sexually Explicit Material Online -- What Should I Do?

Dear Susan,

My son saw a pornographic video on the Internet when he was at his friend's house and he finally told me about it. How should I handle it?

Mom of exposed son

Dear Mom,

Raising kids in today's technology-saturated times presents unprecedented challenges. One of the risks that parents face is that even with precautions, it's difficult to ensure that our children will not be exposed to highly inappropriate images and videos.

Some parents dismiss the impact on their children of stumbling upon pornographic sites, suggesting that it's as harmless as discovering daddy's Playboy under the bed when they were young.

But when a child comes across extremely graphic images or videos online, it can be both stimulating and upsetting. It's one thing to see a picture of a naked woman in a magazine, and something else altogether to view some of the sexual videos-often replete with demeaning and degrading dialogue that are on the web.

Kids are naturally curious about sex and want to find out more about it, but as parents, we want their exposure to be gentle, gradual and developmentally appropriate. What your son saw was probably far more than he was ready for. Not only that, it may have been confusing to watch interactions that came across as anything but gentle and loving, which is what we want our children to associate with sex between two caring, consenting adults.

The most important thing you can do is to make sure your son feels safe to tell you what he saw, how he felt about it, and what questions it raised for him. Listen calmly, and let him know you're not mad, and that you're glad he came to you to help him make sense of what he saw.

Try to find out whether the exposure happened by accident, or whether he and/or his friend, went to the Internet to find out more about sex. Let him know that it is normal to be interested and curious, and offer to answer his questions honestly, and to give him age-appropriate books and materials that will give him more information.

For some children, the exposure they have to online pornography can be deeply disturbing. An unexpected encounter with highly provocative sexual material crosses boundaries and compromises innocence. Your son may need comfort and reassurance, having been thrown into the deep end, so to speak, before knowing how to swim. As stimulating as it can be for kids to see graphic sexual material, it can also be overwhelming and even frightening.

Keep the lines of communication with your son open for the coming weeks and months, watching for indications that he may need additional help coming to terms with what he has seen.

All parents should have appropriate filters installed on computers, ensuring that those who care for their children does, as well. While it's impossible to prevent kids from online sexual material if they're determined to find it, it's important to supervise children's online activity, while providing age-appropriate information to satisfy their natural interest in knowing more about sex.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.