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How to talk to your kids about porn

Published: Thursday, Aug. 14 2014 4:45 a.m. MDT

The way parents communicate with their children about pornography is crucial.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Late afternoon sunlight streams through the windows in Lauren's playroom, falling on a small table set for a tea party.

There are tiny porcelain plates, cups and a pitcher decorated with a teddy bear wearing a red jacket and green bow. A Mickey Mouse alarm clock sits on one end of the table; nearby, Barbies wait for an invitation outside their mansion.

Homemade art adorns the playroom walls and a shoebox near the closet serves as a shelf for the American Girl library.

Here in this haven of childhood, Paula knew her daughter would be safe.

It's been a year now, but the Salt Lake City mother still reels when she recalls the day she learned her daughter had been secretly watching hard-core pornographic videos in her playroom closet with friends after being introduced to the videos by another child.

"She's 8," Paula said. "She still believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. You think you are doing every thing right and then you discover you've been invaded by an intrusive, outside, evil scummy force. It's so gut-wrenching. The sadness of an innocence lost. You only get one childhood."

Every day, thousands of children spend hours online via a computer, smartphone, tablet or gaming system, and in the past year, one in four have seen sexual material they didn't want to see, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center's “Trends in Unwanted Online Experiences and Sexting: Final Report.” What's more, 81 percent of the time, kids have seen those online images at home.

Not only can such exposure lead to confusion, questioning and future struggles for the child, but parents suffer too, often sinking into guilt that such a violation happened on their watch.

While pornography exposure is almost unavoidable in today's sex-saturated society, experts say the way parents respond to that exposure, educate themselves and establish patterns of communication is crucial to their child's — and their own — healthy recovery.

"The parents I work with who do really well see this topic and this issue as a real opportunity for connection and growth with their child," says Brannon Patrick, director of Lifestar Lehi and director of group development at Addo Recovery, both programs treating pornography addiction. "They're much closer to their children because of this issue and feel like they're on the same team. It really is an opportunity to practice some good parenting and some healthy attachment."

The discovery

Paula, who asked that her family be identified only by first names, still remembers the day of the phone call.

It was from another mother, who had finally gotten it out of her daughter that she had been watching sex videos at Lauren's house.

Paula brushed it off as impossible, but her husband Glen went to the playroom to talk with Lauren and confirmed their worst fears, then immediately password protected the iPad.

Weeks before, a friend two years older had been over and urged Lauren to search "sex" on YouTube. From there, the girls had accessed nearly unlimited graphic videos, many of them violent.

Eventually Paula got Lauren to show her what she searched, and the titles alone made her sick. Paula estimates Lauren watched about 30 videos before they found out.

"It's traumatic to the parent, it's real trauma," says Patrick. "The family that they thought they had, all of a sudden … it can be changed instantly. It's really shameful for the parents as well, feeling like they're not enough, that they messed up in some terrible way. Parents need their own recovery. They need to heal from that trauma so that they can be there for their kids."

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