The family came in ashamed and scared. They wanted me to dictate what to tell their 12-year-old child about her sexting with a 16-year-old boy. I said wait, slow down. Just like a journalist’s job is to show not tell, a therapist’s job is to guide not do.

Oh no…

I took the parents in first to soothe their reactions. A committed, working-class, divorced couple, they were watchful of their kids and couldn’t believe this was happening. We spoke carefully about what they should do, each parent respecting the other. They had yet to tell their daughter that they had gone to the police.

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Then I brought the child in alone. I gently reassured her that although she had never met me, I was here to protect her – and only her – from getting bombarded. She understood. Did she want to talk about it?  No. I understood.

I often remind kids that I work for them. Not the school, their parents, lawyers, or doctors, etc. This is an important concept.  In some cases they never had such support in their lives. It’s a good moment to explain confidentiality too. That therapists can keep your secrets (unless you are in imminent danger). When given at the right time, this can be a gift. The pain of holding and hiding is often worse than the fear of revealing and telling.

With the family all together, the child sobbed quietly into her mother’s jacket.

They were only trying to shield her from getting in over her head. It’s one thing to have lost your phone boundaries, it’s another to possibly be unsafe. A 12-year-old is certainly not equipped to know the difference.  That fine line of judgment is often not formed until well into our 20’s.  According to research on adolescent development,

“For further clues between the link between adolescent emotions and brain development, Yurgelun-Todd examines the prefrontal cortex, and a process she calls increased frontalization. As the brain matures in adolescence, the prefrontal cortex assumes responsibility for many of the cognitive processes–such as reasoning, planning and behavior control–that are initially performed in the more primitive subcortical and limbic structures, she says. The development of the prefrontal cortex parallels improvements in cognitive control and behavioral inhibition as an adolescent transitions to an adult. Frontalization may underlie adolescents’ growing ability to think abstractly outside of themselves, and see themselves in the way others see them–which could contribute to the feeling of being constantly on stage and judged that many teens experience.”  

So there are three things kids and parents can do right now to prevent a crisis:

  1. Text before sext.  Stop, wait, and wonder who you are getting involved with.  Is it worth it?  Do you have the confidence and self-esteem to say “No,” if necessary?  Have you ever met this person?  It’s important to know someone face-to-face before conducting a REAL relationship. Relationships require trust. Do you trust yourself that you can handle adult responsibilities like sex?  Do you trust him to be honest?
  2. Slow down and assess who, what, and where you are going.  Is this the relationship you want?  Do your parents know?  What if they did?  Do you feel you are in danger?  Help is available.  Suicide hotlines and textlines are free.  Professionals, school counselors, and friends may also be of help.  Being overwhelmed is a good sign something is wrong.  Trust your gut.
  3. Remember where it goes.  Do you want that very same picture going around homeroom tomorrow morning?  I know many young people who have had this happen and it is significantly mortifying. Do not get sucked in by peer pressure. You are stronger than that!

The bottom line is that the teen brain is not ready for action until it is. There’s a reason for that.  Judgment and planning are last to arrive in the brain’s processing centers.  Give them their due.

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