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My son had his pants down in front of his laptop, what now?

Question: 

Dear Stop It Now!,

I caught my son alone in a room with his pants off, with his laptop in front of him, as soon as I walked in, he pulled his pants up.

Response: 
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Dear Concerned Parent,

Understanding children’s sexual behaviors is often confusing and it makes sense that you’re asking these questions. I’m glad you’ve reached out to us.

Though I don’t know how old your son is or what he was doing on his laptop, let's address several different possibilities in this email. First, it’s important to understand a bit about age appropriate sexual behaviors at each developmental stage. 

What's Age Appropriate, What's Worrisome?
If your son is younger and watching pornography, this would be concerning. Though genital stimulation and masturbation can occur even when a child is a toddler, young children should not be exposed to pornography, as this can really skew their view of what appropriate behavior looks like. Rather than discouraging him from touching his genitals, this gives you a good opportunity to teach him about privacy, boundaries, and his own development. This could be a great opportunity to teach your child about healthy sexuality, and to talk to him about what is appropriate, what is unacceptable, and to go over your rules regarding touch and boundaries in a way that is developmentally relevant to him and his needs (see more on safety planning below). Let him know that if he finds videos or pictures of naked pictures of adults or youth online, he should press the “back” button and then come talk to you – and he won’t be in trouble. If he wants to know more about his own or other people’s bodies, it’s important for him to be able to get information from a safe source: he can go in his room, close the door, look at or touch his own body, or he can look at a Healthy Sexual Development resource you give him, or an age-appropriate book (like one from Robie Harris).

If your son is an older teenager, it would be normal for him to be masturbating. However, even though something may be developmentally healthy, it’s important that you discuss your own values around healthy sexuality, perhaps pornography use and even how to use critical thinking skills when watching porn – to ensure that he grows up with a healthy sense of boundaries, relationships, sex and how to navigate real-world sexual encounters. These Parent Tip Sheets (It's Time We Talked) can help you start this talk with your son no matter what age he is. Teens aren’t always comfortable asking parents questions, so you may want to also check out these resources, and pass them on to your son. 

  • Info for Teens (Planned Parenthood): Information for teenagers about their changing bodies, sexual and reproductive health, relationships, and consent.
  • Sex, Etc.: An organization by teens for teens that has articles and videos on identity, masturbation, sex, and what’s normal and healthy for your body. 

Internet Safety and Body Safety
Adults should always monitor children’s interactions online, as well as on any console they have, and on any mobile phone they have access to. Parents sometimes choose to give their children guidelines for technology use, some of which may include that the parent approves any new online “friend” the child makes. Also, if your son were an older child or teen, talk to him about good digital citizenship – and about how choices he makes now can stay with him for the rest of his life, about cyberbullying, sexting, the risks and rewards of sharing information online, and what he is and is not allowed to do when using the internet. Moving forward, our Preparing For Internet Safety and our Internet Safety Resources may be helpful for you.

Frequent talks about healthy sexuality, paired with well-defined family rules regarding privacy and physical touch, are the two main components in a Family Safety Plan. Safety planning is a great preventative measure that helps children understand what is acceptable and what is unacceptable when it comes to boundaries, conduct, and physical interaction. Establishing these rules helps your son (and any other children) understand what to expect and what is not okay when it comes to behavior, touch, limits, and other important safety issues whether he is at your house, in school, out in the community, with friends, or even at a relative’s house. And, if he’s an older teen, this helps him bring healthy boundaries and values with him into the relationships he has with others as he grows. 

When a rule is broken by a child, you can give a consequence similar to those given when another non-sexual boundary rule is broken. This will also further help keep the lines of communication open between you and your son, and he will know to talk to you if someone ever “breaks a rule” with him. 

Some families have rules like: Adults and children have the doors open and keep their clothes on when playing. The places we cover with a bathing suit are private, and we always keep our hands to ourselves. Unless you need help in the bathroom from your parents, or if you are at the doctor’s office getting a physical exam, no one should touch or see your genitals but you. If someone is asking about your private parts, talking to you about theirs, or if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable, it is important to talk to a trusted adult. Surprises are okay because it’s a happy thing we tell someone about later, but we don’t keep secrets. Adults and children always ask before giving a hug, kiss, or high-five and they respect the other person’s answer. Only one person behind a closed bedroom/bathroom door and we always knock before entering. And whatever else you may want to tailor to your family’s needs. So, you may even start this talk with your son by saying, “I’m sorry I walked into your room without knocking, I broke a safety rule and I apologize. But I also wanted to talk to you about what you were doing on the computer…” 

Continuing the Conversation
Talking to Children and Teens is a subject that is difficult for parents throughout the world. Having some additional knowledge about sexual development is helpful so you can know what to expect in your son throughout these next few years, and also, what topics he may be curious about as he matures. Talk to him as you are comfortable. If he’s a younger child these don’t always need to be formal talks, but can occur in everyday life like when you’re walking down the street and you see a teaching opportunity – like a pregnant woman or two people kissing. You can communicate your values effectively through modeling your expectations, as well as through frequent open talks about development and sexuality. 

Recognizing Warning Signs
Though many kids these days spend much of their free time online or connected to devices, you may want to look at these Warning Signs a Young Person May Be a Target of Online Abuse and these Warning Signs in Children of Possible Sexual Abuse see if there were anything on these list you had noticed in your son’s behavior. If you did notice any warning signs in your son, or even if you or he has questions or wants support around sexuality or growing up, now may be a great time to get some additional support involved for him, perhaps his pediatrician or a counselor.

We hope this is helpful, and please do reach out again if you have any questions.

Take care,
Stop It Now!

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Last edited on: April 22nd, 2020