I Caught My Teen Sexting. Now What?

You might have gotten the call from another parent, who was appalled. Or the school administrator. Or maybe you found out about it yourself. Inadvertently saw some of the photos on your teen’s phone. Read some of the racy texts.

How you discovered it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, you caught your teen sexting.

Help! My teen is sexting.

Sexting involves the exchange of sexually explicit content, such as messages or photographs, between mobile devices. Interestingly enough, the word was first listed in the dictionary in 2012 – around the time smartphones were gaining popularity among teens.

When parents realize their teen is sexting, many feel horrified. Ashamed. Angry.

One thing to realize, however, is that sexting has become very common among teenagers in today’s generation. In a 2008 survey commissioned by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 20% of teens ages 13-20 said they had sent sexually explicit photo of themselves to someone else. Additionally, 39% of teens had sent a sexting message.

While this is unfortunate, we share this to inform you: You’re not alone. So many parents have been, and currently are, in the same situation as you are now.

Nevertheless, when it is your child engaged in this interaction, we understand that your emotions may get the better of you. So the first thing to do is to temporarily put your feelings aside. While you might be tempted to yell at your child, or even cry, take a deep breath. Count to ten while breathing in and out from your abdomen. At this point, you need to act from a place of logic, not fury. We’ll be giving you a step-by-step guide on how to deal with this crisis.

Remove access to electronic devices

After calming down, the very next thing you need to do is remove your teen’s access to all electronic devices, including their phone.

When you take away the phone, your child will be upset. Actually, that’s an understatement. More likely they’ll be furious and hysterical. They’ll probably scream, cry, shout, beg, and plead for their phone back. Instead of yelling back at them, understand their hysteria.

Realize that in today’s day and age, the phone has become like another appendage to the child’s body, and removing it from them is like cutting off a limb. Validate their feelings, but do not return the phone just yet.

One suggested way of preparing your teen before you remove their phone is telling them: “I’m not mad at you. I love you and I want to help you. I want to have a conversation about what’s going on. We have to come up with a plan together to keep you safe. In the meantime, I need to take the phone. Later, we will have a lengthy conversation about this.”

Of course, your teen might be tempted use someone else’s phone until they get theirs back. To prevent this, communicate with others. If your child has a best friend, talk to their mother. Let them know you took away your child’s phone and that they might ask to use the friend’s.

Sexting is a federal crime

Why act so strongly, you ask?

Because teen sexting is a crime in the U.S. Anyone who sends or receives sexually explicit content electronically could face charges of child pornography from both the state and federal government. Originally, these laws were instituted to help protect children from predators. But even when the photo or message in question is being sent to a friend, sexting still violates child pornography statutes. Convicted teens may even have to register as sex offenders.

In fact, just this year a high school teen in Maryland was charged with child pornography for distributing a racy video of herself to two friends.

That’s why sexting is such a serious matter.

Having a serious conversation

When some time has passed, and both you and your teen have cooled down a little, have a formal conversation. Before going into the conversation, realize that your teen is probably more ashamed than you are about what’s going on. It is highly embarrassing for a teen to have a parent read sexual texts and posts they never meant to become public. Be sensitive and as nonjudgmental as you can.

In this conversation, talk to your teen about what led them to engage in such actions.  Consider whether your teen is struggling with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or trouble setting boundaries.

“Oftentimes, teens who get caught in sexting or conversations with predators online, such as sex traffickers, struggle with mental health issues like low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, depression, anxiety, maybe even a mood disorder,” says Jennifer Twist, Admissions Coordinator at Evolve Mental Health Treatment Centers for Teens in California.

“Sometimes these teens don’t have many friends and feel lonely. The digital world of social media becomes the space where they can feel popular and attractive. So when a guy pops up in their inbox and starts chatting, they reply back.”

Sex traffickers and social media

Often, teens who get involved in sexting are victims of sex traffickers. A predator posing as a cute teenage boy might write, “You’re really beautiful” and then ask for some more photos. “It can go from ‘can you send me a picture of yourself?’ to ‘Can you send a nude one to me?’ to ‘Let’s get together,’” explains Twist.

These girls believe they are speaking to boys their own age. They could think they’re developing a romantic relationship with a friend. But often these men are predators and much older than they assume to be.

Even when the teen might want to cut off contact, she might too scared. Sometimes, once things have already progressed, the predator might start threatening to harm the teen or her family if she tells anyone about what’s going on.

Note: While we use a girl in the example above, any teen of any gender can be a victim of such a situation.

Mental health treatment for teens

For reasons mentioned above, teens who become engaged in inappropriate conversations with people online (or in person) might need mental health treatment.

At a teen mental health treatment center, staff will get to the root of your teen’s issues. The primary issue is usually not the sexting; it’s the symptom. Often, their depression, anxiety, loneliness, lack of self esteem, issue with boundaries, or another mental health issue leads to a vulnerability that people can take advantage of.

If you are being honest with yourself, you might realize that there are other things going on in your teen’s life that they’re struggling with: school, friends, family relationships, social media addiction, or all of four. Seeking help at a teen treatment center – where they’ll be with other adolescents their own age, many of whom are in the same boat– will resolve these issues. It will also help your teen develop the coping skills needed to move forward with life in a healthy way.

Gender-specific vs. co-ed treatment for teens

After discovering their teen engaged in such an inappropriate encounter, some parents believe their teen can only receive treatment in a gender-specific program. Mental health professionals like Twist urges them to think twice about this.

“Teens need to learn how to properly interact with their peers of the opposite gender, not learn how to avoid them altogether. We truly believe that girls and boys need to learn how to talk appropriately to each other in a healthy way. This skill will serve them well both immediately and in the future, as adults.”