Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

We recently moved to a new country and my daughter quickly made some friends who make me uncomfortable. Specifically, there is one boy who used spectacularly sexually explicit language with her in a text, which I find degrading and demeaning.

I found this out because after my daughter came home late from an outing with friends for her birthday, I used that as an excuse to go through her phone, as I’d suspected that there was something off about this boy. To complicate matters, he’s the son of a colleague.

What do you think I should do?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

This is a great opportunity to open the lines of communication between you and your daughter around sexuality and relationships. I say “open the lines of communication” because whatever you discuss now will be just one of many conversations to come, and also because these conversations, if they’re to be helpful to her at all, will be not a monologue but a reciprocal and ongoing dialogue.

Understandably, you have strong feelings about what this boy wrote, and you may see this as a chance to share those feelings with her. But before you do so, consider the dynamic that sets up: her voice, and her feelings, get lost. Instead, I urge you to use this more as a chance to hear how she feels about what’s going on with this boy. I know this takes a lot of restraint, but if you come from a place of curiosity, not only will you learn something you may not have known about your daughter and her inner life, but she’ll be more apt to trust you and feel comfortable coming to you when the stakes are even higher.

In listening to her, you may find that the teenage years present a period when not only are the children experiencing great change, but their parents often have an adjustment to make as well: They need to come to the realization that their kids may not see the world the way their parents do. For instance, what you find degrading, your daughter may find exciting. And if she does, you’ll want to be curious about that—why does she find it exciting? In other words, you want to be careful not to shame her or convince her that your way of seeing something is the only way, or the “right” one.

In this conversation, your honesty with her will serve as a model for her honesty with you. When you bring this up, you might say something like, “I know you may be upset by what I’m about to say, but I’ve had an uncomfortable feeling about some of your new friends, so I looked through your phone. I know I should have brought this up with you instead, and I could be wrong about all of this, but I did see [name of boy’s] text, and I’m curious about how you feel about it.”

Expect her to be mortified and also angry that you went through her phone. Most likely, though, a part of her will be relieved that you brought it up. Many teens wonder how to navigate this new sexual terrain, and their friends are just as confused, so knowing that there’s a calm, trusted adult they can talk to helps them feel safe (even if they pretend otherwise).

As you discuss this, you may also want to understand more about her relationship with this boy. Is he a friend or is more going on between them? Is his interest reciprocated? If she has a crush on him, you can find out what she likes about him. Do they have interests in common? Values? Or is he merely cute or cool? Does she feel pressured by him to delve into territory she’s not ready for or interested in? What does she think motivated him to send that kind of text?

Remember, your job is mostly to listen. If you do want to share your thoughts after you’ve heard her out, you can tell her—again, without judgment—how his text felt to you, which might be a springboard for more discussions around relationships, online behavior, intimacy, expectations, social pressure, the short- and long-term consequences of what people send online, and good decision-making. Ask your daughter what she wants from her relationship with this boy, and how she wants to respond to texts like this. All of these questions will help her step back and really think about what’s happening and what feels good or not so good to her, so she can establish a framework for how she wants to be treated.

You may also want to set some reasonable rules around online behavior in your family by laying out what are acceptable uses of the phone and what happens to your daughter’s phone privileges if those rules are breached. Some parents use apps that let them monitor their kids’ online activity, but many kids find ways around them (using their friends’ phones, for instance). Other parents make it clear to their child that a condition of having a phone is that the parents get to check it periodically. The point is to set the stage for open communication and to have clear expectations going forward.

As for the boy himself, unless he’s breaking the law—at least in the United States, sexting is a crime for minors, including forwarding someone else’s sext to a friend, and your daughter should be made aware of this, if she isn’t already—I’m not sure it matters that the boy is a colleague’s son. If this does escalate to sexting, you may at that point want to let his parents know what their son is sending—again, without judging them or him, but simply parent to parent, knowing that all kids make mistakes and that his parents probably don’t know that this is happening.

The good news is that your discovery will give you a way to begin these important conversations with your daughter, creating a safe place for her to go if needed, and imparting the message that she’s in charge of how she responds to sexual interest, both wanted and unwanted, and that she has the ability to choose her own actions wisely.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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