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Ask The Expert: My Stepson is Taking My (Very) Personal Items

Dear Your Teen:

My stepson is 14 and he lives with us full time. My husband has had custody of him since he was 3 years old. He only sees his mom about once a year. I have a very active role as his parent. He is ADHD and on the immature side. Overall, he is a good kid. However, since he turned 13, we have found several pairs of my underwear hiding in his room at least six times. A couple of times we have found feminine products and adult novelty items. I get the whole curiosity thing but six times feels excessive for taking these inappropriate items.

We can’t get an explanation from him or get him to stop doing it. He has been seeing a therapist for seven months and the therapist has told him it’s not acceptable to violate others’ privacy. We have now put a lock on our door. I don’t know how to handle this situation. I’m not okay with this behavior at all. I do not, however, want to emotionally damage him by my reactions.

EXPERT | Sari Cooper, LCSW

Since I am a therapist who also focuses on sexuality, I think I can be most helpful by shining a light on those potential aspects of this behavior.

When adolescents are going through puberty, their curiosity about all aspects of sexuality is considered normative.

Frequently, an adolescent will see something that has a kind of lightbulb effect on them. This is an interest that may serve as an erotic trigger now and in the future. Your stepson may simply be fascinated with women’s underwear. This could even evolve into a fantasy or fetish for him later in his life. It’s important to understand that having any kind of fantasy or fetish is not a problem, unless it causes distress for the individual with the fetish or a partner.

It is also perfectly normal for an adolescent to not want to talk about sexuality with his parents, especially around fantasies or specific sexual interests.

Your instinct to be careful about emotionally hurting him is a good one. Your and your husband’s reactions have potential for long-term hurt. Many people look back on this time of life and can remember distinctly when they were made to feel embarrassed by their interest in sex. You might consider writing a letter to your son about witnessing his maturation and his natural interest in female-related items and sexual things. Perhaps say that you would like to support his growth. You wish to ensure his privacy (and your own), and that either of you is available to respond to questions, offer guidance, or just listen.

For more general step-parenting advice:

It might be helpful to buy your step son a book about specifics around sexuality. Then he can begin to put words to his feelings and/or interests, since it’s not entirely clear from your description that he is using his stepmom’s underwear as a sexual turn on. Maybe he is using it for another reason, like exploring gender identity. It may also be helpful to speak with his therapist about how to support your stepson’s sexual development without his feeling like he needs to sneak around.

Hope this helps.

Sari Cooper, LCSW

Sari Cooper is a licensed individual and couples therapist, a certified sex therapist, speaker and writer in New York City. Cooper runs Sexuality Workshops to help parents talk to their children about sex. Learn more at saricooper.com.