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Worried Your Teen is Sexting? Sexting Signs Parents Should Watch For

In the exam room, mothers of my patients often begin by asking me for birth control for their daughter. From that point on, the parent sits in anger that fills the entire room and the teen sits in shame trying to blot out the experience, not knowing how to respond when they are in need of support themselves.

Seeing this disconnect, I can sense that the parent saw or found something they were hoping never to find. After I assess the parent’s comfort level with me and see their guard coming down, I ask, “Why did you bring your daughter in for birth control today?” Quite often the answer is a text—a text that has changed their frame of reference and changed their lives.

Is My Teen Sexting?

Sexts are the death of innocence in some parents’ eyes and a stark betrayal for others. Sexts are both a last straw and a final confirmation that bring a mother and daughter into my clinic. When the fathers come, I know the situation must be destabilizing. I know that the family must have been stopped in their tracks when they saw those photos of their daughter. In my 14 years in practice, I have never had a sexting complaint about a son. But this is NOT an issue that only girls face. Do we not find our sons’ sexts, or do we find them, delete them and try, try, try to forget what we have seen?

A previous study found that one in four teens admits to sexting. ADMITS to sexting. That is a very scary thought for parents of teens.

Parents should be aware of the telling signs that their teen may be sexting. Signs of sexting include:

  • Being secretive or anxious about their phones
  • Deleting histories
  • Overreacting when you pick up their phone
  • Crying, isolation and a change in grades or behavior which may be the result of public ridicule from exposure to sexting 

These signs may not always mean that your teen is sexting, but they are signs that something may be going on with your teen. These signs should spark an open and honest conversation between the parent and teen.

Advice for Parents

Some advice that I give to parents about their teens and sexting is:

  • Be sensitive to the situation. Anger toward your teen may cause them to close up and not talk to you at all. Make a plan to move beyond the anger.
  • Call your teen’s doctor to make an appointment for you and your teen to talk openly and in a clinical setting. We are here to help you navigate the situation.
  • Give your child a second chance. 

Giving your teen a second chance is so important. Encourage your teen to be open and honest with you and let them know that you are always there for them. Show them that they should feel comfortable coming to you for advice and for help.

As a mother, I sometimes get so caught up in the parents’ emotions that I momentarily forget that I am an advocate for my patient. Then I remember my patient’s age and I remember that she would never have believed that something so bad could happen. I remember to send her to a psychologist for counseling. Additionally, I remember to get a social worker involved to coordinate care with the school psychologist.

I consider her maturity level and the fact that she is a teen in the big world. She is vulnerable and naïve and all the things that we were in our early teen years. Then, I find a way to pick her up and help her recover from sexting.

Wendy Anderson-Willis, MD, is a member of the Section of Ambulatory Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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