By Megan Schmidt
Recently, my 9-year old daughter was subjected to grooming behavior and sent pornography on her cell phone by an unknown adult. I was 2 feet away from her.
Driving home from our mid-winter break vacation my daughter let me know she was texting — she thought — with one of her classmates. “Mom, I think [friend] sent the wrong picture …” she said and passed me the phone with a pornographic picture of a fully naked woman, legs opened. As I scrolled upwards I saw that my daughter had, while thinking she was talking to her friend, sent a picture of herself, a squishy toy she had just gotten, Star Wars gifs, and a song.
The adult clearly, disturbingly — and frankly — not surprisingly, knew they were texting a child before they sent the pornography and then invited her to call them.
I monitor her phone several times a day to make sure only her friends and family are communicating with her, and she only uses it in my presence. This situation escalated within a matter of minutes with her sitting directly behind me.
It begs endless “what if’s.”
My daughter’s first reaction was to apologize to me: “I’m sorry, Mom! I’m so sorry!” It took time to explain — and for her to trust — that I was not angry with her, but at what had happened to her; to explain how perpetrators want children to feel embarrassed, confused and ashamed to reduce the likelihood they will tell an adult; and that her confusion was not an invitation.
I asked her what other loving adults in her life we could share this with so she could experience a similar message from them and really begin to internalize it. We also discussed how this wasn’t something she needed to hide from friends. It could help them if she talked about it, though they would need their parents’ guidance to understand it all. And, that this was a reportable crime and I needed to call the police.
This experience underscored for me how little sexual predation of children is discussed amongst or with parents/caregivers. It could be because of fear of judgment, avoidance of discomfort, naivete, minimization/denial, misunderstanding of grooming behavior or how early exposure to sexual objectification negatively impacts children.
But the fact is, our children will be exposed.
How to respond
Let’s pause here: How many of us have proactively talked with our children about any of these issues?
Parents need to understand and recognize grooming behavior and help their children to; to make sure a child knows they will never be “in trouble”’ if they find themselves in a confusing, sexually exploitative situation; and to communicate in ways that normalize the range of emotions children may have when they encounter sexual material online including fear, shame, embarrassment, curiosity, excitement and/or confusion.
Parents also need to understand that the sharing of sexual material with a child or teenager is a crime and report it.
Educating our children and ourselves about sexual predation is huge a demand for parents and caregivers who are navigating any number of overwhelming life events and day-to-day logistics. Often the demands may exceed our resources. We need to manage our own distress and discomfort; we may have a sexual trauma history of our own that is undealt with, little preparation from our own upbringing, and lack of emotional support to lean into this issue.
We are not supposed to be able to do this all on our own or perfectly.
We can do better. First, we can pause and notice what it brings up internally, and acknowledge it with compassion, before engaging with the issue. We can call things what they are, anticipate them and talk openly about them. We can ask for help and involve others instead of reflexively letting it be a “family issue” or wanting to “move on.”
My daughter’s advice: “If it happens, tell an adult immediately.” Let’s think about we all need to do proactively to make sure every child knows they can.
Megan Schmidt is a licensed clinical psychologist who lives in Winthrop.