Main Kids, Sex & Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age

Kids, Sex & Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age

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The biggest threat in today’s digitally enhanced society is the growing absence of intimacy. Our children are staring at their phones or devices all day and increasingly interacting through a digital medium instead of face to face. For that matter, so are some adults. This has to change.

Without an understanding of how to have a relationship in real life (IRL), a person cannot develop a sense of empathy or an ability to sense the world around them. I am not the only child psychologist worried about this; it’s a widely held concern. Children can and should develop intimate friendships as precursors to intimate relationships later in life.

Explain to your children how to choose friends, that they need to be wise about who they allow into their lives, and what happens when a friend hurts their feelings. Encourage in-person interactions, including participation in sports, clubs, and sleepovers with friends. Youth groups or faith-based organizations that undertake community service projects and discuss emotions can also be great. All of these activities will develop a child’s self-confidence in dealing with friends of any gender.

Helping your preteen build healthy relationships with friends, classmates, neighbors, and teammates sets the stage for her to develop healthy romantic, and eventually sexual, relationships in the coming years. Learning how to choose good childhood and adolescent friends will help her to choose a partner who is trustworthy when she is ready for sex.

Playdates and Beyond

When your child is young, you probably set up playdates with neighbors or your child’s friends from daycare. Your criteria for fostering a friendship might include the two children’s closeness in age, the fact that they play well together, or that you get along with the other parents and want to hang out together. No matter the reason, when children are young, their friendships are most often nurtured, if not wholly orchestrated, by a parent.

Eventually children ; start to choose their own friends. This may start as interest in a playdate with a new friend at school for whom you’ll have to track down the parents to make arrangements. Later the children might exchange parents’ numbers directly and facilitate the introduction. Of course, as teens, kids find their own friends and make their own arrangements to meet up.

Strong personal relationships are a protective factor for tweens and teens, as the kids most at risk of being lured into unhealthy or even anonymous relationships online are usually seeking to fill a need for acceptance and friendship. There are many ways you can help your child nurture his or her relationships.


Don’t wait for your child to ask to have friends over. He may need a little encouragement, as it can be hard to make friends! Buy an extra ticket to a hockey game, invite another family along to a picnic, or have neighborhood people and their kids over for a BBQ. Encourage face-to-face social interaction so your child is able to create meaningful connections with others.

Similarly, if your child has a friend over for a playdate, the kids might need a little help “getting started.” The go-to icebreakers that adults have been socialized to rely on—weather chitchat, news headlines—aren’t relevant to kids, so provide a few fresh ideas for their social toolbox. Keep a few dollar-store craft activities or board games stashed away to bring out if your child and a new friend seem stuck during a playdate. Initiate lively conversations over lunch or a snack by asking an interesting or absurd open-ended question (“What’s the strangest animal you’ve ever seen in real life? Where were you when you saw it?” or “If this food came to life right now, what do you think it would do first?”). Your child will start to learn your technique and may use it himself to start more conversations at school or in other social situations.


Mix it up by inviting different people to different events to ensure your child has a diverse group of peers and isn’t dependent on just one friend. While there’s nothing wrong with having a best friend, and indeed that’s a wonderful relationship to nurture, a BFF shouldn’t have exclusive rights to your child’s friendship. Continually encourage your son or daughter to befriend new kids at school or invite out a person he’s never invited before.

Cultural diversity is also important, so open your child up to friendships with children from varied backgrounds. These relationships are valuable, as they promote a worldview that there’s room for everyone. Kids who have friends of different backgrounds become adults who are comfortable with diversity.


Are there aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, or other relatives who connect well with your child? Strong bonds with other family members can be beneficial to kids as they progress into their teens. Time spent with relatives can be an opportunity to foster growth and independence from your immediate family unit, but your child is still with trusted adults. For example, a few days of vacation at grandma’s house or with the cousins, but without mom or dad, can build a child’s confidence. A child’s extended family can be a powerful influence on him as he’s developing and offers an easy and natural extension of mom and dad’s protection.


Getting to know the parents of your children’s friends has many benefits. Maybe you’ll make a friend, too! At the very least, you’ll have more information about your child’s friend and what might be going on in her life that could affect your child. Additionally, it’s easier to coordinate playdates if you’re in contact with the other adult. If your child is already a tween and starting to coordinate her own social outings, knowing the parents of her friends can give you peace of mind about the decision-making skills of the group as well as assurance that other sets of eyes and ears are watching out for the kids.


Get your child involved in activities that involve human interaction, such as sports, clubs, or a youth group. Team sports are fabulous for relationship building, but individual sports carry a great many benefits for your child, too. There are dozens of youth organizations, such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and 4-H, that kids can join, as well as school activities such as choir, student government, marching band, and the debate club. If your son or daughter doesn’t care for one activity, try another, but be careful not to let kids bounce from one activity to another so fast that they don’t really get to try any of them fully. It’s a good idea to agree to a time frame up front and stick with that, so your child learns to fulfill his commitments and has time to create those relationships that could become lasting friendships.

Swap Screens for IRL Relationships

We’ve all heard the stats around screen time and how much time kids are spending on phones, computers, and tablets. A survey by the Pew Research Center, the results of which were published in a paper titled, “Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018,” found the following:

• Smartphone ownership is nearly universal among teens, with 95 percent reporting they have access to one.

• About 45 percent of teens say they use the Internet “almost constantly,” which is nearly double the number in the 2014–2015 survey.

• Another 44 percent say they go online several times a day.

• Taken together, these stats mean roughly nine in ten teens go online at least multiple times per day.

Free time spent on these devices (beyond schoolwork, reading, etc.) takes kids away from face-to-face relationships. Parents need to make sure that real-life socializing is not lost to screen time. Encourage your child to hang out with siblings, send her outside to play with friends, or (if you can convince her) get her to do an activity with you. Give her some extra chores around the house if nothing else works.

Regulating screen time will help to ensure that kids don’t become consumed by their devices. They need to have time and room for real relationships with their siblings and family, friends and classmates, and the new people they meet in everyday life. Expecting kids to earn their screen time is a strategy that lets parents create reasonable boundaries around time spent in front of screens while empowering the child with responsibility. Here’s what I suggest to parents: If a child wants to watch a movie, then she has to do something to earn it. The rate can be one minute equals one minute or any variation that works for your family. So if you have a rate in which one minute of an activity equals two minutes of screen time, and your child practices piano for half an hour, she gets one hour of screen time.

Parents, also take notice of the time you spend on screens—are you often on your phone or tablet, or watching TV? You need to model healthy consumption for your kids. They will mimic your actions, whatever they are.

Relationships IRL take work. Help kids learn the skills they need to develop and nurture these relationships with the following ideas.


Teach your child the skills of evaluation: Have him look at himself and think about whether he is a good friend to others. A good friend is clear about his own boundaries and respects the boundaries of others. Friends don’t talk behind someone’s back, gossip, post things online without permission, share others’ embarrassing stories, tattle, or break promises or confidences.

Parents need to teach discernment skills, such as thinking about what kind of person would make a good friend. What does your child think about so-called friends who don’t show the characteristics he thinks are important in a friend? Talk with your children about the difference between being friendly and being friends. The number-one friendship rule: To have a friend, you must be a friend. A good friend includes his friends in conversations or play, shares, is able to take turns, asks questions, has your back, tells the truth, is kind, and doesn’t brag or always talk about himself. Another great friendship rule that is easy to remember is: If you want to be interesting, be interested.


When a child learns empathy, she is maturing enough to be mindful of the concerns of others and learning to be less self-focused. Empathy isn’t a trait that comes easily to tweens because they’re at a developmental stage where they tend to be focused on themselves. So whenever there’s an opportunity to understand how someone else might experience a situation—perhaps in the home, to start with—use it.

One example might be a child who goes into her sister’s room to borrow clothes without asking. You can take the opportunity to ask, “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” instead of simply saying, “Give that back!” Use the dynamics and situations within your own home to teach your child the skills she will need to be a good friend outside the home. A lot of empathy-building overlaps with the concept of the Self boundary we discussed in the previous chapter—if your child is in the process of defining her own moral compass and values, she will likely already be considering how actions affect her feelings, and vice versa.

You want children to be observant beyond themselves, take notice of things going on around them in their school and community, and think about what’s happening in the wider world. When they ask you about a homeless person on the street, answer their questions with thoughtfulness and honesty. In return, ask your children questions about things they see. You may be surprised by their insight!


Talk with your children about how actions create certain outcomes or affect themselves and others. This is helpful for building empathy and consideration for others, and it’s also crucial for self-awareness. Understanding that something he does can have an effect down the road on many people he doesn’t even know is a thought-provoking lesson. Every child needs to learn to think about the way he comes across to others. Along with this concept, you want to make sure your child realizes that even actions as small as the words that come out of his mouth have an effect on other people. Eventually, your child will be able to understand that bigger actions can affect large numbers of people and environments. Help your child think through his actions with questions such as:

• “I wonder how Dad felt when you surprised him with that homemade birthday card?”

• “How do you think teachers feel when kids don’t finish their homework?”

• “I wonder what it’s like to live close to the ocean when there has been an oil spill?”

• “Why do you think those people are protesting outside that government building?”

Problem Solve Like a Pro

Teach your child how to resolve conflicts rather than just letting a friendship go. Keep in mind that conflicts often arise during times of transition. Many children come into my office to talk through ways to solve a problem. I tell them, “Take a deep breath and then think your way through the problem one step at a time.” Here are the steps I coach kids through:

• First of all, what happened?

• Next, how did it make you feel?

• Now let’s switch our perspective and pretend we are the other person—what do you think the other person is feeling?

• Next, what do you value about this person/friendship?

• Finally, is there a way to find common ground or a solution that works for everyone? (Take turns choosing the game at the next recess or agree that we won’t talk about each other in a mean way to others. Does someone need to apologize? Do both need to apologize and forgive?)

We need to start teaching kids how to compromise, how to ask for forgiveness, how to work through problems, and how to look at situations from another’s perspective. Good relationships are worth the investment, and give and take is essential to making these relationships work. Parents can also model these ideals—watching you constructively resolve disputes with your spouse or older children in the family will help your child develop similar skills.


A bully situation is one that includes intimidation or sustained threats to cross one of the boundaries we discussed in chapter 5. Perhaps the bully is crossing a personal boundary by being unkind or encouraging a child to violate one of her own core values in order to prove something. Kids need to learn to recognize when boundaries are being crossed, have the confidence to say no, and tell a trusted adult. All children need to also learn to respect the boundaries established by other people.

Kids should know that even someone they think is a friend might not act like it at times. This could be a one-time thing, or the other child could be going through a difficult time. In situations like these, kids need to know how to communicate their feelings and explain where their boundaries are. It’s important that they try to come to a resolution, which could mean working out the problem with the friend or perhaps going in different directions for a time.


If your child has a budding interest in romance or dating, he will likely soon face some of the drama that comes along with that. Just as certain friendships include tension, early romantic relationships can be full of angst. A nine-year-old might have the interest, but does he have the emotional maturity to handle the ups and downs of a romance?

Take it from me, a child psychologist with two decades of experience, a child of nine to twelve is too young for romantic relationships. Empathize with your child’s feelings, but there can be a lot of heartache that comes with romantic relationships, and children of that age usually aren’t equipped with the emotional savvy to deal with it. It will be virtually impossible to prevent your child from starting a romance if that is what he has decided he wants to do. Here are some ways you can express your concern and, hopefully, open up a critical and ongoing dialogue with your child on this subject:

• “You’ve got lots of time to be a grown-up and do grown-up activities like dating, but you don’t have much time left to be a kid. I would like you to slow things down. What do you think about that?”

• “Romantic relationships take a lot of time and energy. They can be a lot of work! It’s okay to change your mind if you realize you don’t want to have a boyfriend yet. I’m here to listen if you want to talk about it.”

• “I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of you dating just yet. I need you to know that, but I also want you to know that you can talk to me about anything—even if you’ve started having a relationship.”

• “I don’t think you’re ready to be dating. If you have made that choice, I hope you have done some thinking about boundaries—how you will treat that person and also how you will allow yourself to be treated. I’m here if you have any questions or worries.”

Kids have a lot of time before they need to worry about romance. Encourage them not to rush it.


As we consider bullying and early romances, let’s revisit Tyler, who we met in chapter 5. You’ll recall him as the middle schooler who was tricked by a group of classmates into sexting with an online “girlfriend” (via a fake social media account); eventually, these classmates embarrassed him by soliciting and distributing a naked photo of him. (Note that these kids faced legal ramifications for their actions.)

It’s obvious that these kids weren’t the right friends for Tyler. In counseling sessions, he and I talked a lot about what makes a good friend and what doesn’t. We discussed what matters more, being cool or having a few solid friends who have your back. Tyler’s family participated in the sessions as well. He was able to identify a couple of good friends in his life but those friends didn’t live close by, and he wasn’t able to see them without planning and rides from his parents. In session, his parents were able to commit to doing whatever it took to facilitate these better friendships.

Tyler decided not to switch schools because that naked picture had made the rounds at all the nearby schools; we decided together that it was better for him to hold his head up high and return to his school, despite the challenges. His parents did a good job of helping him to destigmatize his situation. His boundaries had been violated and kids at school and elsewhere had seen his body. That was embarrassing, but everyone has a body and there’s nothing shameful about sexuality. With the help of his family and his good friends, Tyler was able to move forward.

Tyler’s father, in particular, was helpful in nurturing good friendships and creating bonding moments. In one great example, Tyler’s dad purchased three season-pass tickets to a local team, and regularly took Tyler and a friend to baseball games. This gave Tyler an easy, fun way to reach out to other kids and begin to create healthier friendships at his school, and his dad had an opportunity to support, observe, and assist in this process.

* * *

Prioritizing healthy, real-life human connection is going to become increasingly important as our children’s generation progresses to adulthood in a screen-addicted world. Emphasizing the value and importance of human connections while your children are young will position them to cherish real-life relationships into their teens and adulthood.

By the time they hit the tween years, kids are choosing their own friends and deciding which activities they’ll participate in. That is part of the reason why middle school is so hard for some kids. If your child feels confident about her peer group and ability to relate to classmates and/or teammates, she will be better able to navigate the rough waters of adolescence.

Your child’s self-confidence will augment the relationship you as a parent are developing with her, and eventually, when your child becomes a teenager, you’ll be able to talk naturally with her about the fact that abstaining from sex doesn’t mean abstaining from intimacy. As your child ages, understanding the distinction between sex and intimacy will become more important, and you need to be able to discuss these things with her without either of you feeling that the subject is taboo.

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What three activities or events can you facilitate in the coming month to help your child nurture meaningful relationships?
How can you help them maintain these relationships?


I have guided parents and children on the subject of sex for nearly two decades, but I have never seen an environment like today’s, where so much explicit material is so accessible to so many. The Internet can be great for helping kids learn, staying connected with family and friends who live far away, and keeping up with current events. That powerful force also has a dark side that, despite being filtered or firewalled, is just one click away at any given moment.

The reality is that our kids face many more sexually charged situations than we did as kids. Their landscape now encompasses the pressures of social media and an influx of sexualized images and videos that arrive via their phones. The stories of my patients included in this book personalize the challenges children today may face. Although they are amalgamations of experiences drawn from many children, each conveys the psychological effects that can occur after early or repeated exposure to sexualized content, as well as the harmful results that stigma and prejudice can cause to a child’s psyche. Let’s make sure their struggles aren’t in vain. Honor them by taking lessons from their mistakes. As you work to keep your children safe and help them bounce back from inevitable mistakes, you honor the stories of Sonia, Nathan, Emily, Tyler, and Drew.

The good news is that powerful antidotes to the pressures and problems of growing up—many new, but some ages old—do exist. My Parental Compass offers a crucial navigational tool that you can use to keep your children safe amid these turbulent times. Guided by the principles of the Parental Compass, you can raise strong, resilient kids who, while perhaps not avoiding every pitfall along the way, will be able to circumvent most problems and deal with others as they come up.

What’s wonderfully unique about the Parental Compass—and what unites all the stories I’ve discussed in this book—is that there’s no magic formula for perfection, because perfection doesn’t exist. Raising strong, resilient children is a project filled with challenges, but the Parental Compass gives you a map by which you can navigate safe passage for you and your family. It guides you to regular practice of principles and strategies that work together to strengthen your bond with your child and boost her resilience in this sexualized, digital world. Take the points that resonate most within your family and capitalize on them in your everyday actions. Remember that parenting is a long game—it’s decades made up of years, years made up of days, days made up of moments. Use every moment to enhance your relationship with your child!

[image: Kids, Sex & Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Kids in the Sexualized Digital Age]

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As parents, we all have a lot going on in our daily lives and a variety of demands on our time—work, spouse, kids, schedules, and so on. It can be hard to stay on top of our own workload, never mind our kids’ latest interests and activities. It’s easy to assume that the apparent absence of a problem means there aren’t any. When something troubling does occur, it can catch us by surprise. Dealing with an unexpected problem can be tricky because you must simultaneously get up to speed on the causes of the problem and decide how to best handle it.

You’ll have an enormous advantage in steering your kids clear of trouble if you stay current with what’s going on in your children’s world, especially trends that attract teens: the popular social media, videos, music, brands, specialty items, and games. Even if you think your children are too young, aren’t interested, or don’t have access to the latest fad, you need to know about it because, sooner or later, every child will hear about the next big thing from a classmate at school, try it at a friend’s house, or see it online. Parents need to get on top of even innocuous trends early so they are better prepared when more troubling issues, such as drugs or other risky behaviors, do come along.

This means checking in regularly on what your child does online and on social media. For any age group of children, you must know what they are doing, what their friends are doing, and who is influencing them. Although some of the details of technological advances or social media interactions may be confusing, you need to know enough to be able to monitor your kids’ use of these apps or platforms.

This chapter is less about policing and controlling your child than it is about staying connected to what matters to your child and being aware of the world around him. You want to know what kids are talking about in school hallways and locker rooms. Learning their interests allows you to do a little research and then discuss those activities with your child, as needed. If a problem crops up later, you’re more likely to have already had a foundational conversation on which you can build to discuss the specific situation at hand. And, if you’re aware of a trend, you’re less likely to be caught off guard.

Why You Need to Keep Up

Staying current in your child’s life is an investment of time and energy, and offers one more way to build a solid foundation for your relationship. When a parent is meaningfully connected and engaged, the child knows he is a priority. When that bond is absent or lacking, a child will try to get it back, sometimes by doing things to get attention. Those attention-seeking behaviors can ramp up if the attention he is looking for doesn’t arrive, and a child may start to do things that are more shocking or provocative, simply because it gets him the reaction—attention—he desires.

So spend time listening and observing. Follow up so you really get to know and understand your child. The conversation needs to go deeper than asking for a quick rundown of his day or a Christmas/birthday list. Your attention needs to go deeper than showing up for dance recitals or soccer games. You must really get to know your child—his interests, his hopes, and his friendships.

Parents should aim to participate in their child’s world without becoming helicopter parents—hovering constantly—or making their kids feel like they are living in a police state—surveilling relentlessly and always suspicious. Rather, you want to immerse yourself in your child’s life on a regular basis, taking a deep dive into his world to understand what is important to him—and who is important to him. You can come up for air a bit, stepping back a little to give him room but remaining present, and then dive back in when an opening to learn more presents itself. Prioritizing your time so that you are plugged into what matters is what really resonates with your child.

When it comes to sexual issues, you may be surprised to see how much innuendo makes its way into the consciousness of our youth, particularly when it comes to gender roles. Parents should be aware of sexualized themes in video games, song lyrics, movies, TV shows, and toys. It can be helpful to sit down with your child and watch a movie or play with a toy alongside him and have a critical discussion about themes you notice that seem problematic.

Here are some questions you could ask to draw attention to the topic:

• “Wow, did you ever notice that this movie only shows boys liking math or science and girls liking classes like English and music? That’s not how it is in real life!”

• “I know you like playing your cousin’s video games, and this one has really great graphics, but I don’t like the way it talks about girls and women. We both know this isn’t real, but it really bothers me.”

• “The boy on that TV show seemed like he wanted a girlfriend so bad that he didn’t care about the kind of person she was, but she’s pretty mean to his friends. I wouldn’t want a girlfriend who acted like that, no matter how good-looking she is. And I’d tell her that she can’t treat my friends that way, either!”

In commenting on everyday examples of sexism and portrayals of gender, you can draw your child’s attention to two things: 1) the inequities surrounding gender that are sometimes taken for granted in our society, and 2) that what these media outlets depict isn’t always aligned with reality. It is important for children to learn this type of savvy media consumerism, so they learn to question messages that don’t reflect your family’s values rather than taking what they see at face value.

Balancing Their Right to Privacy and Your Need to Know

Parents often worry about being overbearing and wonder, “Where is the line between staying current and surveilling my kid? Should kids have any privacy?” The answers to those questions can only come from you and your family. Some parents pride themselves on supervising their kids stringently, while others prefer to be more relaxed with the rules until there’s a problem. In either case, as long as you are imparting the values of your family in a loving, consistent manner and taking into consideration the individuality of your child, you’ll find the right balance.

Even if you decide that you want to keep a close eye, you don’t want to become Big Brother, watching over every single thing your child does every hour of every day. Trying to control what kids do is like herding cats—impossible! They’re going to be going in all directions. Your child is going to read that explicit magazine or check out that website out of pure curiosity. He’s going to try to find ways around your rules. All of this is normal behavior for kids.

If you have some semblance of control through strictness, you need to think about whether your children will be able to maintain such control over themselves when they are out of your sight and making decisions on their own. Additionally, please consider whether they are chafing under your tight reins so much that they’ll be gone as soon as they get the chance to be free of your restrictions. Sometimes, too much control can be harmful. Children really do need to learn from their own mistakes. It’s the hardest thing in the world for a parent to do, but it’s a good idea to let kids make mistakes and learn from the consequences.

Stepping back and giving kids room to experiment is healthy, but stay generally aware of what they’re up to; ignorance of a brewing problem is truly dangerous. You can’t stop what you don’t know about or are unwilling to see. Watch for signs that you may need to react to your child’s behavior. Such warning signs include your child:

• Responding to questions in a consistently vague or evasive manner

• Sleeping too much or too little

• Gaining or losing weight rapidly

• Spending more time than usual in their room/alone

• Dropping longstanding or healthy friendships for newer ones

• Making any kind of drastic alteration to appearance (such as cutting all their hair off)

• Showing a high level of irritability

• Using the Internet in middle of night or at odd hours; slamming a device closed or hiding the device when discovered

Monitor kids’ online activity, but don’t lock them down so hard that they can’t participate in normal activities with their peer group. As much as we may want to keep our children in a bubble, that’s impractical. Instead, the points of the Parental Compass, when put in practice, create a protective layer that absorbs many of the blows struck by the outside world.

The Parental Compass is intended to replace the need for a rule book—because so many things are coming at our kids these days, one set of rules doesn’t work anymore. Besides, technology changes so fast that much-used platforms are constantly abandoned for newer ones, usually just at the point when we parents feel we understand them. Rules are important, but by using the concepts that underpin each point in the Compass, you are building a bond with your child that allows you to be an inextricably connected participant in his life—and that connection makes you better able to keep him safe from harm.

Become a Nimble Parent

One of the keys to parenting effectively in an increasingly sexualized world is being able to respond appropriately and quickly to any issue that concerns you. You can best do this if you’re up to date on the risks, trends, and dilemmas that children are facing. Look two to four years ahead of your eldest child’s age, as some likely influences are older kids in the neighborhood or friends’ older siblings. This look ahead is about staying informed—remember, knowledge is power! Keeping on top of trends—even when you think, “We’re not there yet”—means you are less likely to be caught by surprise if or when your child does become involved in certain trends or behavior. Staying aware is about tucking information away in your mind so you know what you’ll be dealing with even before it occurs.

Continuing our in-depth look at stories from my clinical practice, I want to share two cautionary tales. Nathan and Emily are extreme examples of the dangers that can befall children when their parents don’t stay on top of risks facing tweens/teens. Desensitization to sexual or violent images or videos is now a scourge. Unfortunately, this type of content has saturated too many areas of children’s lives, including social media and online videos.

Inappropriate content has become normalized. Too many people are confusing what they see in these images with what takes place in real life. This confusion affects adults, but it has an even greater effect on teens, who already have a hard time understanding the real world.

Nathan’s Story

Nathan, like many kids, loved playing video games. Early in elementary school he started playing age-appropriate games, but he was always enthralled with his older brother’s games. His parents started off prohibiting the games meant for a more mature audience, but as the years went by they became less stringent with those rules. Meanwhile, Nathan slowly began to lose interest in other activities.

Never an athletic boy, Nathan had played soccer and baseball for a while, but his own middling abilities and a team record with more losses than wins left him unmotivated. This smart kid’s academics were good but he was often bored in class because he learned so fast. In video games, he found an exciting environment where he excelled. At eight and nine years of age, Nathan loved building virtual worlds and mastering all the hidden tricks in a game. When he progressed to multiplayer games, he found that he was more successful than he’d ever been on the baseball field.

Video games boosted Nathan’s self-confidence. Self-confidence is a foundational characteristic upon which much else is built, including a positive self-concept, social skills, self-efficacy, optimism, and a willingness to try new challenges. Every child should be able to find something he is good at and be able to engage in that activity for fun and also for an ego boost.

At this point, Nathan’s mom took a new job a thousand miles (1,600 km) away and the family moved. Nathan didn’t have an abiding interest in baseball and so didn’t sign up in his new town. Not knowing anyone, Nathan came home after school and played games online with his friends from his old town, just like they always had done. He increasingly spent time alone, but he was interacting with friends he’d had for a long time so his parents didn’t worry. Busy with new jobs, Nathan’s parents started slacking on monitoring his online activities.

When Nathan was ten, his sixteen-year-old brother started playing first-person shooter video games that were more exciting than Nathan’s building games. He begged his brother to teach him, and then started playing on his own. Nathan quickly mastered the shooter games and looked for new ones to play. One day, he was on his brother’s computer looking for a new game and came across something different: a video, something he’d never seen before. It was pornography, and he was confused but instinctively knew it should be kept a secret. He watched the video many times, surreptitiously, and one day he found another one to watch.

His parents were still pretty hands-off, not realizing what their son was accessing online. Nathan seemed stable, and though he was in the house much more often than before, there were no problems cropping up, so they left him to his own devices. They figured he was still adjusting to the move and would get more involved with school and friends when he was ready.

Nathan played mature video games incessantly because he had gotten to the point where he’d become desensitized to the violence they portrayed. Repeated exposure to a stimulus (in this instance, violent imagery) lessens the emotional response that would normally take place. Once Nathan was desensitized to the thrill of video games, he sought a new kind of stimulation: pornography.

By the time he turned eleven, Nathan had developed a porn habit that manifested itself in his attitude toward girls in school. He couldn’t distinguish between what he saw on the screen and what was appropriate in real life, so on several occasions he approached a girl and insinuated some graphic sexual desires. He thought they would like it, like the girls in the videos. He’d been conditioned to think that sex acts happened casually, and at the mere suggestion of a male.

Additionally, having been desensitized to violence and sexual material, Nathan lacked the capacity to understand the girls’ emotional response to his inappropriate behavior. He believed his behavior to be normal, because he had no healthy context for sex or understanding of sexuality. These are the things you can begin to cover (in early childhood) during those conversations about bodies, personal space/bubble (which lays the groundwork for consent), and boundaries (which we’ll look at more in the following chapter). Because of his young age, Nathan was also not ready to unpack/contextualize the graphic portrayals of intimate adult behavior he was viewing. His problems stemmed from a combination of too much sexual content too soon, with not enough groundwork.

The girls—and their parents—understandably took offense and reported him to the school, as well as to law enforcement. Police questioned Nathan and his parents, who were shocked, to say the least. This was their first indication that something was amiss with their son, and being informed of his behavior by the police was a huge wake-up call. They contacted my office the next morning and brought Nathan in that afternoon.

As a psychologist, I start to establish a rapport with my patients by explaining that I am a safe, neutral person and that our discussions are confidential. I don’t tell a child’s parents everything we discuss in our sessions. I also explain that I spend nearly every day researching, writing, and talking with patients about sex and sexuality so nothing embarrasses me. I’ve probably heard every question they could think of to ask, so if they have one, they should go ahead and ask it.

The main points I made in counseling with Nathan, which you can also use or amend for use with your child if needed, are the following:

• Sexuality is natural and it is perfectly normal to be interested in sex and have questions about it.

• Young teens are in a normal phase of life when hormones are on overdrive, so sexual feelings are stronger and more confusing now than at any other point in life.

• Pornography is an industry, designed to keep people coming back over and over again with fantasy-type images—and that sex never happens like that in real life.

• One of the main things that draws people to pornography is that those videos never show people being rejected. How nice would it be to never be rejected and to always have someone say yes to everything you ask? Real life does not work that way.

• Sexual intimacy is most enjoyable when there is a relationship established and a great deal of emotional intimacy prior to sexual intimacy. All of this takes time.

• Boys need to know that most girls will not respond favorably to suggestive comments. These are only appropriate within an emotionally intimate relationship.

• Everyone has his or her own personal boundaries (which we’ll discuss in the next chapter), and talking with anyone the way people talk to each other on pornographic videos is a huge boundary violation and can even feel like harassment to the person at whom the comments are directed.

Emily’s Story

Expectations about girls’ sexual behavior is not relegated to boys who have a pornography habit. There are plenty of girls who come to believe that sex is expected of them, and who act on those beliefs, even to their own detriment. Emily was one of these girls.

Emily desperately wanted to fit in when she started high school. At age fourteen, she acquiesced to the whim of the first boy who expressed interest in her, and soon got a reputation among all the boys. She equated popularity with sexual activity, and many of the boys in her school were happy to take advantage.

Emily wasn’t alone in her actions; other girls were doing the same, so she confused sexual empowerment with sex as a commodity that could be exchanged for acceptance and popularity. She was too young and immature to know the difference. From oral sex at the movie theater, Emily quickly progressed to having intercourse between classes at school. That was when an adult finally became aware of the situation and raised a red flag.

When Emily came to see me, she jokingly told me her thighs were actually calloused from having so much sex. She described having almost an “out-of-body” experience when she was having sex, like she was outside the scene watching herself. In psychology, this is what we call depersonalization, which is the mind’s way of distancing itself from behaviors that it knows subconsciously are traumatizing. This was a way for Emily to feel numb about what was happening to her body, which, at her age, she didn’t truly understand. That feeling of watching her body from afar made her feel like she was going crazy.

We spent a great deal of time talking about society’s expectations in the realm of sexuality. Many of my clients over the past decade have made it clear that teens today don’t equate oral sex with intercourse. Emily underscored this point, explaining that, for her, performing oral sex on a boy was extremely commonplace. A boy would text her and ask her to meet him somewhere, and she’d just go. She’d never had a boy perform oral sex on her, though.

We focused a lot on the idea of sex as part of a pleasurable partnership between two people—preferably adults—who express their love physically. We talked about consent, and that girls don’t have to do everything a boy wants them to do. Girls have a right to say no to anything they are uncomfortable with, and they have a right to expect love and tenderness in any physical or emotional relationship.

The hardest part for Emily was to untie the association of sexual activity with popularity and acceptance by her peer group. She said girls who refused sex were “blacklisted” at her school and were sometimes cruelly taunted. The connection was so ingrained in her mind that it was never completely erased, and we spent many counseling sessions giving her coping mechanisms for her anxiety about popularity.

When she entered high school, Emily was unfortunately vulnerable for a number of reasons, some of which the Parental Compass could have mitigated. She didn’t have a foundation for her family’s values when it came to sexual activity, and she was very naive in terms of her sexual knowledge. She jumped into sex acts quickly, as well. The Start Early point of the Compass would have been helpful because Emily would have had a foundation of knowledge about sex and an understanding of her family’s expectations surrounding behavior; this foundation could have guided her away from using her body as a bartering chip to gain popularity.

It is Stay Current that perhaps could have interrupted Emily’s fast-track progress to sexual promiscuity. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, however, Emily’s parents needed to be more informed about their daughter’s life, as well as about trends and issues affecting young people today. Emily, her parents, and I spent a great deal of time talking about leaving past mistakes in the past and moving forward without blame or shame.

I worked extensively with Emily on power dynamics and using her own willpower. Above anything else, I wanted her to understand that every girl has choices when confronted with sexual situations, and that girls might make different choices at different times in their lives. We also spoke about the thoughts that automatically swirled around in her brain when a boy made a suggestion, emphasizing that saying yes all the time is not sexual empowerment.

Dangerously Desensitized

Both Nathan and Emily had become desensitized and numb to matters concerning their sexuality. The two sets of parents, with help, worked to counteract the deep psychological effects that early exposure to sexual imagery or situations had on their children. Together, we were able to explain the difference between sex and intimacy to these children, and to build up their capacity for an intimate, healthy relationship.

Nathan’s and Emily’s stories are both extreme examples of the dangers posed when parents don’t stay current with their children’s activities, online and off. Issues can come up so quickly after exposure to sexual behavior that parents need to be as plugged in as possible.

When parents and kids struggle to connect around awkward topics such as sexuality, outside resources can sometimes help by providing a framework for discussion. My company, FamilySparks (, offers online courses about sexuality that any parent or preteen/teen can watch. In addition to information that will help you talk to your teens about sex, the courses include tips, resource lists, and activities. Jumping into these sensitive conversations with your kids will help you notice when they aren’t responding emotionally in a healthy or productive way.

The bottom line is that desensitization to the point where the child experiences a void in his natural emotional responses can be like an insidious cancer, infecting other aspects of his life and leading to additional problems. This is what happened with Nathan, but his example is not an isolated one.

How to Stay Current

It’s one thing to know you need to stay current in your child’s life, but it’s quite another to figure out how to stay on top of trends that change at the whim of an amorphous society of teenagers. There’s no simple, foolproof way to do this; parents just need to remain aware and plugged into their kids’ lives, their community, their local news outlets, and their schools. You can ask your child:

• “Have you seen anything lately on your phone, the computer, or at a friend’s house that made you worried or uncomfortable, or that you thought was inappropriate?”

• “What show is everyone loving these days?” (Then watch the show or research it online.)

• “If you could snap your fingers and be at any concert or music festival right now, which one would it be?” (Then listen to that music, look up the festival, and so on.)

• “What’s the best thing about being a [X-year-old] right now? What’s the scariest thing?” (Listen to your child’s responses, and write them down so you can keep them in mind.)

• “What do you admire most about [new friend you as parent may be having concerns about]?” (This neutral question can clue you into what is attracting your child.)

Talking with your child about concerns you have about her current interests (for example, information you may have learned based on the conversation starters above) may be more effective than banning the worrying content outright. That being said, don’t be afraid to enforce your own standards if your children are offered toys or clothing, or are asked to attend events, that you feel are inappropriate. It’s okay to say, “We’re not ready for that.”

We have covered screening for potential risks, but how can you encourage the content and activities you are comfortable with? Staying current on your kids’ interests helps you do that, too. Talk with them about what they like to do, and then make the activities you want to encourage easy and rewarding for your kids. For example, if your daughter is really into building with LEGO, think about getting a great new set for a birthday or holiday. Working on it together can be a wonderful bonding experience! If your child starts playing a new sport, go outside and practice together in the backyard before tryouts. If your son gets interested in music during a summer camp, take him to a special concert or sign him up for lessons.

The same approach goes for other popular trends. When your daughter wants to use a new type of social media, try out the platform with her. If your child becomes interested in an online video series or pop star, watch or listen together. If your son is begging for the latest brand of shoes, ask him to show you why he thinks they are so cool (he’ll likely bring up a celebrity who wears them, and you can then discuss that celebrity’s image). If your child is always asking for a certain specialty item, such as a food or accessory, or to download the latest online game, search the item’s name with the keywords “teens” or “what parents need to know” so you can find out the specifics before agreeing to it.

Here are some important additional ways to stay current:


Most schools will let you know if there are dangerous trends happening that you need to be aware of. Read the school newsletters and make sure you cultivate a personal relationship with your child’s teacher and/or school administrator. Volunteer at the school when you can, or take a morning once a semester or so to go in to school and be available to help, while also being a fly on the wall and learning what you can about your child’s peer group.

Most schools offer reproductive education in the elementary and middle school curriculum. You may wish to ask your child’s teacher what is being taught and review the material so you are on the same page if your child comes home with questions.


Sometimes questions crop up at unexpected times. Having some relevant, up-to-date resources about sexuality on hand can be valuable when you’re faced with questions. You can also make these books accessible to your child if she wants to look at them on her own.

If your relationship with your child isn’t as open as you’d like, don’t expect the nature of the bond to change immediately now that you’ve decided you need to perk it up. It may take some time before you both feel comfortable talking openly about topics related to sex. If that is the case, leaving books around could be a nice way to gently say to your child, “I’m paying attention and I know you want the information but don’t want me to make a big deal out of it.”


Pay attention to the media your child is consuming. It’s not always easy, but make an effort to know what your kids and their friends listen to, watch, and play with—songs, movies, and video games. When your child is interested in adolescent content, such as a PG-13 movie, you’ll have to decide whether you believe she is ready for it. If you have watched the movie yourself and are comfortable with it, you’ll be able to prepare your child for anything she may see or debrief with her afterward.

If you’re at a point where you want to give your child a bit more responsibility (and you don’t have time or funds to preview the movie yourself), perhaps it’s time to trust that she can handle whatever might be included. I’d suggest having a conversation with her before she goes and another after she returns. Here are some ways to start that conversation:

• “What did you think of that movie?”

• “Would it be okay for a younger student to watch?”

• “Can I recommend the movie to other families?”

• “Did that movie bring up any questions for you?”

• “So what rating would you give it?”

Another way to learn about what your child and his friend are interested in is to simply listen to them talk during carpool. If your kids are like mine, they forget you’re even there when their friends are in the car with them. So turn the volume on the music down a bit when they’re getting into a conversation so you can overhear the topic and their thoughts. You don’t need to say anything or interject at all, just keep your ears open and your eyes on the road.

If you hear anything that concerns you, hold it until you get home and have a private moment to talk with your child. Keep in mind that you may not have heard the whole story. You could say, “You know, I happened to overhear you talking in the car yesterday and you said something that made me start to worry a little. Let’s sit down and talk about it.” Tell him what you thought you heard, without accusation, and then give him a chance to tell you what they meant or explain any relevant context to help you understand.


Finally, although social media can be a platform where problems occur, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of ways to use social media tools to become closer to your kids and monitor their activities at the same time. It’s also a great place to learn some of their likes and dislikes and to get ideas for birthday presents or special outings. Social media can be a window into your child’s soul, and can complement—although it should never take the place of—your face-to-face relationship with your child.

Friending your child or following his accounts might be okay for some kids, though others might be apprehensive. Give him a chance to express his concerns and listen to what he is saying. Is he afraid you will comment too much or embarrass him where his friends can see? Is he worried you’ll monitor his every keystroke? Does he have other concerns? Talk with your child about these feelings and honor any promises you make about controlling your own behavior.

* * *

Staying current in your child’s life is one of the most important ways you can provide protection. We parents cannot be there every moment, so we need to make sure kids know how to behave when we’re not around. Understanding, establishing, and protecting personal boundaries is another crucial skill our kids need to learn, and we’ll explore that in the next chapter, “Set Smart Boundaries.”

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Set a goal to ask your child at least one of the questions suggested in this chapter. Which one will you choose? What do you hope to learn from the answer?

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DR. JILLIAN ROBERTS is a renowned child psychologist, author, professor, and mother. She earned her Ph.D. at age 26, became an associate professor at the University of Victoria at 32, and shortly after became the associate dean of the faculty of education. During this time, Dr. Roberts also built a successful child psychology practice.

Considered a go-to child psychology expert for journalists, Dr. Roberts’ work has appeared in the New York Times and the Toronto Sun; she is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Global News. Her best-selling and award-winning series of Just Enough children’s books explains topics like birth and diversity to children ages 3 to 6 and was released to international acclaim. Her new children’s series, The World Around Us, introduces children ages 5 to 8 to issues like poverty and online safety.

In 2017, Dr. Roberts co-founded FamilySparks, a social impact company that offers families timely and supportive resources to help them navigate our increasingly complex world. To learn more, please visit or @thefamilysparks on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Dr. Roberts currently resides in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, with her husband Stephen and their three children.

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The previous points of the Parental Compass—Start Early, Give Unconditional Love, Stay Current, Set Smart Boundaries, Nurture Relationships, and Lose Stigma and Prejudice—all converge here, where we talk about building your child’s resilience. Given that today’s parents encounter situations with their children that they never faced growing up, we know that questions and dilemmas will emerge. The best way to strengthen our children is by constantly helping them to develop resilience, so that when they confront a difficult situation, both the child and the family can bounce back from it more easily.

You may be asking yourself, what exactly is resilience? My definition of resilience is this: It’s the ability of a person to navigate through a challenging experience—a trauma or a set of difficult circumstances—and get to the other side successfully. Although the definition of difficult circumstances may be different for each person, everyone has the inherent capacity to become resilient.

Poverty, bullying, or a car accident are examples of challenges a person may face, and in each case, resilience can make a difference in the way that person overcomes the challenge. To some, a bad grade in school is a big hurdle, while for others the crisis may be a cancer diagnosis. Circumstances can vary greatly, as can the level of resilience needed to get through them. Every parent can and should nurture resilience in their children, because at some point in their lives, they will face something difficult.

Resilience involves behaviors and mindsets that anyone can develop. It is different from self-confidence (trusting in oneself and one’s ability to engage with the world), but it is no less powerful. Fostering resilience is akin to vaccinating your child—you are inoculating the child against harmful forces, both internal and external.

Risk, Resilience, and Recovery

Earlier, I likened resilience to a Teflon coating for your child. It’s about hope, and practicing strategies to build resilience boosts your child’s odds of recovering from adversity. All of the points on the Parental Compass work together, complement one another, and bring us to this final point, the goal of the entire book: building your child’s resilience.

Every child will encounter risk factors at some point in her life. Facing the world with eyes wide open, we can equip our kids with the tools they need to navigate hazards—and they’ll carry those tools with them into adulthood. We know we cannot be there for every moment, and we certainly can’t prevent every bad thing from happening. Sheltering your child from the realities of life won’t do her any favors, and the best way to prepare her is to build up her resilience before she ever needs it.

Some common risk factors that children might face are stress, anxiety, bullying, change in primary peer circle, poverty, lack of unconditional love from a parent or caregiver, social isolation, academic troubles, high conflict in the home, divorce, illness/disability, exposure to inappropriate sexual material and, in extreme situations, addiction/substance abuse and abuse/neglect. Building resilience in children who experience these problems is much harder, but a caring adult can help a child overcome even these most difficult of challenges.


In 1955, a group of child health professionals (doctors, psychologists, social workers, and others) began a prospective study of nearly seven hundred babies born that year on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The purpose of the study was to track the children’s development into adulthood and record key outcomes pertaining to vulnerability and resilience. The researchers followed these babies for more than three decades.

Risk, Resilience, and Recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study, published by Emmy E. Werner, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis, in 1993, chronicled that long-term study. I have found plenty of evidence in my clinical psychology practice to support Werner’s research and theory that many children are able to make positive adaptations and surmount even the most challenging circumstances.

Of particular interest were those identified as “high risk”—about 30 percent of the children in the study. Researchers noticed that among this high-risk group (criteria included families in poverty, parents with addiction, subjection to early trauma), about one in three of the kids grew into well-adjusted, self-actualized adults. They were as accomplished as the low-risk group from stable, affluent upbringings, while the other two-thirds in the high-risk group grew up to face developmental/behavioral challenges, mental illness, delinquency, teen pregnancy, criminality, and other negative outcomes. All the children in the high-risk group were subjected to more or less equal risk factors, so why did some emerge into adulthood successfully, while others did not?

The difference, Werner discovered, lay in a matrix of protective factors, conditions that were more prevalent in the lives of the successful group than in the other group. These protective factors included:

• Positive temperament

• Good social group

• At least one consistent and unconditionally supportive person who is not the child’s parent

• Extracurricular participation

• Being the oldest in the family (because of responsibility)

• Academic success

• A spiritual life

• Guidance during times of transition, i.e., access to good information

The fascinating—and hopeful—takeaway from this study is that children can build protective factors, which mitigate against vulnerabilities. These protective factors can even level the playing field for children who face multiple challenges not of their own making, such as poverty or trauma. Kids can bounce back. This is good news for parents who are looking at the troubling landscape ahead and wondering whether their child will be able to make it through. The answer is yes! I’ll show you how to help your child cultivate the protective factors that will help him surmount any obstacles he faces in life.


Werner’s work was the foundational research that inspired many others to study human resilience more extensively. The Search Institute of Minneapolis has led the way in creating a concise summary of the most important developmental assets, also called protective factors, organized by age group. I routinely refer to this group’s Top 40 Developmental Assets in my clinical work and also in my teaching. These are the building blocks that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible. The lists include external assets and internal assets, all of which a child can develop:

External Assets

• Support: To be surrounded by people who love, care for, appreciate, and accept them.

• Empowerment: To feel valued and valuable. This happens when kids feel safe and respected.

• Boundaries and expectations: Clear rules, consistent consequences for breaking rules, and encouragement to do their best.

• Constructive use of time: Opportunities—outside of school—to learn and develop new skills and interests with other youths and adults.

Internal Assets

• Commitment to learning: A sense of the lasting importance of learning and a belief in their own abilities.

• Positive values: Strong guiding values or principles to help them make healthy life choices.

• Social competencies: The skills to interact effectively with others, to make difficult decisions, and to cope with new situations.

• Positive identity: Belief in their own self-worth and a feeling that they have control over the things that happen to them.

I routinely share these lists with parents so they’re aware of the steps they can take to mitigate the risk factors that may exist in their child’s life. Parents often feel validated after reading the list, as they recognize the things they are already doing. They also find the lists useful for getting new ideas and additional ways they can support their children’s resilience.

Children can also learn “positive temperament,” which is a primary protective factor. This may be something a person is born with, but it can also be nurtured in the home by parents. A positive temperament allows a person to take a negative experience and pivot quickly to another, more positive, activity. Parents can model this behavior for their children, showing them a way to keep moving forward amid adversity. A positive temperament can be an attitude choice.

Opportunities for Building Resilience

The best way to build your child’s resilience is by giving him a sense of purpose beyond himself. Show your child that he can be a change agent and apply his energy to making the world a better place! This will have the added benefit of broadening his worldview. The following are some suggestions from my Global Citizenship Course, which promotes resilience building.


From a young age, involve your children in decision making. This can start with simple choices during the preschool years, such as, “Which sweater would you like to wear?” or “Do you want to draw a picture or bake cookies?” As your child grows, increase the significance of his choices. Some options for inviting input include:

• Where to go for a family trip

• What to name a new pet

• Which projects to do around the house or yard

• How to commemorate special events or milestones


Search Institute® has identified the following building blocks of healthy development—known as Developmental Assets®—that help young people grow up healthy, caring, and responsible.



	1. Family support—Family life provides high levels of love and support.

2. Positive family communication—Parent(s) and child communicate positively. Child feels comfortable seeking advice and counsel from parent(s).

3. Other adult relationships—Child receives support from adults other than her or his parent(s).

4. Caring neighborhood—Child experiences caring neighbors.

5. Caring school climate—Relationships with teachers and peers provide a caring, encouraging environment.

6. Parent involvement in schooling—Parent(s) are actively involved in helping the child succeed in school.


	7. Community values youth—Child feels valued and appreciated by adults in the community.

8. Children as resources—Child is included in decisions at home and in the community.

9. Service to others—Child has opportunities to help others in the community.

10. Safety—Child feels safe at home, at school, and in his or her neighborhood.

	Boundaries & Expectations

	11. Family boundaries—Family has clear and consistent rules and consequences and monitors the child’s whereabouts.

12. School Boundaries—School provides clear rules and consequences.

13. Neighborhood boundaries—Neighbors take responsibility for monitoring the child’s behavior.

14. Adult role models—Parent(s) and other adults in the child’s family, as well as nonfamily adults, model positive, responsible behavior.

15. Positive peer influence—Child’s closest friends model positive, responsible behavior.

16. High expectations—Parent(s) and teachers expect the child to do her or his best at school and in other activities.

	Constructive Use of Time

	17. Creative activities—Child participates in music, art, drama, or creative writing two or more times per week.

18. Child programs—Child participates two or more times per week in cocurricular school activities or structured community programs for children.

19. Religious community—Child attends religious programs or services one or more times per week.

20. Time at home—Child spends some time most days both in high-quality interaction with parents and doing things at home other than watching TV or playing video games.


	Commitment to Learning

	21. Achievement Motivation—Child is motivated and strives to do well in school.

22. Learning Engagement—Child is responsive, attentive, and actively engaged in learning at school and enjoys participating in learning activities outside of school.

23. Homework—Child usually hands in homework on time.

24. Bonding to school—Child cares about teachers and other adults at school.

25. Reading for Pleasure—Child enjoys and engages in reading for fun most days of the week.

	Positive Values

	26. Caring—Parent(s) tell the child it is important to help other people.

27. Equality and social justice—Parent(s) tell the child it is important to speak up for equal rights for all people.

28. Integrity—Parent(s) tell the child it is important to stand up for one’s beliefs.

29. Honesty—Parent(s) tell the child it is important to tell the truth.

30. Responsibility—Parent(s) tell the child it is important to accept personal responsibility for behavior.

31. Healthy Lifestyle—Parent(s) tell the child it is important to have good health habits and an understanding of healthy sexuality.

	Social Competencies

	32. Planning and decision making—Child thinks about decisions and is usually happy with results of her or his decisions.

33. Interpersonal Competence—Child cares about and is affected by other people’s feelings, enjoys making friends, and, when frustrated or angry, tries to calm her- or himself.

34. Cultural Competence—Child knows and is comfortable with people of different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and with her or his own cultural identity.

35. Resistance skills—Child can stay away from people who are likely to get her or him in trouble and is able to say no to doing wrong or dangerous things.

36. Peaceful conflict resolution—Child seeks to resolve conflict nonviolently.

	Positive Identity

	37. Personal power—Child feels he or she has some influence over things that happen in her or his life.

38. Self-esteem—Child likes and is proud to be the person that he or she is.

39. Sense of purpose—Child sometimes thinks about what life means and whether there is a purpose for her or his life.

40. Positive view of personal future—Child is optimistic about her or his personal future

Reproduced with the permission of Search Institute. Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Search Institute, 3001 Broadway St. N.E., Suite 310, Minneapolis, MN 55413; 800-888-7828; All Rights Reserved. The following are registered trademarks of Search Institute: Search Institute®, Developmental Assets®, and Healthy Communities, Healthy Youth®.

Including your children in decision making, when appropriate, helps cultivate their sense of agency as they grow older. It also gives them the opportunity for leadership, and you should look for more ways to let them spearhead a project from start to finish. The outcome—good, bad, or in between—will also offer a valuable lesson.


When something is wrong, parents may automatically jump into “solution mode” and solve children’s problems for them. We do this because we love them and don’t want to see them struggle, and because as adults we have developed advanced problem-solving skills. Children can also develop excellent problem-solving skills, if given opportunities to practice. The sooner your child learns this mindset, the better able he will be to react to dilemmas when you are not around.

If there is a problem at school or home or in a friendship, ask your child whether he has any ideas for solutions before supplying answers. Of course, you will need to provide guidance and support if he is struggling with a solution, but see what he comes up with first and then talk through the idea with him.


In many situations we prepare our kids to speak out but we don’t prepare adults to listen to the unique wisdom kids possess. Take the time to listen carefully to your child and consider her point of view. When possible, gently encourage other adults to do the same.

Giving your child the floor during discussions allows her to share her thoughts and boosts her confidence, but also introduces a new perspective into the conversation. It can be quite amazing to discover the ideas and solutions that live inside a child’s mind. Pay attention—it might just be the best idea in the room.


Kids need ways to participate meaningfully in our society and have responsibilities that are proportionate to their stage of development. You can play a role by facilitating opportunities for your child to get involved in activities, organizations, and events. If your child has an interest that isn’t supported at school, encourage him to create his own opportunity. Ask permission to start an afterschool club. Maybe your child has noticed litter on the beach or in a park, so you could suggest that he form a cleanup crew with other kids from the neighborhood.

The next time you plan a family party or function, ask your child for input and give him a meaningful role, such as assisting with food prep, planning the menu, setting up the house, or making invitations. Then let him do his job and resist the urge to micromanage. Opportunities like these will give your child the self-confidence to roll up his sleeves and participate in his broader community. Supporting your child as he develops a sense of responsibility and leadership skills is a critical protective factor.


Having well-defined family values gives your children a strong foundation and reference point from which to govern their own behavior and choices as they grow up. I believe children should have input in shaping family values, as it makes them active participants in the process, rendering those values more meaningful.

Take note of what your child cares about and see how that can be connected to one of your family’s values. For example, if your child cares deeply about animal rights, you might commit to buying only humanely raised meat or going vegetarian a few days a week. Or if one of your family values is giving back to your community, you could create a tradition of volunteering as a family at a soup kitchen every month.


Volunteering or serving together as a family is a meaningful experience with many positive benefits for children. The most obvious is learning the importance of service to others, but the added bonus is that your family is spending time together, which strengthens your bond. You have an opportunity to model service behavior for your kids and participate in service learning. This will create memories together that your children will carry with them into adulthood.

Here are a few of the core benefits your child can experience through volunteering as a family:

• A sense of responsibility: Learning responsibility from a young age promotes accountability. It also fosters a positive growth mindset that allows a child to use an obstacle as an opportunity to learn and progress.

• The virtue of tolerance, which will serve your child well as he progresses toward adulthood in an increasingly diverse and connected world.

• The idea that one person can make a difference in the world. Seeing the effect of one’s actions helps to build self-confidence and support intrinsic motivation, which comes from internal values and isn’t influenced by outside factors.

• Your child will learn valuable skills that will prepare her for future responsibilities, such as a job, when she gets older.

More from Emily’s Story

To give you an idea of the power of resilience, I want to return to Emily, the fourteen-year-old girl we met in chapter 4. Emily desperately wanted to fit in when she started high school, and thought she had to do that through sexual behavior. She equated popularity with sexual activity, and some of the boys in her school took full advantage. Emily could have had long-term problems, but her parents and I pulled in the points of the Parental Compass to help her heal.


Emily’s parents displayed the unconditional love they have for her throughout her troubled situation. They were completely present for her and wanted to hear about her life and what was important. Mom and dad took turns having weekly lunches with Emily, so she could have some one-on-one time and support from each. Most important, they did not shame their daughter for her sexual behavior, and they never withheld their love because of her shocking actions.


Once Emily’s parents realized how out of touch they were, they worked to become more current in her life. They became involved in school, bringing to light concerns about the atmosphere that contributed to the heavy sexual pressures and activity their daughter had faced. Emily’s parents’ efforts were transformative, as they used their experiences to help and empower others. Their actions sent a healthy signal to Emily about ways to solve a problem.


This Compass point was one Emily’s parents used a great deal. Remember, once a boundary is reduced or damaged, it’s easier for a person to take advantage and cross it again, or cross the next one—and then a child can find herself on a slippery slope. This was a big concern for Emily’s parents. So they talked with her extensively about boundaries, who she could trust, proper ways to explore her feelings, and behaviors that are not appropriate. Most important, they reinforced the idea of Emily’s Self Ring and helped her understand her core characteristics, which make up her moral compass. To ensure her continued mental health, her parents arranged for her to have regular check-ins with me.


Emily joined a sports team at her high school and quickly become one of the best athletes on the team. She was able to form new friendships with her teammates. Participation in sports became a protective factor for her; and she continued to excel. Emily was also able to keep a couple of her oldest and best friends, thanks to outreach from her parents to those girls’ parents. In this situation, it was really helpful for Emily to not have to start completely over with new friends, though that’s not always possible.


Emily’s parents were careful not to shame their daughter for having been interested in sexuality. Instead of giving in to the discomfort of the situation and trying to just make it go away, her parents explained that it is normal for a person to have sexual feelings and desires. The shock of their daughter’s extensive sexual activity allowed them to open up completely, and they were able to emphasize that sex does not equal popularity or love.

All of this contributed to Emily’s resilience and got her through the embarrassment, pain, and health implications of her early sexual behavior. Every single person has the ability to develop resilience, however, Emily wasn’t accessing the full potential of her inner strength. She always had some resilience within her, but her parents made a concerted effort to build it up to the highest level possible.

Emily was overinfluenced by extrinsic factors—those from the outside, such as popularity. Her parents worked to build up her intrinsic influences—those in her that make up her self-confidence, relationships, and resilience. Since our sessions, Emily has had to continually try to resist extrinsic factors and their effect on her. It’s not something she could “get over” easily or quickly, but by being aware of these influences, she was able to create strategies for dealing with them in more positive ways.

Emily’s parents also sought support for themselves, which modeled appropriate responses for her but also helped to build their own resilience so they could better care for their daughter. All of these activities, attitudes, and forces converged to buoy Emily through an incredibly risky period and helped her emerge successfully on the other side.

* * *

All the points on the Parental Compass come together in this final effort: to build your child’s resilience in the face of adversity. Resilience has such power that it can propel a person through the turbulence of tragedy and into calmer waters. All our children will face challenges in their lives, and they need to be able to navigate them with as much strength and level-headedness as possible. Drawing upon their resilience allows them to react appropriately and deal with problems effectively. A resilient child can move beyond a difficult situation, learn from a mistake, and know how to avoid it again in the future. The most powerful point on the Parental Compass, resilience allows children to recover from setbacks—even serious ones—and lead happy, healthy lives.


How does your child currently demonstrate resilience?
How will you continue to help them develop it?


Raising Strong, Resilient Kids in the Sexualized Digital Age

Jillian Roberts, Ph.D.

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© 2019 Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc.

Text © 2019 Jillian Roberts, Ph.D.

First Published in 2019 by Fair Winds Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group,

100 Cummings Center, Suite 265-D, Beverly, MA 01915, USA.

T (978) 282-9590 F (978) 283-2742

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the copyright owners. All images in this book have been reproduced with the knowledge and prior consent of the artists concerned, and no responsibility is accepted by producer, publisher, or printer for any infringement of copyright or otherwise, arising from the contents of this publication. Every effort has been made to ensure that credits accurately comply with information supplied. We apologize for any inaccuracies that may have occurred and will resolve inaccurate or missing information in a subsequent reprinting of the book.

Fair Winds Press titles are also available at discount for retail, wholesale, promotional, and bulk purchase. For details, contact the Special Sales Manager by email at or by mail at The Quarto Group, Attn: Special Sales Manager, 100 Cummings Center, Suite 265-D, Beverly, MA 01915, USA.

Digital edition: 978-1-59233-852-8
Softcover edition: 978-1-63159-567-7

Digital edition published in 2019

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Roberts, Jillian, 1971- author.

Title: Kids, sex & screens : raising strong, resilient children in the sexualized digital age / Jillian Roberts.

Other titles: Kids, sex and screens

Description: Beverly, MA : Fair Winds Press, 2019. | Includes index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018033138 | ISBN 9781592338528 (trade pbk.)

Subjects: LCSH: Children and sex. | Internet and children. | Parenting.

Classification: LCC HQ784.S45 R63 2019 | DDC 004.67/8083--dc23 LC record available at

Cover Image: gettyimages

Cover Illustration: FamilySparks

Illustrations: Colleen Frakes

Page Layout: Sporto

Design: Sporto

To protect the privacy of those involved, names and identifying information have been changed.


Sexuality Resources



CNN Parenting

Common Sense Media

Raising Children: Sex Education for Young Children

Advocates for Youth: Helping Parents and Children Talk

Kids Health: Talking to Your Kids About Puberty

Children Now: Parenting Resources


Where Do Babies Come From? Our First Talk About Birth, Dr. Jillian Roberts, Orca Book Publishers, 2015.

What Makes Us Unique? Our First Talk About Diversity, Dr. Jillian Roberts, Orca Book Publishers, 2016.

It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, Robie H. Harris, Candlewick Press, 2014 (20th anniversary edition).

LGBTQ+ Resources

Egale Canada Human Rights Trust Facts for Teens & Parents

Stop Bullying: LGBTQ

The Trevor Project

Advocates For Youth LGBTQ


Trans Student Educational Resources

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Each of us makes decisions about our own boundaries every day. For children, smart boundaries are crucial to development and personal safety. Boundaries are about respect, both for oneself and for others. When children have a clear understanding of their personal boundaries, they are better able to assess situations that make them uncomfortable and are better equipped to know what actions to take when a boundary is crossed.

Every child needs to know that his (or her) personal space is sacred, and that his body should never be touched inappropriately. As parents, teachers, and counselors, we need to teach children a thorough concept of consent so they are able to exude confidence when they tell someone no—a key deterrent to potential predators and abusers. This knowledge is equally important for boys and girls. Children who learn how to set and enforce boundaries also understand how to respect the boundaries of others and what kind of touching is appropriate in a variety of situations.

Boundaries can be crossed by a friend, sibling, or potential abuser. As we will see in this chapter, there are several types of boundaries and a variety of situations in which they can be tested. The crossing of a boundary can mean a number of things. Most alarmingly of course, it could mean that a child is in trouble—either being taken advantage of or being hurt. The crossing of a boundary doesn’t always mean immediate harm—it can simply put a child on a dangerous trajectory. Once a boundary is reduced or damaged, it’s easier for a potential abuser to cross it again or to cross the next one, and then a child can find herself on a slippery slope.

A fundamental understanding of boundaries is necessary for healthy relationships, family interactions, friendships, social/community conduct, and protection from abuse. A fundamental lack of understanding of boundaries places a child at risk on all of these fronts. This is what I mean by a child being on a dangerous trajectory. For example, a young boy who is not taught that people have “personal bubbles” may be the boy who snatches toys from other children at age four; gives unwanted hugs, shoves, or other physical contact at age eleven; and then doesn’t understand sexual consent as a teen and ends up committing sexual assault.

Similarly, children who do not understand that they can say no to an uncle asking for a hug during a holiday visit may also not understand that they can say no to someone touching their private parts; as they grow, they may become teens or adults who do not say no to a partner who is asking for something they are not ready to give. These are extreme examples, but harmful outcomes are the reason boundaries matter across the board, even though a specific situation might seem inconsequential.

SMART BOUNDARIES | Concentric Rings

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Concentric Rings

In my practice, I regularly explain the concept of boundaries, not only to parents but to the children I am treating. It’s always hard to describe this psychological concept so that children can wrap their minds around the idea of protecting themselves. That’s why I developed the Concentric Rings: to help people think about the different ways we interact with those around us and the ways we respect ourselves and our fellow human beings.

Here are the Concentric Rings, and what they mean for each of us.


Inside every person is a center, where his or her true self resides. This core is what I call the Self Ring, and it links your heart, your mind, and your gut. Inside this Self Ring are the most important principles of who you are, those core characteristics that make up your moral compass: This includes attributes such as kindness and lessons from parents about traits such as integrity, and can also include religious tenets and sometimes interests of a deep, abiding nature.

Each child’s core is different and that’s what makes each of us unique and special. The innermost ring is the boundary inside oneself. It explains that feeling you get in your gut when you’re thinking about doing something you shouldn’t—it’s like that ring is giving you a warning from inside. This center ring is about an understanding of, and thus respect for, one’s self.

If we’re being true to ourselves and respecting ourselves, our actions and words are aligned with the attributes inside our core. Of course, some traits may evolve as we age; a person can learn to adapt to new situations more easily or to be less self-critical, for example. Tastes and interests can certainly change throughout our lives. Our internal boundaries are there for a reason: When we’re stretching that ring too far, we feel it in our gut. This gut feeling when something is not quite right is instinctive and exists to protect us. It’s almost like a sixth sense. If we listen to our hearts and minds, we tend to make sound decisions.

Tell your children to listen to their gut, whether they are with you or on their own. That Self Ring is there even when no one is looking. When it comes to that core, your child should make no compromises. A person is not being rude or selfish when she is being true to herself. Self-respect, after all, is the cornerstone of self-esteem. Parents, think back to a time that you made a decision by following your gut, and explain your decision-making process to your child. Modeling this type of decision making is a powerful lesson.

To develop boundaries, you have to know what your values are and where the line between right and wrong stands. It’s important that your child knows who you are and what you believe. Because kids will not be able to define their own boundaries for themselves until they are older, they need to know unequivocally your boundaries; when they are younger they will use your boundaries as models for their own. This means you must communicate your personal values and stick to them. If you value honesty, for example, then talk about its importance in your life and live that value day to day. Kids are guided by watching what you do, which often makes a bigger impression than what you say.

Staying true to oneself is an ongoing lesson for all of us, so don’t be surprised when you have to keep reinforcing the boundaries of the internal ring to your child. This is an exercise in modeling how you, as a parent, live according to your own moral values, to encourage your child to search herself for similar guidance from within. This means that you must walk your talk: It could be apologizing to the police officer if you get a speeding ticket, instead of getting defensive, or it could mean giving up your bus seat to an elderly person and whispering to your child why you did it. It means telling the truth.

And you must model boundaries across the board, so your child sees them in action. For example, you can share, “I don’t like that show because the characters spend a lot of time making fun of that boy, and I don’t think that is kind.” Or you might ask, “May I please post this picture of you in your Halloween costume onto my [social media platform] profile? It’s important to me that you give permission before I share a picture of you.” Make sure, also, that you give your child room to establish her own internal ring, which may or may not be exactly the same as yours. Parents are the greatest influence on a child’s inner core, but they are not the exclusive factor.


The next ring in the Concentric Rings concept is the one that encompasses family. It is within this Family Ring that we teach children how to respect others and how to insist on respect from others. Your individual family situation determines who is included in this ring, but certainly those family members who live in the same household have a place there, and perhaps also close family who live nearby and are in your child’s life on a regular basis.

The boundaries of the Family Ring are about love and respect. The Family Ring represents the bond between people who love one another and will always protect and nurture one another. These are the people your child is closest to in the world, even if there’s some sibling rivalry or friction with parents from time to time. You come up with your values as a family, together. If one of your principles is “respect” and your son is frequently rude to you and calls you names, let him know the consequence he can expect from you each time that happens. Let him see that you respect yourself and will follow through. This is different from trying to “make him” speak the way you want him to. You’re giving him the choice but you’re holding him accountable.


Outside the Family Ring is the ring for the larger community in which you live. This consists of other family members who may not be as close geographically or emotionally, as well as friends, classmates, teachers, teams, and coaches. In short, the Community Ring includes those people you interact with in person on a semiregular basis. The caveat “in person” is an important one: People your child knows IRL—in real life—must be differentiated in today’s world from those she may know or interact with in an online capacity only.

Boundaries in the larger Community Ring should be fairly strict and enforced. Although every family’s rules will be different, a common example would be that your child can’t get into anyone’s car without express permission from you or unless the person uses an emergency code word you’ve established. Certainly expectations of your child’s behavior at school or in a local club or on a team will fall into this category: doing homework on time, showing good sportsmanship, treating teachers and coaches with respect, and honoring commitments to friends. The Golden Rule of “treat others as you want to be treated” is the way many of us describe the expectations within the Community Ring.

Parents should expect children to bump up against many of the Community Ring boundaries on a fairly regular basis (how else do they learn?) and understand the need to repeat the lessons of these boundaries quite often. From knowing how to behave at friends’ houses to following school rules to staying off a crotchety neighbor’s lawn, children have a great deal to remember.

There are situations that could tempt a child who doesn’t completely grasp the importance of doing the right thing even when no one’s watching. Such situations underscore the reasons for defining that inner Self Ring and putting those moral values into practice in the community context—for example, not laughing along with people who are making fun of somebody, not taking an extra cupcake from the tray at school when no one is looking, or not drawing graffiti in a bathroom stall even if nobody will know it’s you.

Because there are so many variables, some boundaries within the Community Ring may not be things you can warn your kids of in advance. You need to be as proactive as you can by making sure kids understand basic etiquette and the behavior expected at places they frequent—such as the library or the movie theater, for example—but they must also understand that you can’t think of everything and they will have to exercise their best judgment at times. Keep in mind that it’s often by bumping into or breaking rules that children learn where the boundaries are in their community.

In all this talk of personal and societal boundaries, you also need to teach your child to respect other people’s rings. To be an honorable person is to keep a friend’s confidence, to obey the rules at the neighbor’s house, and to not push someone to abandon her core values. You and your child should expect this of all her friends, as well.


Last, there’s a ring around the entire earth that encompasses the billions of humans in our global society. In earlier generations, this ring wouldn’t have been so important to teach children about because there weren’t many ways for them to interact with the world as a whole. Today this is an extremely important ring to discuss with your children, as the instant they get Internet privileges, this Online Ring becomes real and accessible. As with many advances in technology, there are both positive and negative ramifications to online information and connections, so your kids need boundaries for their interactions with the big, wide world.

The boundaries of this Online Ring need to be explained to every child who uses a computer, phone, smart device, or nearly any piece of tech equipment these days—even if that use is supervised. The online safety plan discussed in chapter 2 is an excellent place to start when it comes to defining online boundaries. These boundaries will be the basis for whatever tech rules your family decides are right for your household. Although a rule might be that your child has to use the computer in the living room instead of his own room, the boundary that needs to be explained is that he should never share any identifying information about himself—full name, address, school name, or even town/state/province (you may wish to explicitly add this to your family’s online safety plan). Even the youngest of children needs to know the difference between a friend in the neighborhood and someone who says they’re a friend or a peer online.

Children who use the Internet also need to understand your expectations about what they should post and what they should refrain from posting. They especially need to know to avoid sharing their every feeling or the intimate details of their lives. It’s sad to say, but there are people who will use that kind of information to take advantage: An online predator may capitalize on it and use it to try to bond or connect, and then exploit that vulnerability; a bully may consider the information fodder for more targeting or teasing.

Personal details should most likely stay in the Family Ring. Discourage children from posting anything deeply private or sensitive online via social media, text, and so on, even if it’s to a friend or relative. Private conversations about personal topics are best saved for face-to-face interactions; you would not want your child to accidentally click a wrong button and send a private message to the wrong person or place. It is so easy to make mistakes online. Talk with your children about what you want them to think about before they post online, and make sure to stress that anything posted online is there forever.

Popularity online—in the form of followers, likes, or ratings—can be just as alluring as hanging out with the cool group on the weekend. The most famous social media accounts are those that push established boundaries, or even eradicate them. It’s only natural that impressionable kids want to emulate what they see, what gets the most “buzz” at school, and what their friends are doing. As we discussed in chapter 4, when we talked about staying current, this is why it’s essential that parents monitor their children’s accounts, even into high school.

Tyler’s Story

Tyler was a timid middle schooler on the fringes of the popular group when, for some inexplicable reason, he became the target of a sick joke. Some of the boys created a social media account for a nonexistent girl and had this fake girl become online friends with Tyler. The boys played it up to Tyler, saying how “hot” she was, and then they sent flirtatious messages from the fake account to Tyler on social media. They started daring him to ask the girl for naked photos, which they—on the other side of the account—kept refusing. The boys goaded Tyler, saying he just had to keep flirting and asking for the photo. Eventually, they used the fake girl’s account to message: “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Tyler sent a naked photo of himself, which the boys then showed to everyone at school. What had begun as a practical joke ended in criminal charges against the boys for distributing child pornography.

Tyler was aware that what he was doing was wrong. His parents had warned him against predators and naked pictures. But they had never thought a young girl would be the impetus for this kind of trouble. In fact, they hadn’t thought of anyone creating a fake account and gaining their son’s trust. Tyler, unaware that such cruelty existed in the world, much less in his so-called friends, had never considered that the girl he was talking to was anyone other than the person depicted in the profile. His “relationship” with her had given him a confidence he’d never had and the attention of his cool friends just as he was entering puberty, a fragile