Help! My 13-year-old stepchild is sexting: What do I do?

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What do I do?
What do I do?

Teenagers explore, and sometimes they venture into areas which are perhaps not safe or which introduce adult themes too soon.

It's tempting for young people, to explore the unknown or forbidden, but for young girls it can be more dangerous than they understand.  

This concerned stepmom wrote to Parent24 for help with this issue. 

"I have recently stumbled onto my stepdaughter's obsession with 'sexting' multiple boys at one time. What do I do? We have removed her access to her phone - indefinitely. My fears are that once she gets her phone back, things will just go back to this again.

"We had many long, nice and open conversations around this sensitive topic and stages in her life, but it seems to fall onto deaf ears or zero understanding of the dangers and the devastation of losing your reputation to the wrong behaviour.

"She is still 13 and turns 14 in a month's time. But this behaviour has been ongoing for the past year now... obsessed with boys and getting attention. We live in a small town and she attends a private school that has a Christian-based value system. I believe that we are doing the best for her, giving her everything any young girl could ever want, however, we can not control her own behaviour.

"The access these girls have to multiple group chats and following trends on all sorts of new channels like TikTok is sending these girls down a very bad spiral, she is not the only girl to blame. All the girls on their group chats seem to be focused on the same behaviour. Who can I speak to?

"Her father is obviously devastated and the driving force behind the discipline (no phone).

"I want her to have a healthy mind with a genuine understanding of body boundaries and that chasing boys around like this is not right at all for her or her reputation. Feeling helpless." 

Connection before correction 

We approached Kate Rowe, wellness coach and founder of explorare.co.za, for some help for this concerned stepmom. 

She says: "It is a very tough and challenging experience to be going through and I can completely understand the sense of helplessness you are feeling."

Rowe shares one guiding principal as parents navigate these tricky waters: "connection before correction".

"Wherever possible seek to build connection and trust which will support you to create a safe container to have challenging, honest and caring conversations," Rowe urges.

Get curious 

"What to do? Get curious about what is going on inside for her and what is happening in her world, at school," Rowe recommends.

Remembering that we have just been through an incredibly challenging time of distance and separation during the Covid-19 lockdown, and that, for any teenager, this is a tough experience, Rowe says.

"Even though this behaviour started before that, I am guessing that the lockdown and separation from her friends has exacerbated this behaviour," she adds. 

A different narrative  

Before you to check in with her, get clear in yourself. 

1. What about this upsets me?

2. What story am I making up about her when I think about this behaviour and what could be a different narrative: she is lacking boundaries, she is looking for attention? 

A different narrative could be, for example, that there is something going on inside of her which is motivating this unhealthy behaviour, I wonder what it is?

Or she does not have the skill-sets to navigate the very complex world she is growing up in, how can I help her to develop the skills she needs? When you shift your narrative from judgement to curiosity you remain open to connection, rather than closing to connection.

3. What do you want for her?

For example you want her to have healthy boundaries and be able to make wiser choices. When you answer this, try to answer in the positive. So saying you would like her to have the skills to set healthy boundaries is very different to "I want her to stop ruining her reputation".

"Can you feel how one statement is opening and the other shuts down options for communicating and connection?" Rowe asks. 

Change her behaviour 

Rowe says that in cases like this, her own fears are that once the teen gets her phone back, things will just go back to this again.

"Your fear in this instance is more than likely correct. The reason I say this is you cannot change behaviour at the level of behaviour," she explains.

"If you want to help her to change her behaviour you have to look at what is happening inside. What is motivating the behaviour? This could be an emotion (loneliness), a belief about herself, which may be deeply buried, such as that she is not good enough, or she may think, like many young girls and women do, that her value is measured by how sexually attractive she is to others," she says. 

An ongoing intervention

"From my perspective this is not a situation where punishment will resolve the issue," Rowe suggests.

"This is an ongoing intervention, there has to be more than taking her phone away. More conversations, more seeking to understand, noticing of what is going on, getting clear on what skills she needs and then making choices which support her to grow in these areas," she says.

Punishment only curbs behaviour for a short time, it does not create lasting change. 

"Finding out how the attention makes her feel can lead you to some more interesting conversations," Rowe advises. "I would invite you to ask yourself how would you like to her to behave, what choices would you like her to make and what skills does she need in order to make choices like that?"  

Future consequence

Rowe says that if you are saying you do not want her to act in a certain way, due to a long in the future consequence, that is not going to impact on her choices because it is not relevant in her world.

"The stage of her brain/body/hormonal development at this time is all about herself, risk taking, belonging, seeking novelty and being connected to her peers," she explains. "These are not the only things which is going on, but they are strong influencing factors." 

Do you have a tricky parenting question? 

Share your questions with us via email at chatback@parent24.com, and we may find an expert to help. Anonymous contributions are welcome.

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