A Parenting Crisis: My child has accessed violent pornographic stories online!! – From panic to thoughtful realignment of the parenting role.

A panicked mother discovers that her 12 year old daughter is writing stories with some sexually graphic and violent descriptions. How could this be? Has she been abused in some way? How do I approach her about it? The tumult of questions in response to this parenting shock point is seemingly endless for this parent. Understandably so!

After some distressed mother- daughter discussions it emerged that various internet sites had targeted her daughter through her social media use. Over a period of months the invitations to engage in written responses to the narratives and pictures had become increasingly graphic. It left this mother feeling naïve and ignorant of such targeted, grooming processes that are part of the internet age our children are swimming in.

What do you think is an appropriate response for this parent? (Aside from legal reporting of activity online that is unsafe for children.)

When I chatted with this mother I suggested that she start by clarifying what her response would be if her daughter wanted to hang out with a group of strangers. This was to reduce the extent of panic that was crowding her clear thinking. She was able to be clear about her principles in response to this hypothetical –

*No mixing with people that the parents had not met and gotten to know, *No socialising without adequate adult supervision, *Being interested in who these people were and how it was that their paths had crossed, *displaying curiosity, and caring principles rather than panicked confusion.

From this more thoughtful base it was possible for this mother to apply the same concerned curiosity to understanding the back story of her daughter’s exposure to these harmful online sites. She reported that while her daughter was initially distraught and defensive, her parental concerned but calm investigation cut through the reactivity. She wasn’t interrogating her daughter but acknowledging that she had not been the kind of guiding parent that she wanted to be for her children – to be a loving boundary setter and guide in the rapidly expanding realm of online relating.

When in a panicked state at the initial discovery, this mother’s entire energy went into imagining the awful possibilities for her child and think about devastating effects on her child’s development: “My child has been disturbed for life!!!” Her focus was anxiously focused on rescuing her daughter and getting all the external fixing help she could muster. This started with asking the school counsellor for a referral to have her child assessed (which is how we ended up talking together – I never saw her daughter).

When she recovered some thinking space she could regain a focus on her parenting principles. She could acknowledge her part in not being adequately in the loop about her daughter’s computer use and ‘virtual’ interactions. If it had been the real world of socialising she knew she would have been better informed about her children’s activities. Rather than beat herself up about this she clarified how she would need to add some extra responsibilities to her parenting job description. She conveyed her loving re-commitment to being a wise supportive parent in a changing world. This is such a different process to anxiously lecturing or ‘therapising’ her daughter. She reached out to her spouse and parenting partner to help her to process her shock and allowed him to talk through his own shocked response. While both had their distinctive reactions to work through they each came to acknowledge that parenting was a learning process that required some regular re- thinking. What did they each want to tweak about their parent leadership in the changing phases of their children’s lives?  They weren’t going to get it right all the time but would be able to recover their wisdom if they didn’t become fearfully focused on their child.

There were encouraging outcomes from this concerning episode for this parent.  She was able to tolerate the period of her daughters distress and angry defensiveness and stay in calm contact. She was able to demonstrate to her daughter that she loved her and was committed to being appropriately informed and protective of her as she was learning to navigate the early stages of adolescence. She was able to share the basis of her concerns about having relationships and sex conveyed in distorted, ugly ways. From this she opened up conversations with her daughter about what she thought was positive social media input and what was ‘rubbish’ input.  Opportunities arose for her to share how she had confronted different kinds of confusing and distorted relationship experiences during her own growing up years. They could think together about different levels of safe and unsafe communications and information.  She was able to work out with her husband some clear guidelines for computer and internet use – regular involvement in online interactions and devices in living rooms not bedrooms.

This mother’s story is such a clear comparison between thoughtful parenting and fear driven parenting in this radically changing technological age. Fear takes parents away from embodying their own role – it focuses anxiously on the child which easily contributes to the child’s distant defensiveness – which in-turn reinforces the parent’s worry.  Fear also drives parents to over-depend on external experts to search for evidence of developmental damage, then in turn to diagnose and treat the child. In contrast, the thoughtful parent focuses on their job description when faced with a child’s challenging episode. They figure out what they want to convey about their commitment to their child’s good and how they are going to action this. They are not swayed by initial reactive protests but persevere towards their guidance goal. A parent who recovers their leadership when facing a challenging revelation about their child’s experience is a parent who can grow through such predicable episodes. In response a child gradually grows more respect for their parent and learns to open up to them in order to access their wise support.

What are the dominant forces of sensitivity in my relationships?

It is useful to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress.

Julia described the way she came unravelled when others were given acknowledgement for
tasks she has contributed to. She wondered why she was so sensitive to her boss’s approval and how tied it was to her work performance.


The forces of sensitivity in our important relationships are powerful. They exist at an instinctual level and are driven by our need for close connections with others to maintain our sense of well-being. These sensitivities can pull us towards people and equally drive us away when things get uncomfortable. For example, when things are comfortable in my marriage I am drawn to wanting more time with my husband. When a negative reaction gets triggered in our interactions I am inclined to avoid closeness.

I have found it helpful to consider 4 relational sensitivities that have been utilised in the writing and teaching of *Dr Michael Kerr.

He says that all of us grow up in our families with heightened sensitivity to our parents:

  • Attention-(& inattention),
  • Approval- (& disapproval),
  • Expectations-( met or unmet) and
  • Distress-(am I the cause of or the fixer for?)

Many people have commented that they have found it extremely useful to consider the way each of these sensitivities was shaped during their childhood. I regularly ask people to reflect on- which of these is highest on their relationship radar? While all are part of family relationships there is usually one that has been most activated in our relationship with parents and siblings. One woman I’ve chatted to about this has identified that meeting her parents’ expectations was clearly a driver of her relationship energies. She sensed the comfort of measuring up to preforming well and avoided the emotional disruption of letting her parents down – her father in particular. Recognising this dominant sensitivity has helped this woman to see how it has shaped her functioning at work where she strives hard to meet the perceived expectations of her bosses and is easily derailed when she senses that she has not met high standards.

For myself I have particularly been shaped by sensitivity to attention. In early childhood I experienced a large increase in attention at times I was unwell. I was aware that this elevated me to a place of specialness in the group of 5 siblings. As I began to perform well and take on leadership roles in later high school this attention platform shifted. Parental attention no longer focussed on my sick role but on my positions of importance and achievements. Much of this wasn’t verbalised but was conveyed through the emotional tone of interactions. This has primed me in my adult life to gravitate to situations where I have a profile in a group that brings me positive attention. I look back on my dealings with early supervisors and trainers and see how much I relished their emotional attention when I performed well. I would borrow confidence and energy from such relationship exchanges. As I’ve learned more about borrowing maturity compared to growing maturity, I can see that much of my self-assurance has been dependent on this attentive relationship dynamic. In order to work on a more solid maturity I have needed to consciously choose to be in situations where I am less important and receive little attention. For example, I have deliberately pulled out of some work tasks that have put me at the front of an event and have made room for others to take on the spotlight. Similarly in my extended family I have noticed my discomfort about being left out of conversations. This observation and awareness has helped me to practice being more at ease when I’m on the periphery of a social interchange. I work to enjoy listening in on others conversations and not trying to push into the discussion. My successes and setbacks in these “growing up” pilot projects ebb and flow.

It is constructive to appreciate that all humans have versions of the 4 instinctual relational sensitivities of attention, approval, expectations and distress. While there is considerable overlap between the 4 triggers I think there is usually one of these that dominate our relationship experience. The sensitivities that dominate can also be influenced by the particular relationship context and may indeed vary between home and work. They develop in the circularity of our growing up relationship experience, in conjunction with our inbuilt social biology. The degree to which these sensitivities dictate our lives does vary according to the level of maturity we experienced in our family of origin. Perhaps you may find it useful to reflect on which one was a central driver in your exchanges with each parent. It has provided me with some awareness and direction in working to be less relationship dependent and more consistent in my functioning.

Questions to consider:

  • What response from either of my parents was most steadying for me? Their positive attention and/or approval? Meeting their high expectations? Being able to relieve their distress?
  • What response from either of my parents was most unsteadying for me? Their negative attention and/or approval? Not meeting their high expectations? Not being able to relieve their distress – or sensing that I contributed to their distress?
  • How did I sense my position of approval, attention, expectations and distress was different to each of my siblings (or the other parent)?
  • In what ways do I seek out relationship situations that are similar to the steadiers I experienced with either parent?
  • In what ways do I become reactive in relationship situations that are similar to the de-steadying scenarios I experienced with either parent?
  • How do the above questions help me to understand my triggers in current relationships? – at work, with friends and in my family?
  • In what ways can I practice being more steady without other’s attention, approval, expectations or neediness?

*Reference for Dr Michael Kerr
Presentation at FSI conference 2007: Why do siblings often turn out very differently?

Why Do Siblings Often Turn Out Very Differently?
Chapter in Human Development in the
Twenty-First Century: Visionary Ideas from Systems Scientists
Editors: Alan Fogel, Barbara J. King, and Stuart Shanker
Cambridge University Press – 2008
Michael E. Kerr

Making room for distress in relationships

 Reflections from a sisters weekend awaysisters weekend

“I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up.”

It was jarring witnessing one of my 3 sisters’ breaking down in tears as we shared breakfast together. I felt my heart rate escalate in readiness to do my automatic smooth things over. On this occasion however, I managed to restrain my impulse and join my others sisters in acknowledging her hurt. I could then observe how this gave her space to be in charge of what she needed to do for herself at that moment.

Let me explain the context. I was away for a rare weekend break with my 3 sisters in a charming rural setting outside of Sydney. We had relished a relaxed time of walking, chatting, reminiscing, laughing, country store shopping, and cooking up some great food to match our wine selections. On the Sunday morning I’d suggested listening to a pod cast and had randomly chosen one from a site I follow that linked to the theme of mother’s day (which coincided with our weekend). I had thought it might be interesting to reflect on our own mother, who we’d lost some 30+ years earlier; and I also hoped that this post would add some helpful Sunday faith reflection. The message went straight to interviews of mother’s talking about their deep intimate experience of their baby’s expressed love and dependence. For my dear sister, who has lived the complex heartache of infertility, this touched on a raw and deep grief; and through tears she asked that we stop the tape saying it was too painful for her to continue listening.

I immediately felt foolish and insensitive at my contribution to her upset. It would have been easy for me to try to compensate for this by lots of apologising and quickly moving the conversation and activity to something cheery. (This would have been the kind of apologising that was driven by wanting to feel better about myself as opposed to genuinely taking responsibility for wrong doing toward another.)  On this occasion I just stayed quite, along with my other sisters, and we listened to an honest insightful description from our sister of her living through extraordinarily challenging times. She was able to describe so many aspects of her life at the time which added an understanding of our whole family system and the different ways we were each impacted by the death of each of our parents while trying to make our way in our adult lives. It revealed her personal journey of coming to faith in the aftermath of suffering, providing a gift of encouragement that no online pod cast could have delivered. After a period of listening and learning I walked over to my sister and gave her a quiet hug. It had been a moment of connecting that would have been missed if any of us had tried to relieve and distract from the expression of pain and loss.

Our family has certainly shifted from our previous ways of dealing with distress. As we were growing up, the jolts of suffering and loss were minimised in an effort to keep going and to survive. As a family we closed up expressing our hurts and fears to each other and took the path of ‘soldiering on’. This happened in the face of grandparents’ deaths, the trauma of our house burning down and of our mother’s excruciating battle with terminal cancer. This closing up conversation in the face of upset was entrenched in the coping patterns of previous generations. It has taken its toll on each of us and our relationships in different ways.

As the years have been on fast forward to this sister’s gathering, I could appreciate that our family has made some genuine progress. To be able to tolerate the stirred up emotions of another’s upset and not respond in ways that swiftly shut it down is very different to the way we grew up. There are many times I see my immaturities when I’m with my original family but on this occasion, each sister contributed to a precious mature space where no one got in another’s way. It was a moment of intimacy and appreciation for the different experiences each has dealt with. The younger sister was trail blazing courageous honesty to her elders (yes elders in sibling position even though in reality our ages are so close we are peers). It was an opportunity for getting to know, at a deeper level, one of our siblings and to show love for each other that would not have been possible with the old pattern of smoothing over another’s distress. Our brother, as the youngest after 4 sisters (tough gig right?!), was in many ways the most vulnerable to the isolation that came from our closed communication about grief. As part of my effort with ALL my siblings, I need to keep working at becoming more open and honest in the way I relate with him.

The growing up lesson for me is to be aware of the old stress reducing family impulses, while at the same time, slowing down the reactions so that conversation can open up. For me it is not making it all about my embarrassment for upsetting another by self-protective apologies; on this occasion it was about learning from another as they had the space to truly express themselves.


Note: I sent this blog to the sister I have written about to as a check that I had represented the situation factually and was not inappropriately crossing privacy boundaries. Her feedback provided a few extra ideas that I included.

Questions for reflection

  • How was distress responded to in the family I grew up in?
  • To what extent did my family system allow open communication from each person about their response to difficult circumstances?
  • What are the signs of closed communication (shutting down, avoiding, distracting, smoothing over, taking over…) in my relationships?
  • How can I practice tolerating the tension in myself when another is expressing strong feelings?
  • Are there ways I am unknowingly preventing others from having the room to speak their experience? Or am I accommodating to others smoothing over my own expression of difficult times?

Relevant Quotes from Bowen:

“An open relationship system is one in which an individual is free to communicate a high percentage of inner thoughts, feelings, and fantasies to another who can reciprocate. No one ever has a completely open relationship with another, but it is a healthy state when a person can have one relationship in which a reasonable of openness is possible.” FTCP p 322

“The closed communication system is an automatic reflex to protect self from the anxiety in the other person., though most people say they avoid the taboo subjects to keep form upsetting the other person. “ p 322

“From family research we have learned that the higher the level of anxiety and symptoms in a family, the more the family members are emotionally isolated from each other. The greater the isolation, the lower the level of responsible communication between family members and the higher the level of irresponsible underground gossip about each other in the family and the confiding of secrets to those outside of the family.” P 291


“Making room for distress in relationships:  Reflections from a sisters weekend away” – Jenny Brown