The horror of the Uvalde massacre has shocked our nation and left us shaking our heads in disbelief. Sadly, the news is filled with many other disturbing stories like Ukraine and inflation not to mention the endless threat of COVID.
Because of the sheer volume of news, other important but smaller stories can go unnoticed. One such story was a parent’s nightmare which involved a tragic teenage suicide. Specifically, a seventeen year old boy was the victim of on-line sextortion. https://us.cnn.com/2022/05/20/us/ryan-last-suicide-sextortion-california/index.html?fbclid=IwAR04tYREBDYV-58DN7TwWvcg2mpuQYXw_1tAVdyTJzw9peSuQaCcIDlE5nI
To clarify, although sexting and other predatory internet practices have been around for years, sextortion is a more dangerous scam which targets unsuspecting teenagers. https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2022/03/24/fbi-warns-online-sextortion-scams-target-teens/ Although not new, according to the FBI, there has been a significant increase in sextorion over the past six months.
For those unfamiliar with the term, sextortion is an online form of sexual blackmail. In this recent case, a person pretending to be a female, preyed upon an unsuspecting teenage boy. The scammer pretended to have a romantic interest in the teen and cajoled his victim into sending him a nude photo of himself. When the photo was received, the boy was then told to send money in order to keep him from making the image public. Although the teen paid the initial payment, further demands for money pushed him beyond his ability to pay. Desperate and afraid, he became so despondent that he took his own life.
In order to comprehend why a high-functioning teenager would commit suicide over a photograph, we must understand the psychology of panic. Panic blocks our ability to think rationally and makes everything look hopeless. The prospect of having his genitals publicly exposed was simply too much emotionally for him to bear. His deep sense of shame prevented the teen from turning to his parents for help and created an inescapable dilemma for him. Indeed, this incident exposes the destructive power of sexual shame. It is truly sad state of affairs when embarrassment over a picture of one’s genitals can lead to suicide.
So, what can be done? I have bad news and good news: Just warning is not enough. In fact, overly negative warnings about sex can create shame and prevent children from talking to their parents when a problem arises . The good news is that with more rational discussions about sex, families can create better communication so that future tragedies like this can be prevented. Here are some tips that will help:
- EXAMINE YOUR OWN SENSE of SEXUAL SHAME To be clear, feeling some embarrassment about sex is normal but feeling shame is not. Thus, in order to empathize with our children when they encounter sexual problems, we need to be careful not to let our own hang-ups about sex get in the way. Remember, sexual shame doesn’t happen by accident. It is taught, often unconsciously, by giving off negative and uncomfortable reactions to sexual matters about which you may feel uncomfortable. Religion, Sex and Guilt . | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)
To keep perspective, it is sometimes helpful to recall how you learned about sex growing up and how it was dealt with by your parents. By having a sense of what was difficult for you child, you can better understand and have a feel what they are going through. By the way, it’s okay to acknowledge your own embarrassment talking about sex. When you do, you let them know that you understand theirs discomfort. Doing so is a powerful way connect with and to gain credibility with your children.
- EDUCATE with COMPASSION about the DANGERS of the INTERNET Young people need to know about the dangers associated with online socializing in detail. This is a problem for some however. Parents need to keep up to date with developments in technology and social media. Likewise, they need to stop avoiding and start talking about sexual issues in an understanding and compassionate way.
Also, and very important , you don’t have to be an expert. A willingness to acknowledge when you don’t know something is a powerful admission and keeps things real. Your openness to looking things up with your kids is a good way to build credibility and trust with them.
- NORMALIZE SEXUAL INTERESST and CURIOSITY Sadly, for many parents and children, openly showing an interest or curiosity about sex is wrong. Instead of criticizing or avoiding your children’s interests and questions about sex, encourage their curiosity just as you would about any other subject. Remember that both sexual interest and curiosity is normal and healthy.
- REASSURE that they can Always Count on Your love and Support Children need to hear the message, loud and clear, that they can always come to their parents for help and support about any problem… no matter how embarrassing ! It is important to make it clear that you understand that everyone makes mistakes about sex. With respect to sexting issues, especially, it is important let them know that nothing, no matter how bad, can never diminish your love for them and that no photo is worth dying for.
The impact of the ever-changing internet technologies on children can be terrifying. Nonetheless, empathy and love can heal the wounds created by fear and shame.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC Fayetteville, NY 6 1 2022