No one wants to see that: Supporting kids exposed to undesirable content

Sometimes, despite our best efforts to manage and support our kids when they use social media or apps, they see things we wish they hadn’t. When this happens, we parents can feel like we’ve failed our kids – after all, it is our job to protect them. We can also feel really anxious and scared for our kids as we worry about the long-lasting effect of that content on their well-being, especially their mental health. Most of all, while we might realise the importance of talking to them about it, we might feel really unprepared and nervous about having such an important and difficult conversation.

You might be surprised to know that our children are probably experiencing many of those same uncomfortable feelings that we are right now. They may feel like they’ve ‘failed us’ and could feel guilty and ashamed for watching the content. They are likely to also feel anxious and scared about what they’ve seen and could worry about how that will affect them in the future. And they could also feel really nervous and uncertain about talking to us about it, worrying about how we will react to them sharing their experiences.

As challenging as these conversations may be, they are essential right now. So here are three tips to navigate this very difficult situation and support your kids with constructive conversation.

1. Get yourself ready to talk

Take the time to calm yourself and to think about what you want to say to your child, the assurance you want to give them, and the advice and support you want to offer.

2. Try and try again

Prepare yourself for the fact that your child might not want to talk about it the first-time round and that you might have to try again. If this happens, acknowledge that it is an uncomfortable and scary topic and reassure them that, when they’re ready, you will be there to listen and support them. Then try again tomorrow.

3. Brace yourself to hear hard things

Prepare yourself to listen and to hear difficult things. It is easy for us as parents to be overcome with our own big feelings when our children tell us about theirs. Stay calm and let your child know that no matter how anxious or scared they feel, you are a place of calm and you can help.

That said, put on your own oxygen mask first…

It’s incredibly important that you look after yourself, acknowledging your own feelings, in order to best support your child. When our kids are dealing with a difficult situation, there is emotional fallout for us as parents too. It is completely understandable that a parent whose child has seen distressing content online would themselves be feeling fear, guilt, shame or anxiety. The Pause, Hold, Engage tool is very helpful here, supporting us to stop and acknowledge our feelings, and then empowering us to engage constructively with the situation in front of us.

For more on how to use Pause, Hold, Engage, check out:

For parents seeking additional advice around supporting kids when they have been exposed to distressing content, we strongly recommend the following resources provided by the Mental Health Foundation and Netsafe.


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About Author

Linde-Marie Amersfoort

Linde-Marie is our Child and Family Psychologist at Parenting Place. On top of her clinical practice work, she also works in our research team developing and evaluating our parenting programmes. She is Christchurch-based and in her free-time loves to explore the Port Hills and surrounding areas. Linde-Marie has a blog where she shares her thoughts and experiences on parenting her two teenage children. You can email Linde-Marie at lindemarie.amersfoort@parentingplace.nz or read her blog here.

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