By Floyd Godfrey, LPC, CSAT candidate
The decision about whether or not to disclose to your children that their father is addicted to pornography is a complex question. This is especially true when his behavior has moved beyond pornography into other sexually compulsive behaviors. There is currently very little research on the impact disclosure has on children. However, there are times that giving information to them seems essential, while other times it seems traumatic. There are a variety of factors that go into the decision.
One factor to consider is that it often provides validation to the child for something they already knew. In one study, 67% of the kids already knew before they were told (Dillon & Carnes, 2003). In this case disclosure helps children feel relief. Another reason to disclose might include exposure. Perhaps they have already found something that dad left behind. Oftentimes the exposure might include images beyond their understanding. Another important consideration would be for safety. Is the welfare of your children at risk? If they are somehow in danger physically or mentally then disclosure may be needed.
However, whenever possible make sure that you and your spouse are both on board with a decision for disclosure. You should agree that it would be an important step in your children’s welfare. Don’t go into a disclosure feeling pressured by church leaders, family members, sponsors, friends, or anyone else. It can be awkward and uncomfortable, so make sure you are both ready to do this.
Kids will have a variety of responses to the disclosure which could include shock, disbelief, fear, sadness, tearfulness, anger, validation of suspicions, attempts to comfort their parents, or praise to their parents for recovery. So be prepared for different emotions and think about how you will respond. You may find that’s important to get support for yourself as you deal with response from your children.
As you prepare for a disclosure, make sure it’s not just a one-time event. Create an atmosphere that makes it acceptable to bring the topic up again in the future. If your kids are left with questions or have recurrent insecurities, they will need an open forum to talk again in the future. Give permission to your children to bring the issues up again when they want to talk more about it.
Try to avoid any “forced” disclosures. In other words, it’s always a bit less traumatic for their father to share on his own accord. Don’t corner him or twist his arm into a disclosure. It needs to come from his heart to avoid confusion for the children. This also helps the children feel safer with dad. Dad’s ability to courageously confront his mistakes provides a sense of stability for them.
“The most important gift a parent can give a child is to tell them about their dark side. Telling children about your struggles helps them developmentally to have a realistic picture of what it means to be human” (Carl Jung, 1969). If you are the addict, and struggling with disclosure, you might also consider that taking this step helps you develop transparency - and it’s critical for your recovery to develop this ability.
Sometimes a forced disclosure cannot be avoided. For example when their father is a public figure and the news is made public, or when their father is a divorcee and doesn’t engage in any type of recovery work forcing mom to say something. However, it will typically be less traumatic if you can avoid a forced disclosure.
It’s also critical to provide a “soft-disclosure.” In other words, make sure the information is appropriate to the children’s stage of development. Kids who are young don’t understand sexual behavior. Likewise, young teens are often confused about their own budding sexuality. Prepare ahead of time to share facts that are developmentally appropriate. For example, suppose your six your old son finds their father’s pornography on the computer. Rather than tell him, “Your dad is a sex addict,” try something more like, “Yes your dad told me he has looked at pictures of people without their clothes on. This is not acceptable in our home and he said he was sorry. He said he wouldn’t be doing that anymore.” Keep it simple.
Call us if you need help in this tenuous decision of disclosure to your children. We have a team of specialists who can guide you through the process of telling your kids about dad’s pornography addiction (or other sexual behavior). We have specialty programs for pornography addiction in Mesa Arizona: (480) 668-8301.