I worry about a lot of things. I worry that the power will go out when it rains. I worry that my children will fall into the grand canyon, or the port-a-potty, when we travel. And I worry that they’re going to get so conditioned by photoshopped, pornographic images online that they’re going to grow up and be unsatisfied with their spouses.

I consider myself to be a half way decent teacher, but fighting against pornography feels like fighting human nature. Boys are designed to want to look at it, right? So what am I supposed to do? Just keep preaching? Lock down all access to the internet? I’m almost positive that wouldn’t do anything but build resentment. Remind me to tell you some day about what I did when my dad locked up the tv so I couldn’t watch soap operas. It wasn’t pretty. There has to be a better approach.

I tend to think I have an addictive personality. It’s very easy for me to wake up and realize I’m addicted to sugar or games on my phone or checking Facebook. So what are the chances that my children might develop an addiction of their own? I don’t know, but it’s certainly not unfathomable and we know that 9 out of 10 boys will be exposed to pornography before they turn 18 (Pornography Exposure for Youth). So what is it that causes some people to run across a pornographic image and shrug or show mild curiosity, while others look at the same images and find they can’t stop?

There are undoubtedly some genetic components that make some brains more susceptible to addiction than others. Estimates of genetic influence range anywhere from 0.3 to 0.7 (Genetic Influences on Addiction). This scares me because it’s out of my control. It feels a little like a game of brain chemistry roulette. Fortunately, it’s not the whole story. There is something we can do in our homes to help make our children more resistant to this addiction and here’s the essence of it: 

“The opposite of addiction is connection.” – Johann Hari

Even if someone is prone to addiction, the addictive part of a their brain doesn’t have to be activated. According to one study, even is situations where there is an extremely troubled home environment like mental illness, chronic poverty, or a lot of other family discord, “a good relationship with one parent provided a substantial protective effect against addiction (Building Resilience).” 

While parental relationships are important, they are not the only relationships that can have a protective influence against addiction. A good relationship is one where someone can listen empathically without judgement or severe criticism and communicates, “I’m here. I hear you. I understand. I care.” (Building Resilience and Filial Therapy).

The good news is good relationships don’t just prevent addictions to pornography, they also protect against addictions to: alcohol, drugs, violence, technology, and every other addiction you can imagine.

The bad news is society is set up to fail our boys in this regard. A boy can’t connect with someone, can’t feel warmth and understanding from them if he never shows any vulnerability. Masculine stereotypes in our culture make it hard for boys to show vulnerability. Even now in 2015, people still expect men to be mostly independent and unemotional. If you don’t believe me, consider how often boys in our culture hear variations of the following:

  1. You’re Okay
  2. Stop Crying
  3. Man Up
  4. Walk it Off
  5. Toughen Up
  6. You Need a Thicker Skin
  7. Grow a Pair
  8. Don’t Be a Sissy
  9. Get Over It
  10. Deal With It
  11. Life’s not fair

How many of these have we said ourselves? I’ll admit that I’ve used more than one of these phrases in conversations with my children. When boys hear these messages often enough though, they learn that showing vulnerability is weak, feminine and makes them feel bad. If they try to avoid showing vulnerability by stifling or ignoring their emotions, then they cut themselves off from the connections they need to protect against addiction. Feelings of isolation and insecurity are major risk factors for developing a pornography addiction says David Walker, a mental health specialist for court ordered sex offenders.

We’re not bad people. Most of the time when we use phrases like this, we aren’t being unkind. In fact, we often use these phrases with a tender tone of voice and good intentions; but if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we’ll notice that what we’re really doing is trying to alleviate our own discomfort. Doing this, even in jest, contributes to feelings of disconnect and insecurity in our boys. An equally simple, and more effective, response to tears would be to gently name the emotion boys are feeling when they cry. Studies show the simple act of naming an emotion has a powerful calming effect (Putting Feelings into Words). It’s validating and reassuring.

Next time someone you care about starts to cry, see if you can replace one of the phrases above with a variation of one of the phrases below.

  1. You seem disappointed
  2. You must be feeling discouraged
  3. That’s heartbreaking!
  4. That’s frustrating
  5. That wasn’t quite what you were expecting, was it?
  6. Oh My Gosh, That’s terrible!
  7. You’re right, that wasn’t fair.
  8. You’re afraid it’s never going to be the same.
  9. Yikes, that had to hurt!
  10. That stinks.
  11. You really wanted to…
  12. Oh no, that must have been so embarrassing

Dr. Goulston, the author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone says, “The more we allow people to have their feelings and become sad or angry, the quicker it passes.” It’s true. That simple change could, in time, spread a culture of caring and connection and build resilience against addictions, including pornography addictions.