What to Do If You Accidentally Watch a Sex Scene With Your Child

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Nothing is more awkward than watching a television program and suddenly a sex scene comes on while your child is in the room. While it's usually an honest mistake, that doesn't make it any less uncomfortable. The key is not to panic. Instead, talk to your child about what just happened, and how they are feeling.

"If you encounter an unexpected sex scene or something that is not age-appropriate on television, remain calm and give a response your children can understand," suggests Jaclyn Gulotta, PhD, LMHC, a psychologist and Florida Supreme Court Certified Family Mediator. "Children will react to their parents’ responses and behaviors, so [you] should be aware of your body language at the moment."

If you have recently viewed something inappropriate with your child in the room and you are wondering how to handle it, read on. You will learn how you can handle a situation like this with the poise, compassion, and insight your child needs based on their age.

What You Should Do

No matter how hard you try to prevent it, there will come a time when your kids are exposed to sexual content on television or online. A recent study on teen media exposure found that 50% of their participants had been exposed to sexual content by 8th grade. With sexual content abundantly available on television and online, it is not really if it happens but when.

"Children and youth of all ages are exposed to more media than any previous generation," says
Amy Lee, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic Children's. "The problem of exposure to inappropriately violent, sexual, or otherwise overwhelming material is very common. If this happens when parents are watching with kids, this is the easiest and best scenario [to handle]."

When dealing with these accidental exposures, Dr. Lee recommends four general guidelines for addressing the situation. These include telling the truth, following your values, asking about feelings, and clearing up misinformation.

Tell the Truth

No matter what you are discussing with your kids, it is important to be truthful and provide honest answers to their questions. This approach is especially important when dealing with topics like sex and sexuality. Not only are you equipping your kids with important knowledge, but you also are building trust. The key is to keep your answers age-appropriate.

"Answer questions according to your child’s ability to understand," Dr. Lee says. "You do not need to use adult concepts, simply answer the questions your child has. Kids will let you know what they think they saw and you can respond to that with honesty."

Follow Your Values

Every family has a set of values that govern how they approach life. Keep these values in mind when discussing sexual content on television or online.

"Provide information according to your family values to support your child’s sense of understanding and security," Dr. Lee suggests.

There is no need to alter who you are when something unfortunate happens. Speak to the situation using words that align with the other messages you are giving your kids. Adhering to your family's values also builds consistency for your kids.

Ask About Feelings

Every child will respond differently when something inappropriate or sexual comes on television or online. The key is identifying how your child is feeling and addressing any confusion or uncomfortable feelings.

"Kids may feel a variety of feelings such as confused, silly, awkward, scared, embarrassed, or weird," Dr. Lee explains. "Kids may also not seem to register much at all. Check in about feelings by simply asking 'Are you feeling OK?' or 'Are there any feelings you want to talk about?'"

It's also important to validate your child's feelings. No matter what your child is feeling, acknowledge it and help them work through it.

Clear Up Misinformation

Too many times kids can formulate the wrong opinions and ideas about things based on what they see and even what they have been told at school. It is important to find out what your kids are thinking and clear up any misunderstandings.

"Check-in by asking 'What do you think that was about?' or 'Tell me what you are thinking about that. What was going on there?'" Dr. Lee says. 

While you do not have to use adult concepts or ideas when talking with your kids, you do want to lay a foundation of accurate information when it comes to sex and sexuality. You do not want them to develop wrong ideas or misinterpret things. Instead, have an age-appropriate talk about sex if the situation presents itself.

What You Should Say

When talking to kids about sexual content or other inappropriate material on TV or online, you want to be sure to keep your conversations age-appropriate and truthful. You also should avoid shaming your child or implying that there is something wrong with sex in general. Instead, have an honest conversation where the focus is more on answering their questions and addressing their feelings.

"Sexuality is a normal part of life, so even very young children have feelings about their bodies," says Dr. Lee. "Bodies feel good, being naked feels fun. [But] kids do not have adult sexual feelings or ideas until adolescence or teen years. The facts about sex and sexuality should be discussed throughout a child’s development."

Here is how to approach a conversation about what they witnessed based on your child's age.

Young Children

With young children such as toddlers or preschoolers, it is important to have a measured and calm response. Turn off the television, fast forward through the scene, or switch programs, but do so without making a big deal about it.

While most kids this age may not know what they witnessed or they may be too distracted by what they are playing with, this does not mean you should ignore the incident completely. Instead, check-in with them and see how they are feeling. Try to gauge if they are confused, upset, or scared.

"A conversation with a very young child may be very brief," says Dr. Lee. "They may not understand what they viewed or see it as unusual—unless adults appear upset or surprised."

They also may not be able to communicate how they feel. It is helpful for parents to address this fact by using simple words they can understand, Dr. Gulotta says. Try using books with pictures to help children put a name to their feelings if they seem particularly upset.

"Children at any age are curious so they may want answers," she says. "If parents avoid uncomfortable topics, they may leave their children feeling even more curious or cause them to fill in the blanks with false information."

School Age Kids

You are likely to see a wide range of responses with kids this age. Some will be curious about what is going on while others will be uncomfortable. Other kids will find the scene gross or even funny.

"Kids from around age 6 to 7 through pre-teen may giggle or appear uncomfortable," Dr. Lee says. "Staying relaxed and open to the conversation is important."

You also can use this experience as a learning opportunity about autonomy. Remind kids that their bodies are private, their own, and they should always feel safe telling a parent if they are uncomfortable with something they see, witness, or are asked to do, she says. As kids get older, these conversations should be repeated many times.

"Depending on what they saw, remind them that most content or videos that they may find are not a real representation of adult behaviors," Dr. Gulotta suggests. "With any age child, use age-appropriate discussion. For younger children, wait for them to ask questions so you can fully understand what they need at that moment. Older children need open and honest discussion and to be real with what they saw."

If they saw the sexual content when you weren't around, reassure them that they are not in trouble for accidentally watching, Dr. Gulotta adds. This can help them feel comfortable coming to you with any sex questions or concerns. It is important to let your children at any age know that there is acceptable and unacceptable content on television and to know which is appropriate at their age. 

"With any child, be honest," says Dr. Gulotta. "If they are younger, make sure you check in to see what they do and do not understand. You can talk with them about this being content that is meant for older adults and not children."

Tweens and Teens

Open and honest discussions are important at any age but are especially vital as your kids get older. Teens and tweens are more mature and able to understand what they are watching. At this age, they may even appear uncomfortable or unsure how to respond.

"Older children also may have more physical reactions to what they see on television," says Dr. Gulotta. "Again, letting them know this is normal will help them to learn they are normal for having sexual urges. Helping your children identify what these feelings mean can help them to understand the changes their bodies go through." 

Teens also are likely to be embarrassed and may resist a conversation, Dr. Lee says. She suggests discussing what kids know as well as personal safety and responsibility. You may even what to discuss what they may be viewing privately.

"Often, kids see things online or via Youtube or other platforms by accident when viewing alone," says Dr. Lee. "If parents ever learn their child has seen or is seeking to see more inappropriate content, it is very important to review parental controls, increase monitoring of your child’s viewing by having them view in open family spaces, and talk about what they have seen. Use open-ended questions like 'I noticed you had been looking at...I’m concerned about that. Are you OK?' and 'I think we should talk about this.'"

You also can use this experience as an opportunity to check-in and see if they have any questions about sex or if they are engaging in sexual behaviors, says Dr. Gulotta. Letting your child know that you are available whenever they need can help keep the lines of communication open.

"When children feel safe and there are no judgments, they tend to be more willing to share," she adds. "Remember to validate your child and praise them for coming to you to ask questions. They will never be in trouble for being curious and wanting to learn."

How to Prevent Future Incidents

While viewing inappropriate material is usually an accident, it is important to take steps to prevent future incidents. Problems might arise if kids are exposed to too much too soon when they are not prepared or ready, says Dr. Lee.

In fact, studies have shown that exposure to sexually explicit media in early adolescence can potentially lead to risky sexual behavior as kids get older. That said, there are some preventative strategies you can use to help minimize the risks and potential long-term impact of accidental exposure to sexual content.

For instance, Dr. Lee suggests watching programs together and choosing content carefully based on reviews and information about target audiences. She also suggests not allowing easy access to video content online without adult monitoring.

"Parents should stay mindful of what their children are watching," adds Dr. Gulotta. "Placing parental control on electronics will help to keep certain videos or content from popping up. Having open discussions with your children about their responsibility of knowing what they can or cannot watch helps them to become accountable for their actions [when they are not with you.]"

Cultivating your child's media literacy skills as well as helping them master critical thinking will also aid in preventing future incidents, especially as your child begins selecting their own content. This way, they can learn to make informed decisions about what they are viewing and select material that not only aligns with your family's guidelines and rules but also meets their personal expectations for content.

A Word From Verywell

Accidentally viewing sexual content when you are with your child can be both uncomfortable and unnerving. But by remaining calm and taking the time to check in with your child, you can avoid any misunderstandings or false beliefs about sex. You also can help them work through their feelings by allowing them to ask questions and providing honest, age-appropriate answers.

If, after the issue has passed, your child still has questions, continue to answer those in a truthful and factual way. By becoming a consistent and non-judgmental resource for your kids, you can help them develop a healthy view of sex. They will know they can ask you anything and get an answer they can trust.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Planned Parenthood. Tips for talking.

  3. Parkes A, Wight D, Hunt K, Henderson M, Sargent J. Are sexual media exposure, parental restrictions on media use and co-viewing TV and DVDs with parents and friends associated with teenagers' early sexual behaviour?J Adolesc. 2013;36(6):1121-1133. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.08.019

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.