Q: About 9 months ago, I came into my 12-year-old son’s room and found him acting odd, as though he was hiding something. So I checked under the cover of his bed where he was sitting, and found his younger sister’s Tinker Bell plushy. He had tied the doll’s arms and legs together and put masking tape over her mouth. I was caught off guard and asked my son what he was doing with the doll and why she was tied up. He answered, saying that he was playing with his toys (he had other figurines in the bed too) and that his toys had “kidnapped” Tinker Bell. I let it go, however, I recently went through his phone (including his Google and YouTube history) and found pictures of cartoon characters and adults bound and gagged. My question is, how do I confront him about this without making him feel awkward? He already sees a therapist, but he’s a very closed off type of individual and keeps to himself a lot. What should I do?
~ Tink To Be Tied, USA
A: Dear Tink,
While your son’s behavior is understandably upsetting and worrisome to you, remember, as you sort through this issue, that you are his most trusted teacher, advocate and touchstone. Making sure that he remains confident of your love and support will be the key to maintaining open communication. Approach your concerns with your son in as calm and uncharged setting as possible, such as a quiet moment when you are home alone with him. Ask him to sit down and go through his phone with you. Take the approach of “show me what you are interested in” rather than being judgmental or punitive. Scroll through the photos, his search history, texts, etc. and have him tell you about them.
Talk with your son frankly, exploring his feelings further than you were able to when you first found Tinker Bell bound and gagged. If you see images with bondage, ask about them, just as you had about the tied-and-taped Tinker Bell. If he does not share these images, tell him that you saw them in his history and were wondering about them. Talk about what he thinks of these pictures and why he searched for and saved them on his phone. Capturing Tinker Bell may have been just curious play, mimicking the pirates in Peter Pan who kidnapped and tied up Wendy and her siblings. If so, talk about how, regardless of how he sees and understands these images, others may draw negative conclusions about who he is, how he behaves, and what he is like. His friends may be upset and confused by these images and their parents may be concerned and frightened by his behaviors, maybe even forbidding their children to play with him.
If your son talks about these pictures and videos from the perspective of the person(s) who did the tying up, as he did with the “Tinker Bell kidnapping”, ask him how he thinks the person who is bound and gagged feels. Encourage him to take the perspective of the victim rather than the victimizer. This will help him to feel empathy. It may be helpful to let your son’s therapist know about the tied up toy, the content and search history on his phone, and your conversations with your son so that s/he can explore your son’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences further.
The most important thing is to maintain open and honest communication with your son. Although this is difficult subject matter, maintain an attitude of understanding and compassion. Ensure that he feels safe and loved. Do not hesitate to seek the support of professionals such as his therapist. Constantly remind your son of your love for him, and reassure him that he can always come to you with experiences that scare, confuse or upset him, whether they occur online or in real life.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
~ The Mediatrician®