Sexting. There was no such word when we were teenagers. Now there’s rarely a week that passes when there isn’t a story on the news that features it.

This week, it was reports of an investigation into a “sexting ring” at a Colorado high school. Now, there's obviously a degree of difference between older teens who are dating and privately trading provocative photos, and something like the Colorado 'sexting ring.' But while an individual teen might think they're sharing something privately, it's possible for that kind of semi-innocent sharing to be turned into a broader and more damaging exposure.

"There isn't a school in the United States probably at this point that hasn't at some point dealt with the issue of sexting,"

Cañon City, Colorado Schools Superintendent, George Welsh

Why does this keep happening (and what are we supposed to do about it?)

At least part of the why, is that teens are hardwired to act impulsively, built to rebel against parental authority, and driven to thrill-seeking. It’s a teenage imperative to keep parts of their lives and themselves private—from parents, if not from each other.

When you combine that with teens’ naturally growing sexual awareness and the pervasiveness of sexting in our culture (by celebrities for example), it’s not surprising that at least some teens are sexting. But knowing that some of this behavior is developmentally driven doesn’t feel like enough. We want to celebrate our teens' growing independence. We know they need (some) privacy and the ability to make (some) stupid mistakes in order to learn from them. But the stakes get higher as our kids get older. And whether you’re a Tiger Mom or a Free-Range Dad, it’s hard to get away from the simple fact that teaching is a part of parenting.

So how do you stop your kid from sexting?

First, start when they’re eleven.

I’m completely serious. If you wait until you think your child is old enough to potentially begin sexting you’ll almost certainly be too late. It’s a built-in part of parenting that we’re slow to see our children as anything but that. So start the conversation earlier than you think you need to. I assure you it will not get any easier if you wait.

If bringing up the very word ‘sexting’ feels like too much for your eleven-year-old to handle, then start by emphasizing the permanence of the internet. Don’t just tell them about how things they post online live on—show them. Open up your own Facebook page and find the oldest photo you have posted. (The effect is better if it’s a photo of the child you’re talking to—making the lesson more personal.) Then talk about what would happen if for some reason you decided today to delete that photo. You could get rid of it from your own phone, sure. But how do you get rid of it if it’s saved on the phones of twenty of your closest friends? Or a hundred?

Take this living example as far as you can. It’s a lesson you’ll need to share more than once if you really want it to stick.

Then, recognize that these conversations aren’t just going to magically happen.

Part of the problem I see every day as a parent of four children, is that we’re all super-busy. We have places to go and things to do. It’s hard to sit down for dinner together; it’s hard to sit down for dinner at all. And the last thing many of us want when we do finally get everyone to the table is to bring up a topic that’s sure to be a conversation killer.

“Hey kids, anyone you know send any sexts lately?”

So, instead of ruining a perfectly good family dinner, we wait for “the right moment” to bring up the subject of sexting. But I promise you, it’s a moment that will never come. Because at the heart of the worry we all have about our children (children!) sending revealing, provocative or even nude photos of themselves to their so-called friends, is a deep discomfort with the entire subject of our children as sexual beings. (It was hard for me to even write those words, honestly.)

So pick a date this week (if you put it off until next week, well, see above…), choose a time afterschool or on a Sunday, and put it in iCal. Go ahead and do it now. I’ll wait. :)

When your phone buzzes with the alert, go into your child’s room (you’ll both want some privacy for this) and ask if you can talk to them for ten minutes. Maybe it will take longer, maybe it won’t, but that’s a good place to start.

Like most challenging things, they only get done when we force ourselves to do them. So take a deep breath and make it happen.

Don’t expect the conversation to be easy, comfortable, or complete after one go.

I’m a huge fan of expectation management. I used to tell my husband, “I’d rather know in advance that you’re coming home at nine o’clock, than expect you at five-thirty and have you arrive at six-fifteen.” If I know I’m going to have to cope with dinner, bath and bedtime on my own then I’ll prepare for that. My expectations will be met, and I’ll be happier for it. Even if it means being a single-parent for an extra two hours.

So expect these conversations to be full of awkward pauses and semi-hysterical laughter. Expect your kids to try hard to avoid the whole subject by saying things like, “I know! Geez, Mom, I already know all that. I’m never ever going to do anything like that. I swear!” Expect that you’ll need to do all this again, in greater detail, in six months.

I’ll also point out that these conversations may look a little different, depending on whether you have a teenage boy or a teenage girl. It’s no less important to have the conversations, but the truth is that there are different motivations and different consequences for boys than there are for girls when it comes to sexting. This is something else you need to expect and prepare for (but that's another post, for another time).

Finally, be a little pushy when it comes to knowing what your kids are sending and receiving online.

This is a hard one for me, because I want more than anything to raise children who grow into independent adults. And I’ve seen first hand how badly being over-involved, over-protective, and over-invested can backfire—resulting in kids who take more risks instead of fewer, and make more foolish choices instead of wiser ones. So all I’ll say is that you want to find the line that works for your kids, and your family. Less spying and more investigating. More lurking than helicoptering. Be nearby, be aware, and be interested.

In the end, I’m not sure we can stop teens from sexting. The best we can hope for is to get to a place where we can step in before it reaches the level of harm (or national media attention). And the only way we’ll get there is by intentionally committing energy to starting the conversation, and by keeping an eye on our kids’ circles of friends and what they’re seeing and sending online.