It’s the moment every parent dreads: finding out their child is sexually active. I think, on some level, we all realize this day is going to happen eventually. Most of us hope it’s not going to be until they are grown and out of the house. But that’s not always the case. So, as a parent, what can you do?
Before you talk with your child, take the time to cool down and get some emotional distance from the situation. It’s okay to wait a day or so if that’s what it takes. As much as you want to respond the moment you find out, that’s not the best approach because you won’t be calm enough to handle the situation well. Indeed, when you first find out, you may be freaking out, and no one does well under those circumstances.
Understand that a calm and thoughtful approach will be most effective in addressing and changing your child’s behavior, and to achieve that, you need to create some emotional distance.
It will be much easier to be clear with your child if you’re clear with yourself first. You may need to look inward to understand and define your own values before you sit down and discuss them with your child.
You may believe your family’s values are clear. But they may not be, not even to you, the parent. Your teen having sex may have come as a complete surprise to you, in which case, it may never have occurred to you to have those values figured out. After all, to most parents of teenagers, it seems like just yesterday they were still in diapers.
Try to get on the same page with your spouse or co-parent so that your child doesn’t get conflicting messages. If possible, you want to parent as a team and present a unified front even if you are not entirely in agreement on how to proceed.
If parents are divided, kids are unsure of the rules—what matters and what doesn’t. Or, kids learn to get off the hook for a behavior problem by playing one parent off the other.
Kids also quickly figure out that the focus is no longer on them when their parents are fighting with each other. Therefore, keep the focus on your child whenever your child is present, and address disagreements with your spouse in private.
The next step is to sit down with your child and explain your beliefs, values, and expectations regarding sexual activity. This conversation will look a little different from the typical problem-solving discussions that you have with your child because this isn’t necessarily a “problem” in the classic sense.
This conversation’s focus is more about discussing your family’s values and how they relate to your child’s choices. For example, you could say to your child:
“In our family, we believe this type of intimacy isn’t something to be taken lightly. These choices have serious consequences. We care about you and want to be sure you make good decisions.”
At this point, the direction the conversation takes is going to depend upon your family’s values. Some families feel very strongly that premarital sex is not okay. For others, it’s more about being sure the possible consequences are clear, and decisions around intimacy are thought through responsibly.
Make the rules of your home clear to your child. And when your child breaks the rules, hold them accountable. You will need to remind yourself that, as a parent, you are not responsible for your child’s behavior. But you are responsible for making the rules, communicating the rules, and giving effective consequences when your child breaks the rules.
So, you might tell your teen you don’t want them to have sex until marriage. Or you might discuss some of the consequences of sex (such as pregnancy or STDs), and what your teen can do to protect themselves. Then, set limits around how much supervision is required when spending time with the opposite sex.
It’s important to remember that you can’t control all the choices your child makes regarding sexual activity or any other activity, for that matter. Instead, focus on what you can control, namely your response, reactions, limits, and boundaries. And help your child learn the skills needed to make better choices.
Denise Rowden is a parent of two adult children and has been a parenting coach since 2010. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.