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?

1. Get Emotional Distance From the Situation

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.

2. Be Clear With Yourself What Your Own Values Are

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.

3. Try to Get On the Same Page With Your Spouse

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.

4. Discuss Your Values and Expectations With Your Child

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.

Related content: Is Your Teen Too Serious with Their Boyfriend or Girlfriend? Intense Adolescent Relationships

5. Make the Rules Clear and Hold Your Child Accountable

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.

Related content:
Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure

Empowering Parents Podcast:
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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.

Comments (8)
  • doing my best
    Hi, my daughter is 17. She has a developmental disability which makes her a few years younger than her actual age. She wants so much to be like "everyone else" and I want her to have as many opportunities as possible. However, having sex at 17 isMore not one of the opportunities I was wanting for her. I left them alone and told them I would be back in 10 min. Took me 20. I found them together. I reacted pretty strongly to them both. The good news is, while in my opinion, their decision was a poor one, they protected themselves. My daughter is on the pill, for other reasons, and they used a condom. After I reacted strongly, and her boyfriend went home, AND a day later when I had calmed down, we sat down and talked a little bit. I learned that this was not the first time. I also learned that it was not the wonderful experience my daughter thought it was going to be. I suggested to her that if that is the case then, she most likely wasn't ready. I also suggested that they wait a year. Right now they are both still kids. Neither of them drives or has a job. Maybe in a year, if they are still together, they will be more ready for that step. Ok, so she says they have decided to wait, more out of fear of their parents then anything else I think. I honestly cannot trust they will follow through with this. My question is WHAT NEXT? Do I keep them apart? Do I allow him to continue to come into my home so I can watch them (didn't work the first time). Do I tell is parents? I can't even tell her father because I know how he will react. I need a plan before I discuss this with him. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
    • Yray
      Hi there I’m right now going through this. I found them together in a room. After confronting them. My daughter confessed they are sexually actively. How did you handle it? My daughter and boyfriend have been together for almost a year but are only 15More years old. I’m devastated and heart broken. They are so young. I don’t know which direction to go!
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      Thank you for reaching out. These are all difficult questions to answer. We are limited in the advice we are able to offer due to your daughter's developmental delays. It may be helpful to speak with her treatment team or doctor about your concerns. They know your daughter an wouldMore be better able to help you decide what the next best step would be. We appreciate you sharing your story and wish you all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    Concerned father147 

    Many parents experience a strong emotional response when

    they discover that their child is sexually active, and you are not alone in

    feeling upset and angry.  Because age of consent laws vary so much among

    communities, it is difficult to determine what your options are at this

    point.  You might consider contacting your local law enforcement agency on

    their non-emergency line to get more information on this aspect.  I also

    encourage you to reach out for support for yourself right now to help you

    effectively respond to the choices your daughter is making. For assistance

    locating resources in your area, try contacting the http://www.211.org/ at 1-800-273-6222.  I

    recognize what a difficult situation this must be for you, and I wish you and

    your family all the best.  Take care.

  • toothfairy

    My 15 yr old daughter has just told me she has had unprotected sex with someone who wasn't her boyfriend. She has taken the morning after pill.

    I am devastated. I feel that I don't know my daughter - she has so little self respect to have "sold out so cheaply" and not surprisingly, she is now being targeted via social media. I have made her disable all accounts. 

    The only advice I can give her is to hold her head high & admit she's an idiot and hopefully the immediate storm will blow over.

    I want to protect her but at the same time register with her my absolute disapproval for what she has done - I have had discussions in the past about relationships -and have no idea how to respond.

    Not sure if I posted a similar post a few hours ago as my brain is all over the place. Would appreciate your advice if anyone can advise.

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      I can hear your distress. It can be so upsetting when you

      find out your child has made a choice that really goes against your family

      values. I can understand your disappointment with your daughter’s behavior.

      It’s going to be important to keep the focus on the choice she made and not

      look upon this choice as a moral issue or a character flaw. The unfortunate

      truth is, teens aren’t really equipped with the necessary skills to make good

      choices in every situation. Kids make mistakes. From what you have written, it

      sounds like your daughter is trying to be responsible about her choice by

      taking the morning after pill. I know that is probably a small consolation at

      this time. Your daughter is also having to face some pretty severe natural

      consequences through her peer group and on social media. I would continue to

      offer her support through this tough time and also talk with her about ways she

      could handle the situation differently the next time she finds herself in a

      compromising situation. I know this is a tough place to be as a parent. Be sure

      to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • toothfairy

    My 15 year old daughter has just told me that she had unprotected sex 2 days ago - with a boy who is not even her boyfriend.

    I feel so angry with myself as she seems to have such little self respect that she is "selling out so cheaply". I tried so hard to stay calm, but couldn't help letting my feelings known about my sadness for her that sex should be in a respectful relationship and  that she has "made her bed..."  

    As she is now being targeted on social media -  I've managed to get her to delete all accounts but the only advice I can give her is that she has to hold her head up high and admit she is an idiot. I want to wrap her up in cotton wool and protect her but I have no idea what to say/do and I feel that I have let her down.

    Luckily, she has taken the morning after pill. Any advice would be really appreciated  x

  • Jen RJ
    Claire, thank you. I extracted more from your post than the article. Trying to sort out how I feel about this is the hardest part. And now establishing new rules and boundaries is where I'm stuck.
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