It’s the moment I believe every parent dreads: finding out your child may be 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?
First, try to take a bit of time to get some emotional distance from the situation. As much as you may want to respond in the moment when you find out, sometimes that’s not the best approach. There are probably going to be lot of thoughts and feelings going on for you at this point. Taking some time before addressing the subject can help ensure you do it in as calm and rational a manner as possible. Even though this can be a very emotional issue, it’s going to be more effective to leave the emotions out of the conversation if possible. You may also want to think about what your expectations are in regards to this. You may believe your family’s values are clear; however, that may not be necessarily so. Situations such as these can have the effect of shaking your very foundation. It will be much easier to be clear with your child if you’re clear with yourself first.
The next step is sitting down with your child and discussing what your beliefs, values and expectations are in regards to behavior. This is going to look a little different than the typical problem-solving conversations you will read about on Empowering Parents because this isn’t necessarily a “problem” in the classic sense. The focus during this conversation is more about discussing with your child your family’s values and how they relate to the choices he or she is making. For example, you could say to your child something like, “In our family, our belief is that this type of intimacy isn’t something to be taken lightly. There are some serious natural consequences that can occur from these choices. We care about you and want to be sure you are able to make good decisions.” At this point, the direction the conversation takes is going to depend upon your family’s mores and values, because this is where you discuss your limits and expectations. There are families who feel very strongly that premarital sex is not okay. For other families, it’s more about being sure the possible consequences are clear and decisions around intimacy are well thought out.
As the parent, this is your call. In reality, only you, as the parent, can decide what principles guide your parenting and your family. So, you might tell your teen you don’t want him or her having sex until marriage and set the limit around how much supervision is necessary when spending time with the opposite sex. Or you might discuss some of the consequences that can happen, such as pregnancy or STDs, and what your teen can do to guard against those outcomes. It’s important to remember that, in all honesty, you’re probably not going to be able to control the choices your child makes in regards to sexual activity or any other activity, for that matter. Instead, focus on what you can control, namely your response, reactions, limits and boundaries, and what skills you can help your teen develop to be prepared for the choices that he or she will make in real life.
Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. 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.