What would you do if you found out your teen is sexually active? Whether they already are or not, it’s always good to have a plan for how you’ll approach this conversation if and when it comes. Your reactions to the news can critically affect your relationship with your teen and your teen’s future attitudes towards themselves, love and intimacy.
Why you have to talk about it
Yep, it’s plenty awkward, but most experts suggest maintaining open conversations about sexual intimacy with your teen. Studies show that teens who have open conversations about sex with their parents are more likely to delay sexual activity, use contraception consistently, and have positive body and sexuality image.
Not having a conversation, on the other hand, may inadvertently communicate to your teen that they can’t count on you for this topic if they ever need support. Further, your body language and reactions will often convey your discomfort, disapproval, or anxieties. Without direct communication, teens may often misinterpret the silence and your reactions as judgement or anger. Overtime, teens may try to avoid this perceived judgement through more secrets, sneaking around, and shame about their sexuailty.
It’s important to note that how you talk about it also matters. Research has shown that if your teen senses your attitude towards sex and sexual partners is generally negative and disapproving, they will be less likely to disclose their sexual behaviors, abuse (e.g, intimate partner violence), or concerns regarding sex. As you know, sex comes with many complicated consequences like emotional attatchment, health concerns, and preganncy risks; so, it can be really helpful for your teen to have a trusted adult who can give them accurate information as they navigate this new, complex chapter of their budding adulthood.
If your teen is already sexually active, the best path forward is to avoid making them feel judged, and instead focus on putting in place expectations and boundaries that will help your teen be safe and healthy.
Here are a few suggestions for what you can do if you’ve just found out your teen is sexually active:
1. Process your emotions first.
Parents often feel fear, shame, anxiety, anger and even disgust at the idea of knowing their teen is sexually active. These are all perfectly normal reactions. Thinking about this topic can also bring up your own feelings and experiences toward sex. So before jumping into discussion with your teen, reflect on your own emotions first. Some suggested starting points:
What initial thoughts came up when you learned your teen is having sex? Where do you think that thought came from or where might you have heard it before?
What beliefs and values do you have when it comes to sex? What were you taught about sex growing up? What do you want your teen to know?
What do you think of teens who have sex? (e.g., teens who have sex are irresponsible) Can you think of one example where this is true or untrue? (e.g., most high school sweethearts I know now were intimate back in high school)
2. Reflect on the message your teen has received thus far.
How has sexuality and intimacy been spoken about in the past? How often have you and your teen discussed sex so far? Have you ever criticized people who dress proactively, have sex early, etc as a means of deterrance for your teen?
If your teen already feels stigma or shame towards this topic, expect the conversation to be more difficult at first because your teen will likely be uncomfortable with sharing. In this case, try to figure out what message your teen needs to hear to establish trust and safety first before diving into the conversation. They need to believe they won’t be criticized or punished for sharing their vulnerable experience.
3. Decide your goal.
What are your top goal(s) going forward now that you know they are sexually active? For example, which of the following is most important as your goal if you can only choose one:
I want my teen to practice safe sex
I want my teen to abstain from future sexual experiences
I want my teen and I to have an honest relationship where we will continue to have this dialogue
I want my teen to be able to come to me about this topic if they need anything or are confused about anything
I want my teen to develop a healthy approach to love and intimacy
Of course it’s natural you’ll have multiple goals, but keeping it to just 1-3 will help you keep your message clear and your actions focused on this goal. Once you’ve decided a goal, think of a few rules and things you might be able to do to reach that goal.
4. Hear them out.
With your newfound clarity about your feelings, values, and goals, you should invite your teen to a conversation. Help them feel in control by giving them time to prepare for the conversation. It could sound like: “Hey, I overheard you on the phone last night with your friend and know you’re having sex. I want us to have an open conversation because my main goal is for us to be transparent so that I can help you stay safe and healthy. Could we talk about it sometime this week?”
Once they propose a time, find a quiet, private place to chat 1:1. Start the conversation by sharing (briefly) what you know and your main goal.
Then, listen. Ask your teen curious questions like “Can you tell me more?”, “How are you feeling about it now?”, and “What protective measures did you use?”. Try to use What/Who/How instead of Why in this case to avoid sounding judgmental. For example, instead of “Why did you have sex” try, “How did you come to decide you’re ready for sex?”. Your objective in this step is to help them feel cared for, understood, and validated.
If your teen seems shy or resistant to sharing, take the conversation slow and help them feel safe by saying, “It seems like you’re uncomfortable with the topic right now. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it. I know it can be awkward and it is awkward for me too, but it’s really important to me that we can stay a team through this so we can help you stay healthy and safe. How about we try this conversation again next weekend?”
5. Set new boundaries
Once you know more about what happened, how your teen feels about it, and what their plans are going forward, you can begin problem solving together. You can reiterate your non-negotiable boundaries of what you will accept and ask them what solutions they might propose. If they don’t bring up good solutions, you can share your suggestions. Try to keep the tone collaborative in order to establish new boundaries you both can follow through with. This might sound like, “I need to know that you’ll not let sex get in the way of your other relationships and obligations like school and other friends. What can we do to make sure that’s the case?”
6. Avoid shame, blame, and judgement
While it might be tempting to say “You’re too young to be doing this”, “I can’t believe you did this”, “You’ll regret this”, using shame, blame, and judgement at this point will only break trust. A loss of trust could lead your teen to go behind your back and you may end up pushing them closer to their partner as they seek safety and acceptance. So even if they internalize your message and feel awful about what they’re participating in, they likely won’t stop if they are using sex as a mechanism for validation.
You likely have lost some trust in your teen as well and question their decision making, and might want to put strict restrictions on their freedoms. That would be a normal reaction! But even if your goal is for them to practice abstinence, they need to come to that conclusion and accept the consequences of violating that rule on their own. So be mindful that if you're being too rigid to start, you may push them to find work arounds and further deteriorate the relationship you have.
Focus on reestablishing trust with your teen first and foremost. What do you need in order to trust each other right now?
7. Practice, even if it feels silly
It’s a tough conversation to have. Practice with your partner, in front of the mirror, or even with a friend to get some experience saying these things out loud. You’ll want to deliver your message clearly, succinctly and calmly to your teen, so the more times you practice beforehand, the more likely that will be the case!