I received a desperate tweet recently from a woman who said:
Just found out my 16-year-old daughter is sleeping with her boyfriend. What do I do?
That’s so difficult. Most parents desperately want their children to avoid the heartache and potentially devastating consequences from early sexual involvement–and indeed even sex before marriage. I’ve written before about why it’s important to wait.
But what do you do when you discover that your teenager–whether your son or your daughter–is already having sex? Here are some action steps:
1. Express “Disappointment FOR”, not “Disappointment IN”
You want to keep the lines of communication open, so it’s important not to go ballistic. If you yell and scream, you’ll only push your child further away, and you want to still have some influence in his or her life. It may be best not to have a conversation right when you discover it. Take a while to calm down and to pray.
Then, when you do talk to them, avoid saying things like, “I just never thought you’d do this,” or, “I’m so disappointed in you.” It’s far better, instead, to express disappointment FOR them. Say something like, “I just wanted the best life for you, and I’m worried that now you’ve made some bad choices that could really endanger that. I wanted this to be something special between you and your husband, and I’m just disappointed for you that you won’t experience that now.” It’s important that they know that you disapprove, but it should still be couched in love. You disapprove not because this reflects badly on you, or because they have hurt your feelings for rejecting your counsel. You disapprove because you love them, you want the best for them, and this is not the best.
2. Don’t Make Rash “You Can’t See Him Anymore” Pronouncements
If your child is sleeping with his or her significant other, threatening them by saying, “I forbid you to see them again” isn’t likely to work. You can’t force someone to feel something differently than they feel, and chances are they’re quite “in love” at the moment, or at least fancy themselves that way. If you try to stop them from seeing that person, you could create a situation where they’ll go behind your back, or you could create more of an “us” vs. “them” scenario, where you inadvertently push them towards their boyfriend/girlfriend because you don’t understand them. For a teen, being understood is the most important thing in the world. They are likely with that boyfriend or girlfriend because they feel understood. If you then forbid that relationship, you’re showing that you don’t understand. And now your son or daughter is even less likely to listen to you.
3. Limit Your Teen’s Activities
At the same time, while we can’t forbid feelings, and likely can’t sever a relationship, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do. Quite simply, you are still the parent, and thus you are still responsible for your child’s safety. And having sex at 16 is not safe.
You also still have power over the purse strings and over your child’s movements. Use that power.
If your teen is having sex, then they have to be having sex SOMEWHERE. It doesn’t just happen; they need a private place to do so. What I would suggest, then, is minimizing the chance that such privacy can happen (and indeed, this is something all parents should do, not just parents who discover their kids are having sex). So make it clear that your teen cannot have friends over when you’re not home. When they are together, they have to be in a public space, or have the door open. I remember as a teen many of my friends had the “no blankets” rule, too. When they’re watching a movie together, they can’t be under the same blanket.
If your child has been having sex at someone else’s house, then they’re not allowed to go that house anymore. If they’ve been having sex in a car, then they can’t go out alone in that car.
Yes, your child will likely kick and scream, but their safety is more important.
Part of the tricky nature of this, though, is that the place could easily be at the girlfriend’s/boyfriend’s house, especially if the parents don’t share your concerns. I’d talk to the parents and tell them that you have a rule that they cannot be alone in the house, and you would ask the parents to support that rule. If you feel as if they don’t (and I have known parents to lie to other sets of parents), then tell your child that he or she simply can’t go over there anymore, and you expect them home after school.
Remember, you do have some control. You control the car. You control the money. You can ground them. It’s difficult, but you can do it. And don’t hesitate to do so if you feel that your child is doing something that is very harmful at someone else’s house.
4. Embrace the Girlfriend/Boyfriend
This may sound counterintuitive, but I’d firmly suggest embracing the child’s girlfriend or boyfriend. I know you’re angry right now, and you want them to separate as much as possible. But there are two possible futures here: either this is the person that your child is going to marry, in which case you had better get to know them and have as good a relationship as possible; or the relationship will peter out. And one great way to get a relationship to peter out is to involve that person in the family, so that your child can see that he or she doesn’t fit. So have them over for dinner and a games night. If you’re going out for a hike, take them with you. Involve them in things where you are all together.
If the relationship isn’t going to last, it’s likely because your child will see that the person really doesn’t fit. Chances are the majority of the interaction between your child and his or her significant other has been spent making out, telling each other how much they love each other, and telling each other how much no one else understands them. That seems to be quite typical for teenage relationships. If you suddenly encourage this other person to do normal, family things, then you force “regular” interactions between the two of them. And that’s when personality or value clashes become more evident.
I’ve seen this happen in several families that I’m close to. One particular friend, whom I’ll call Diane, has decided that anytime her teenagers date she’s going to embrace that significant other, and treat it as a discipling opportunity. So she’ll bake cookies with him or her. She’ll take them out for chats. She’ll send them encouraging notes on Facebook. And slowly but surely she starts being able to speak into their lives more.
In both cases that I’m thinking of, Diane was sure that the particular girl was not meant for her son. But she knew that her son loved these girls (not at the same time; don’t worry!) and so she couldn’t push them away. But they both grew in Christ by being close to Diane, and when the inevitable breakup came, it was largely because these girls realized that they didn’t fit into Diane’s son’s world (which they didn’t). But God still used that relationship and Diane to bring those girls closer to Himself.
She still had strict rules about how they couldn’t be alone in the house, but she didn’t forbid them from seeing each other, because that doesn’t really work.
That, then, would be my strategy. Embrace the girlfriend or boyfriend, but limit the opportunities for them to actually have sex. Don’t come down on the relationship and forbid it; just tell your child that you want the best for them.
And then, when a breakup does happen (as it does in almost all cases), at least you haven’t broken the relationship with your child, and you’re still there to help pick up the pieces.
What about you? Has this ever happened to you? Or were you on the other side of it as a teen? What did you parents do? Let me know in the comments!