Q: YOU SUSPECT YOUR 16-YEAR-OLD IS HAVING SEX. WHAT SHOULD YOU SAY OR DO?
Matti Gershenfeld, Ph.D. President, Couples Learning Center Philadelphia, PA
A: I think the first thing you need to do is ask yourself what is the evidence? Have you found your child necking? Has your daughter come to you asking about your gynecologist? A boyfriend, girlfriend, or your child asking you questions about sex is not enough evidence for you as the parent to be questioning your child.
If you do have enough evidence to believe your child is sexually active, there are a few rules to remember: Look your child directly in the eyes and talk, do not scream at them. If you are embarrassed to talk about sex, practice in front of a mirror first. One of the worst things you can do is tell them you can't handle the situation.
This may be the time to talk about real choices--such as what type of birth control they are going to use. It is also fine to let them know you are not pleased with their decision to have sex and encourage them to wait. Chances are that a child who is having sex at 16 is probably going to end up getting hurt.
Timothy J. Hollis Santa Fe, NM
Sixteen is too late! Kids need parents to talk openly and honestly with them from a very young age. This is not a pre-AIDS society that can pretend to be separate from the rest of the world. Kids need to be comfortable with their selves and their sexuality long before they practice it.
Teenagers are the fastest rising risk group for AIDS. We need to confront our own fears about AIDS and stop projecting them on our children. Their lives are at stake.
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Children must be lovingly approached and taught the beautiful and ugly sides of human sexuality. They must know the responsibilities that go along with sexual relations before they have children themselves. We all know this is a different world. We must face it with the utmost courage and honesty.
Kathryn Christensen, 16 Apple Valley, MN
I would sit them down and have a nice little heart-to-heart. First, I would talk about physical risks. Then I would talk about emotional risks like where they thought the relationship was going. I'd also talk about birth control because although I'd prefer they wait, it is better to be safe than sorry.
I know kids because I am a kid and I know that, if they want to have sex, they will. But most important, I'd let them know I would love them no matter what they do.
P.S. Don't lecture. Lectures are stupid and when they are given, kids usually end up doing the opposite anyway!
Jane M. Johnson, MSW, Planned Parenthood Federation of America New York, NY
I would say that I hoped that it was planned, consensual, non-exploitive, and protected. I would express regret that he/she did not wait until he/she was older, surer, wiser. I would tell him/her that I hoped that now and hereafter his/her love relations are characterized by mutual respect, caring, and kindness...and that they spoke about it and thought about it.
Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA
It's important to talk to children about sexuality--which includes much more than the biology of reproduction--on a regular basis well before they reach adolescence. These discussions should reflect the child's level of maturity and should include issues of responsibility, why we don't force people to do things against their will, contraception, and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. This makes it easier for teenagers to talk about their own sexual feelings.
If I suspected my 16-year-old were sexually active, we'd discuss several issues we'd talked about in the past. Are they using condoms and another form of birth control every time? Are either of them feeling exploited or manipulated? What do they want out of the relationship? What will they do in the event of pregnancy? How else might they be able to express their feelings for each other?
Helen Tworkov Editor in Chief, tricyle: The Buddhist Review
Use a condom and don't f**k with your shoes on.
Catherine Cavender, Executive Editor Seventeen magazine New York, NY
First off, parents shouldn't hesitate to let their child know their opinion on the subject. You can't control your teenager's behavior, but you have a right to express your thoughts about what he or she is doing. And while your daughter or son may not ask you directly, he or she may need and want your guidance and benefit from your experience. What's key is presenting what you have to say in the right way. You might say, "I'd always hoped you'd wait until you were older and in a caring, committed relationship before you had sex" (if that's how you feel), or "I'd always hoped that you'd be using birth control when you had sex." This approach is particularly appropriate if you're not certain your child actually is having sex. It's non-accusatory and non-confrontational.
If you are sure your child is having sex, whether or not you approve, it's important to get past your own feelings and make sure he or she understands how important it is to be responsible about using birth control and protection from sexually transmitted diseases. While it's disappointing that your child may be doing something against your wishes, it's much sadder to be confronting an unwanted pregnancy or a terminal illness.
Steven O. Philippi Driver, United Parcel Service Valley Stream, NY
If I suspected my 16-year-old were having sex, I would remind him or her that they are responsible for their actions. I would talk to them about the importance of using a condom with another form of birth control to prevent disease and pregnancy. I would also explain that their actions could affect a third person if there is a pregnancy, and ask if they're ready for that.
Last, I would explain that they should not pressure anyone or feel pressured to have sex. And if they had any questions or news to tell, I would let them know I was available.