You Just Found Out Your Teen Is Having Sex. Now What?

Teens are generally less sexually active now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they face barriers to achieving optimal sexual health. That's where a trusted adult comes in.

Recently, I got a call from a friend of mine. She had seen messages on her daughter’s phone revealing that the teen was hooking up with a boy from school, and my friend wanted some advice.

I’m a health and sexuality educator (and a mom of three), so I get calls like this from time to time.

In this case, my friend was worried about a few things. She was worried about her daughter’s physical and emotional experience. She was worried about the fact that she had never before heard of this boy. And she was worried about bringing the issue up since she had been secretly looking at her child’s phone.

I suggested that, first off, she just own up to the snooping. Kids deserve privacy, but if a parent wants to maintain trust and open communication going forward, it’s crucial to acknowledge that they checked their child’s device and let them be angry about the boundary breach.

But what about my friend’s other concerns? There’s a lot of noise about teen sex, so separating the facts from the fictions can be helpful for any parent who is navigating this terrain.

The Big Picture

Despite what a lot of people think, teens are generally less sexually active than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. And they are certainly having less sex than teens were when most of us parents attended high school.

The decline in teen sexual activity has been identified since at least the ’90s. Recent years have seen various factors contributing to this trend. The rise of technology serving both as entertainment and a social outlet has played a significant role. Additionally, the enduring effects of COVID-19 lockdowns have led to an overall decrease in in-person interactions among friends. Economic concerns have also emerged as a factor, postponing many early adult behaviors (including sex, but also obtaining a driver’s license, getting a first job and moving out).

In what I would argue is a more hopeful piece of the puzzle, there is also the fact that we are seeing heightened awareness and education surrounding issues of consent and personal boundaries, which have increasingly empowered teens to opt out of sexual situations that they are not comfortable with or prepared for.

That awareness has also resulted in a shift in what is considered acceptable in some communities. For example, a teen boy I teach recently told me that he and his male friends don’t drink at parties and wouldn’t consider hooking up with a girl who has been. But universally, that’s not always the case. According to the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20% of teens reported drinking alcohol or using drugs before their last sexual experience. Plus, sexual violence remains a reality for far too many teens of all genders.

It is also important for adults to understand that while sexual intimacy can be a developmentally appropriate and positive experience for older teens with caring partners, American adolescents face multiple barriers to achieving optimal sexual health.

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Teens are generally less sexually active now than before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they face barriers to achieving optimal sexual health. That’s where a trusted adult comes in.

These include a “lack of access to vital sexual health care services; lack of comprehensive sexual health education curriculum and programs; stigma around STI [sexually transmitted infection] prevention, testing and treatment; and lack of support from a trusted, caring adult,” said Jerrica Davis, a senior manager at Healthy Teen Network, which aims to support young people in areas like sexual health, pregnancy and parenting, among others.

Indeed, many countries whose social and economic profiles are similar to those of the U.S. see comparable rates of teen sexual activity, but lower rates of teen pregnancy and infections.

How To Be An Askable Adult

Some parents might mistakenly assume that they are a trusting, caring adult for their kids when it comes to sex. Ana Ramos, who runs a bilingual English and Spanish organization called Familia Sex Talks, cautions parents against expecting their teens to initiate discussions and emphasizes the need for ongoing dialogue.

“Don’t expect your teen to come up to you and ask about sex,” Ramos said. “And don’t expect to have one talk and be done.”

Communication doesn’t always have to come in the form of a conversation. “You can share books about sex with your teen and share articles or videos that are age-appropriate,” Ramos said.

A somewhat more novel idea? “You can text your kids” about these topics, Ramos said. Though most of us text with our teens nonstop, the idea of texting about something serious may give parents pause. But if texting is the best way to connect with your teen, it’s a much better idea than giving up entirely on having a conversation.

Michelle Hope Slaybaugh of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., or SIECUS, also thinks that adults need to be aware of the role that technology plays in young people’s sexual experiences.

“Sexual activity doesn’t exclusively happen in person, so you have to have conversations about cybersafety,” Slaybaugh said. “Some of the most unsafe spaces for young kids, when it comes to harassment, are online.”

Adults should assess the environment they are creating at home, too. Consider whether you have ever made disparaging remarks about sexually active teens, or casually blamed the victim of sexual violence by saying something like, “Well, what did they expect after [insert any number of behaviors here].”

And, if you aren’t queer yourself, have you made it clear to your teen that you support LGBTQ+ youths — including, potentially, your own? The tone you set greatly influences whether your child will feel safe and comfortable seeking your guidance or sharing their concerns with you.

What To Do If Your Child Is Sexually Active

Whether your child initiates a discussion about sex beforehand or you become aware of a situation afterward, be mindful of how you approach the conversation.

“Don’t react, but do respond,” said Mackenzie Piper, who designs and facilitates trainings for Healthy Teen Network. “It is normal that when a parent/caregiver first learns that their young person is sexually active, they experience a heightened emotional response. … Reactions that are rooted in fear or anger, however, are not the recipe for productive, safe or trust-building conversations.”

At the same time, parents and guardians can work to create a welcoming atmosphere for teens to spend time with their partners at home. This can help you keep an eye on your child, and it is a great way to get to know the people in their life. If possible, consider reaching out to the parents or guardians of your teen’s partner to discuss where you all stand on things like sleepovers, curfews and ground rules.

You should also look out for concerning behaviors in your teen’s relationship, such as demands for constant check-ins, attempts to limit outside socializing, or expectations of access to a partner’s device. Such behaviors can easily be normalized, but they are warning signs of unhealthy relationships.

Parents should think practically as well. If a young person is having the kind of sex that can lead to pregnancy or an STI, they might need your support to access things like birth control or to set up health care appointments. Adult caregivers need to understand the political landscape where they live and be familiar with the legal age of consent, laws surrounding abortion, and policies about minors accessing health care.

Ideally, adults and teens would have had conversations about sexual health long before a young person becomes sexually active. In my friend’s case, some of those discussions had already taken place, but she’d been feeling shut out of her teen’s increasingly private life. After my friend admitted to the phone breach and acknowledged that her daughter’s anger was valid, they were able to have a conversation that made her feel a lot better and opened the door to more productive conversations in the future.

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