Once upon a time, all parents and their children lived in one cave together, and later, in one-room houses, and yet they managed to have more than one child per family. So, at least we know that children can survive witnessing or overhearing their parents having sex. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing when your kids accidentally walk in on you in the middle of the act. What should parents do when that happens? And do we have to worry that they’ll be traumatized for life by the sight?
If your kids have never walked in on you having sex, you have probably at least heard about it happening to friends (and celebrities). Living as I do in a small, two-bedroom apartment, I am basically accepting that this will one day happen to me. So rather than live in fear, I decided to get some words of advice from Dr. Lea Lis, a.k.a. the Shameless Psychiatrist, author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships.
Don’t lie — & don’t act like sex is shameful
As you can probably tell, Lis is not a fan of parents feeling like sex is a bad thing, nor of them teaching that to their children.
“Witnessing it accidentally is not going to traumatize them, as there are many cultures where the whole family lives in one room, so it is not uncommon for children to hear or see their parents having sex, and it is not overtly traumatizing,” Lis told SheKnows.
But she completely understands why we might be horrified by the prospect of our children witnessing this intimate moment.
“I think we internalize feelings of shame about sex,” she said. “The fact that as parents you have sex is a great thing, it means your relationship will be healthier for them in the long run, and you’re being good role models to your kid about what it means to have a connected intimate life. It’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
For this reason, she said that parents should refrain from making up silly stories about what they were doing.
“An open and honest conversation with your kids about sex is a great thing, and don’t lie and say you were ‘wrestling’ or ‘doing yoga,'” she said.
Like in everything else, children pick up on their parents’ attitudes about sex. That’s why it’s better to act like this is a normal act, rather than something to be dishonest about. And reacting calmly to them walking in on you (however hard that may be!) will help them not to feel grossed out, embarrassed, or upset by it. There is also, by the way, nothing inherently wrong with a child seeing their parent naked.
Privacy and boundaries are still very important
Just because you aren’t ashamed of sex doesn’t mean it’s a great idea for your kids to see it. Prevention is your friend here. Establish the rule of always knocking on doors first before entering (and this means you, too), and make sure your bedroom door has a lock that works.
“Parents should have their privacy to have sex,” Lis said. “Exposure to eroticism is not appropriate for children, and they should not be brought into it in any way that is inappropriate.”
There is a difference between knowing that adults have sex and seeing how they have sex, in other words, so do all you can to avoid the latter.
“That can be traumatizing, which is why I recommend locking up sex toys, putting parental controls on phones, and having private time with your partner for sexual activity,” Lis said. “This can be explained to children.”
Don’t ask children to lie
In a blog post for Psychology Today, Lis also addressed a more delicate situation: What if your kid walks in on you having sex with someone else?
First, if this is something you hoped to keep under wraps, you’re out of luck. Secrecy is not a burden you should ever place on your child.
“Young children should never be asked to keep secrets for a parent, even in situations with dire consequences, because they are psychologically unprepared for such a responsibility,” Lis wrote.
If you are a single parent and in a new relationship, however, it’s a good idea to speak openly about it with your child, and you may even want to apologize for the fact that they discovered it in this matter. Then, Lis advises planning an outing in which they can meet this new person in a more appropriate manner and setting.
Teach children about sex, early and often
Lis believes that parents should teach their children the facts of life as early as they can speak and identify body parts, albeit in an age appropriate way.
“Sex talks should be ongoing,” she told us. “Start with basics and biology and layer in topics until you get to intimacy, pleasure and connection.”
When parents are in control of the conversation and consistent in their message, children will learn about sex in a positive way.
“Open-ended talks about sex are good, and can prevent negative consequences like teenage pregnancies,” she said. “[It] actually preserves their innocence by giving them the truth rather than learning from friends or porn.”
It’s important for kids to know they can turn to their parents for honest help and advice on the topic when they need it, even if you hope that time is a long, long way off.
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