I Found Out My Teen is Having Sex — What Do I Do?

I recently discovered that my 17-year-old is having… gulp… sex. Now we have to provide a doctor visit and contraception, with instruction on practicing safe sex (condom included). I feel like we are condoning her sexual activity. We want a safe girl, a responsible girl, and a not-pregnant girl. Ugh. Sometimes I really hate being a grown-up.

The good news

Here’s the good news: Your teen daughter is having sex, and you know about it, which means you have the opportunity to support her and be a great role model during a tricky time in her life.

Here’s the bad news: There’s not necessarily any bad news. And that new way of looking at this, my friend, might be harder to wrap your mama brain around than any actual bad news.

You don’t say how you found out that your daughter was sexually active. Maybe she told you, or you had your suspicions and confronted her. Either way, sex was going to become (we’re guessing) a part of her life eventually. You, Mama, are a lucky duck, because whatever the case, it’s out there. Congratulations! Your daughter is growing up in a household where her coming of age isn’t a shameful secret. That’s a beautiful, rare thing. That is, unless you and your partner — you said “we” — make her feel ashamed. And that, my friend, is all up to you.

Don’t judge her

Let’s talk about “condoning.” Oof, that’s funny word, isn’t it? It’s fairly dripping with judgment, and it isn’t friendly. No, you’re not her buddy; you’re her mom. I get that. But teens have sex, and the bigger question for you is: How do you want to go forward with your daughter into her adult life? Because right now, she’s still your baby girl in your heart, but in reality, she’s on the precipice of adulthood. And no amount of shaming, fear-mongering, or pro-abstinence speeches are going to coax her back.

You don’t have to love what she’s doing; you may think it’s too soon. But she is where she is, with whomever she’s with. I’m thinking it’s a boy, because you mentioned condoms, but you also mentioned “contraception” in a way that seemed like you’re talking about birth control pills or some such. Well, Mama, I hate this phrase more than anyone, but I’m going to use it anyway: It is what it is. 

The only thing you can control in the present situation is how you proceed. Are you strong enough to let go of your own baggage around teen sex or premarital sex? I say this, mind you, as the mom of a sexually active gay teen. Sure, my kid is not going to get knocked up anytime soon, but you and I both know what they don’t yet: that sex is complicated, and when it enters the picture, it has the ability to make any heartache even worse. Exponentially.

The really difficult thing, now, is that neither you nor I can wrap our 17-year-old baby girls in bubble wrap. (We never could, although I still don’t let mine have cough drops in my house, a fact she finds HILARIOUS. Because death! Choking!) The only thing we can wrap them in at 17 is knowledge. Knowledge really is power, and you are seeking it out, which means you are a mama bear to be applauded.

Deb Ice Thornton, a Portland, Oregon-based parent educator and family coach with almost 20 years of experience in the field, tells SheKnows that “this is a great time to stay connected by staying nonjudgmental as possible, because they are way more likely to tell you what is going on if they feel you trust them and are not judging. You can still share your concerns and values by comparing how the world was when you were that age, and how you felt then vs. what you know now. You can even share what you wish you knew then.”

Keep the lines of communication open

Making sure your teen feels like she can keep talking to you is — in the long run — far more important than taking a stand against teen sex. My advice? Stop worrying about “condoning,” because there’s no turning back. You’re not in Kansas anymore (unless, you know, you are literally in Kansas), and neither is she. She’s a woman, and you’re a woman she can trust. Do you want to stay that person in her life? I’m guessing you do.

So the shift in thinking is on you. But you don’t have to take this mom’s word for it; I’ve consulted some actual experts for you, so you can hear what they have to say on the topic. It’s going to take some work — to get rid of the old scripts in your head, to lead with love and not the awful fear that creeps up on (most) parents when their kids become sexually active humans. But you can do this. You can use this opportunity to build your relationship and knock down walls… and prepare for a future that’s already upon you: a life in which your daughter no longer needs you in the same old way, but knows she can rely on you and trust you and count you as an ally. How’s that sound? Pretty good to me.

Educate her — and yourself

Ice Thornton explains that taking your daughter to the gynecologist and “educating her about her body and its processes is so important, and in no way condones having sex. In fact, there are good studies that show abstinence-only education does not work. I always tell parents: This is the age where you get to reap the benefits of your parenting and practice trusting what you taught them.”

She adds that this will hopefully kick-start an “ongoing discussion over time — one about values and integrity and relationships. Keeping your girl safe by taking care of her body and feelings is a great example of what she will continue to take over herself in the next few years. Treat her with respect. Treat her how you want her to treat herself and expect to be treated in all relationships.”

Dr. Daniel Sher, a clinical psychologist with a focus on sex therapy and a consultant for the Between Us Clinic, agrees. “Adulting is hard,” he tells SheKnows. “Raising a child to be safe and responsible is a challenging task, and often it doesn’t play out the way that we’re hoping,” Sher told SheKnows. “You said you want your girl to be safe and responsible. Well, this is your lucky day, because she’s given you a perfect opportunity to help her develop safe sex habits.”

Dr. Sulieka JB Michel, a board-certified OB-GYN and the author of WiseTeenz, Faith-Based Health Education for Teen Girls, tells SheKnows that “when it comes to the health and safety of preteen/teen girls, I am always an advocate of educating them about their bodies and teaching them how to keep it safe. As the parent of a teen daughter, I place value in conversations that create safe spaces to discuss sensitive topics between parents and their daughters.”

“If a teen girl is honest enough to disclose that she is sexually active,” Michel adds, “then we as adults are obligated to help navigate her through that process. A parent scheduling a visit to an OB-GYN for their teen to discuss safe sex and/or contraception, by no means acknowledges that the parent is complicit with the teen’s behavior. As a physician, instead we interpret that action as a healthy parental relationship that places a priority on the safety and well-being of their daughter.”

Accept the new normal

“Biologically, your little angel is ready to be having sex,” Sher says, to the cringes of parents everywhere. “And while sex can be risky in some regards, it’s also an incredibly healthy act when it comes to fostering intimacy and getting in touch with your own body. It also feels really good, of course. The point that I’m making is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with condoning safe sex in a healthy 17-year-old. The sooner you accept that your daughter is having sex, the easier this process will be for you. To do this, own your awkwardness about it; speak to her confidently and without beating around the bush. Help to understand the importance of practicing safe sex. Use this as an opportunity to help your daughter develop into the responsible adult that you want her to be.

Michel adds: “At some point, this 17-year-old will be launched into official adulthood. It would be awesome to have her parent right by her side.” I couldn’t agree more.
You’ve got this, Mama. Let go of how you think this time “should” be, and accept your daughter right where she is. You have an amazing opportunity to be her safe space as you help her navigate her sexual health. That’s a pretty great place to be, if you can embrace it.

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