fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices  in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a mother whose 14-year-old daughter has become sexually active.

 

4640356465_9c850c43c6_zImage from Flickr via

 

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am a single mother. My 14-year-old daughter has become sexually active. I found out because I am as vigilant as possible and monitored her social-media sites, became suspicious, and found out.  Apparently she has had several sexual partners, all of them older, but none over 18.  I am terrified about what has happened to her, and even more terrified about the decision to go to the police. The boys are part of the community and go to the same high school.

My daughter swears that she was “interested in sex” and that I just don’t understand teenagers anymore.  I don’t want her to become the victim of online “slutting,” which I know occurs, but I also know that my child is too young to give consent to sexual activity.

I have grounded her except for school only.  What can I do?  What should I do?  I feel so guilty in spite of trying so hard to protect my daughter in this world of too much sex in the media and in clothes. Where do I start to sort this out?  At the moment I have not discussed this with anyone.

Ann-Marie

 

Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Ann-Marie:

There are many parents who feel, as you do, bewildered by sticky issues around teenage sexual behavior, and who are correspondingly dismayed when they find their own teens caught up in it. My sense is that, unfortunately, the kids are just as bewildered as we are, but don’t have the maturity, distance, or self-confidence to deal with it.

The question you ask is, What can we parents do to help our children navigate these waters? Going to the police is a risky solution. Once you get them involved, there’s no telling what direction they will go in, and your aim is to have more control, not less. Also, your daughter is at a psychologically vulnerable age, and you don’t want strangers whose values and goals may not match your own involved in your daughter’s intimate affairs.

In fact, one of your goals is, as it should be, to help her maintain her privacy—one of the most vexing problems that teens face today. There’s no question that maintaining privacy has been more and more difficult as the use of social media has come to dominate teenagers’ lives (New York magazine reported this week that girls spend up to 10 hours a day on their PDAs). Online attacks, though, are only one facet of this problem that is concerning for parents.

The two major dangers of sexual activity for teens are physical and psychological harm. Teen pregnancy is no longer the only “danger” of unprotected sex—STDs have left us with plenty to worry about. Immature teens, who are often given inadequate sex ed (or who sleep or giggle through it) cannot be counted on the fully comprehend the dangers they pose. Even those who think they “know” are full of misinformation when quizzed. Meanwhile, even kids who plan to have protected sex can be thrown off course by a persuasive partner, particularly if their judgment is impaired by drugs or alcohol—which is usually the case.

The psychological dangers are risky, too. Besides the peril of being “slut-shamed,” a young girl faces the confusing situation of entering into a very intimate act with someone who may not “care for” her very much. In fact, he may be entirely unconcerned about her feelings. Teens have a poor understanding of how vulnerable sex can make them feel. In fact, young girls tend to be confused about their sexuality in general. Though some girls, like your daughter, claim that they “want sex,” it is unclear whether many of these girls are experiencing genuine sexual desire or are just going along with what is expected of them.

Part of the problem is that there is no strong consensus in our culture anymore about standards of behavior. While some kids have always violated social norms when it comes to early sexuality, at least they knew what the norms were. Today’s parents, often in an effort not to dampen their child’s development of healthy sexuality, don’t make it clear enough where they stand on this issue. They themselves may be confused and conflicted.

It sounds as if you have made a clear statement to your daughter that you think she is too young, and it is good to let your child know how you feel. You should supplement that message with helping her to understand that your aim is to protect her, trying to stay as nonjudgmental as you can as you do this. In the meantime, talk with her about these issues—not just once, but make it an ongoing dialogue, trying to “educate” her as much as you can. Though this is controversial—some people think it is hypocritical to tell your children not to have sex while at the same time teaching them to use protection against pregnancy and STDs—studies have shown that teaching teens about sex does not promote early sexual behavior.

Finally, try to counterbalance this by teaching her about the pleasures of sex in a situation in which she is physically and emotionally protected. Help her see the difference between “hookups” and loving sexuality. Maybe she’ll get the message that the latter is a prize worth waiting for.

 

 

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  • John smith February 28, 2016 at 11:34 pm

    You totally have a right to this stuff. Yet you are going about this all wrong. I don’t want to say overprotective but ya know what I mean. DO NOT MONITOR HER SOCIAL MEDIA BECAUSE IT WILL RUIN YOUR TRUST. She isn’t gonna care about what you think if you give her reason to believe that you don’t trust her. That’d the last thing you want. Tell her how you feel and don’t give her the opportunities but don’t be so up tight and show her that you trust her.

    Reply
  • Tompengo March 21, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Cecilia – a question, what do you do if your child is 14 but in a “relationship” and then they believe it is a positive and loving environment, and that “prize” is appropriate? Perhaps this scenario is similar to Joanna’s experience.

    Reply
  • Joanna September 17, 2014 at 9:48 am

    I am a young adult, 26 now, who engaged in sex as early as this. And although I admit there were certain elements that I reacted to which would be slightly different to the way I would react now – it was a positive experience and something I whole-heatedly can say I was complicit in and care for within too.

    My apologies Cecelia, but your response was far too biased and directed. This woman is clearly worried, and a level of concern and risk assessment is necessary – but the steps you should be taking are to confer with your daughter and develop and openness in this area.

    If you care for her as much as you do, and are shocked by this – I can imagine you have a wholesome home life and have raised her well. Unfortunately, media or no media, this is how young adults develop. I wasn’t influenced by all the rubbish on TV. I had boyfriends young, am a very open and caring person, and decided I wanted to experiment.

    The most strong, safe and inspiring young women my age that I know had surprisingly open relationships with their mothers with whom they discussed these details regularly. My mother took a mid-way approach but we were very close, best friends, and I turned out fantastically! (in my opinion….)

    Openness is the only way – and I could be wrong, but grounding her will turn her from you and into the arms of her boyfriends whom she regards clearly very highly.

    Unfortunately, I think you may just have to suck up your perspective, and engage with her on a realistic level: discussing her nature, her engagement in sex, and of course her safety with regards to contraception.

    Wishing you the best of luck with this difficult issue.

    Joanna
    26 years old

    Reply
  • Hilda Hutcherson September 12, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    I’d also suggest a visit to a gynecologist with experience providing care to adolescents. A good, reliable method of birth control is in order. If a teen is motivated to have sex, it will happen even when she is “grounded.” She should be tested for sexually transmitted infections, many of which are silent, and given the vaccine for HPV ( human papilloma virus.)
    Lastly, there is no reason for you to feel guilty. Her decision to become sexually active should not be viewed as maternal failure. Keep the lines of communication open.

    Reply
  • Walker Thornton September 11, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Scarleteen, http://www.scarleteen.com/, is a well-regarded educational site for teens and parents. In addition to your great advice, this site might give the parents some more help on how to talk about sex, STDs and a wide range of topics related to sexuality.

    Reply