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What should parents do if they discover that their teen child is sexually active? Thomas Lickona First, acknowledge feelings. Take a walk. Talk about how to avoid the slippery slope. How far is too far? Discuss, What does it mean to “love” someone? Discuss: Where does God come in? How do you break up with somebody? Read a good book.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ First, acknowledge feelings. There are likely to be emotions on both sides if parents discover their child is having sex with a boyfriend or girlfriend—being upset on the part of the parents, and embarrassment and defensiveness on the part of the child—as there would be if the parents discovered their kid was doing drugs, getting drunk, skipping school, stealing, bullying, or anything else mom and dad strongly disapprove of. So the conversation should begin by acknowledging the uncomfortable feelings and saying something like: We realize this isn‟t easy to talk about. Look, everybody makes mistakes.

I certainly did

when I was a kid. What matters is how you deal with them—what you learn from the experience and what you do to make better decisions in the future.

Take a walk. If it were my teenager, I’d take a walk. My experience is that walking, side by side, is less confrontational, helps to defuse emotion, and makes it easier to talk. Being outdoors, in a big space like a park instead of a closed space like a room also helps to put things in perspective. It keeps the problem from seeming overwhelming. If the teen is already sexually involved, I’d say something to this effect: It‟s important to be honest about why you‟ve become sexually involved. to be sexually attracted to each other.

It‟s perfectly natural

But was having sex a completely free and thought-out

decision? Did one person put pressure on the other?

Was it the result of going farther each

time, and finally giving in to the passion of the moment?

Were your inhibitions lower because

you‟d been drinking? Did you do it because most of your friends are doing it and you couldn‟t give yourself a good reason not to?

P.2 Obviously, none of those is a good reason to take a step that could change your lives forever. Studies show that fewer than half of high school students say they have ever had sexual intercourse. Only about one-third say that they are currently sexually active. Many reconsider that they‟re doing and stop after their first experience. So don‟t think that because you are already involved, you can‟t stop. You can. In fact, it‟s a good way to find out if the relationship is based on more than sex.

One author

who writes on this subject says: “Here‟s a simple love test: Tell your partner you want to stop having sex. Do they want to stay in the relationship if there‟s no sex?” Taking sex out of your relationship will also help you get to know each other at a deeper level: your values, your religious beliefs, your goals in life, how you feel about marriage, whether you‟re really compatible. Sex can cloud all that. Most people who live together, for example, tend to avoid talking about things that might cause a conflict because that could end the relationship. If they do eventually marry, those issues rise to the surface. They find out they don‟t have enough in common to build a lifetime relationship marriage on, and the marriage fails.

In studies in seven different countries,

couples that lived together before marriage had a significantly higher divorce rate.

Talk about how to avoid the slippery slope. If you can get your child to put their relationship to the test of seeing if it survives without sex, suggest that they not see each other for a few weeks. Let things cool down; take time to think, and to pray if your teen has religious faith. If the couple eventually gets back together, they’ll need to plan how they’re going to maintain sexual self-control,. One author offers this advice: I‟ve you‟ve slipped part way or all the way down the slippery slope, go back to the top. unbutton, unzip, or unsnap.


Don‟t touch more than a hand. Don‟t start hugging or kissing if

it will send you back down the slippery slope.

How far is too far? With all teens, it’s crucial for parents to have a conversation about “How far is too far?” Most parents have probably never talked with their kids about that, so young people lack the kind of clear limits they need to keep them out of trouble. Here are some practical guidelines regarding physical affection. You're going too far when: 

either a guy's or a girl's hands start roaming

P.3 

either of you starts to remove clothing. One girl said she always remembered her grandmother’s rule: “Keep all of your clothes on all of the time.”

you’re doing something you would not want to be doing around someone you really respect

you’re arousing physical feelings that will undermine your ability to make a good decision.

I’d say to my kid: Basically, it comes down to limiting affection to brief hugs and light kissing.

Saving sex for

marriage means saving all of it for marriage. Sexual passion and all forms of physical intimacy are "the language of marriage."

You save this special form of intimacy for your

marriage partner. So a guy should ask himself, “Do I want some other guy putting his hands all over my future wife?” Then I shouldn‟t put my hands all over someone else‟s future wife. Same for a girl; she should respect someone else‟s future husband. There‟s a lot more to living chastely than not having sexual intercourse.

You can refrain from

sex and still be unchaste by looking at pornography, wearing skimpy clothes, giving in to masturbation, passionate making-out, petting, or engaging in oral sex. Being chaste means honoring the gift of your sexuality in all of your actions.

Discuss, What does it mean to “love” someone? If young people are sexually involved, it’s often because they think they love each other. So the parents will need to talk with them about the meaning of love. You may remember the true story I included in the paper I did for your conference. I was at a conference for parents in Canada, helping to lead a small discussion group. One of the mothers there described a situation she was facing with her 16-year-old daughter, Lisa. For the past year, Lisa had been dating a boy David, who was nearly three years older. Lisa had recently come to her mother and said, "David and I feel we're ready to have sex." The mother said she was stunned. She reported saying to her daughter, "But, Lisa, sex is meant for love." Lisa said, "But, Mom, we do love each other, and this is how we want to express it." The mother said she was at a loss for words. She said, “I felt my religion had failed me.” How might she have responded? Her daughter gave her an opening when she said, “But, Mom, we do love each other.” The mother could have said:

P.4 Lisa, I understand the depth of your feelings for David.

I remember the first time I felt

those feelings as a young person. I also am very grateful you came to talk to me about this.


take that as a sign of your respect and trust. You say that you and David love each other very much. Let‟s talk about love.

What does it

mean to really love another person? Love means wanting what is best for the other person, seeking the greatest good for that person. How do you know when somebody really loves you?

When they want what is truly

best for your welfare, your happiness—not just now, but forever. So the question you have to ask yourself is this: Is having sex with someone you aren't married to really an act of love? One way to answer that is to ask, what are the consequences that can come from sex between unmarried persons? Pregnancy is one. Sexually transmitted disease is another. Condoms reduce but don‟t eliminate those dangers. Among adults, condoms have a 15% annual failure rate in preventing pregnancy. That means that if 100 couples are using a condom, over the course of one year 15 of those couples will experience a pregnancy. If a pregnancy occurs, you have a life to deal with. Are you ready to be a parent?

To raise a child on your

own? Would you want your child to have to grow up with only one parent?

Kids who do often

have problems in school, problems with peers, emotional problems . . . Despite condom use, there„s still a 15% chance of HIV infection; a 50% risk of chlamydia, which can leave you unable to have a baby; and a significant risk of HPV, the cause of virtually all cervical cancer. If you get herpes, that virus will always be in your body. You can pass it on to your baby during birth, possibly causing irreversible brain damage and even death. Emotional hurt is another very real danger. What if you and David break up someday and you‟re left with regret? Regrets can last for years and years. If we really love another person—and want what is truly best for them—will we subject them to these risks? Will we gamble with their health, their happiness, and their future?

Discuss: Where does God come in? Many parents, even if they and their child both believe in God, don’t bring that to bear on the question of sex. That may be because they’ve never discussed sexual morality from a faith perspective. They may not be clear themselves what their own faith tradition teaches.


But whatever the reason, I think it’s a big mistake to leave God out of the conversation. In the end, faith-based reasons for not having sex before marriage may exert the strongest influence on a young person’s conscience. When abstinent teens are asked why they aren’t having sex, they don’t typically cite fear of pregnancy or disease. Rather they give moral and/or religious reasons for their decision. The family in the above story about Lisa and her mom was in fact Catholic. So Lisa’s mother might have said: Have you and David asked yourselves, “Is this what God wants us to do?”

Have you prayed

about it? Maybe you don‟t realize what our faith teaches about sex outside of marriage.

Here‟s what

the Catechism of the Catholic Church says [and it think it helps to actually show the relevant passage]: Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage, the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Sexuality concerns the inmost being of the human person. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and a woman commit themselves totally to one another until death. In other words, we join our bodies when and because we‟ve joined our lives. When we have sexual intercourse with another person, we‟re saying with our body, “I give myself to you completely.” In marriage, that‟s really true: your sexual love expresses the total commitment you‟ve made to each other. But if you‟re not married, it‟s like lying with your body; you‟re saying, “I give myself to you completely—but not really.” The Church bases this teaching on the Bible.

The Bible actually has a lot to say about

sex. Let‟s take a look: In Matthew‟s Gospel (19: 4-6), Jesus says, quoting the Old Testament: “At the beginning, the creator made them male and female and declared, „For this reason, a man shall leave his mother and father and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” In Mark‟s Gospel (7: 17-23), Jesus names “fornication”—which means sex between people who aren‟t married—as a serious sin. He says fornication is one of the “evils”—he mentions it along with theft, murder, adultery, greed, deceit, and blasphemy—that “come from within and make a person impure.”

P.6 St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians (6:20), says, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. So glorify God with your body.”

In another letter (1 Thessalonians


3), he says, “For this is the will of God: that you abstain from fornication.” Finally, in Matthew‟s Gospel (5: 29-30), Jesus gives a very stern warning about sin: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell.” If we believe Jesus is the Son of God, then obviously we should take seriously what he says about everything, including sex. You might wonder, Why is God so strict about sex? to us. So why does he restrict it to marriage?

Sex was his idea. It‟s his beautiful gift

Because he loves us. Because marriage is the

one relationship where which sexual intimacy produces happiness. Outside that relationship it can lead to unwed pregnancy, kids growing up without a father, damage to your health that can last a lifetime, and deep emotional scars.

How do you break up with somebody? If you child has been sexually involved with someone, and you have conversations like the ones above, they may decide that the wisest things is to break up with the person. The next decision is how to do that in a way that minimizes the dangers. Sean Covey’s book, The 6 Most Important Decisions You’ll Ever Make (which you said you have), illustrates the dangers: Bill had been verbally abusive, putting Jen down and making her cry a lot.

She knew she had

to break it off. He was alone in his grandmother‟s house when she came by with his sweater and CD case. He knew immediately she was there to break up.

When he opened the door,

he grabbed her by the hair, pushed her up against the door, and called her terrible names.

Covey points out that Jen made three mistakes in her plan to break up with Bill: 

She went alone.

She met him in a private place.

She underestimated what he was capable of.

A safer plan, Covey points out, is to break up on the phone, not in person. And talk to your family ahead of time and get their support. Read a good book. Teens need to hear sexual wisdom from sources other than their parents. I’d give them at least a couple of good books to read. Covey’s is one; Jason and Crystalina’s How to Find Your


Soulmate Without Losing Your Soul is another. And, of course, Sex, Love & You.  Or start with an article like “10 Emotional Dangers” that has lots of stories drawn from the lives of teens.

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