Sexually Active Teens and Tweens: How to Confront and Discipline Your Children


My 15 year old daughter has been hanging around with some new friends this summer – and I’m worried that there is sexual activity going on. She tells me she is not sexually active, but I’m not sure I believe her. What should I do? If I step in and help make sure she is protected aren’t I, in some way, encouraging and condoning this behavior? I believe she is too young and I’ve told her this repeatedly.  Please help!


This is a great question, as it raises many important issues.  First of all, keep in mind how powerful your daughter’s curiosity and feelings about sex have become! Harvard professor, Dr. Robert Kegan, wrote that “sex is what God gives to teenagers when the allure of Disney World wears off!”  Admittedly, talking about sex with your teenaged children can be awkward and difficult, but NOT talking about it can be even worse.  As you approach the topic, however, recognize that (1) teenagers are very, very curious and interested in this new and exciting experience; (2) teenagers are incredibly vulnerable in this area and need clear guidelines to help them maintain both sexual and emotional safety; and that (3) most teenagers believe that sex was invented only for them !!! They tend to wince and squirm at the thought that you – their parents – may actually know something, from your own experience, about sex.

In the question, you state that you are not sure you believe your daughter.  What about your daughter’s response makes you react this way?  Presumably, you have known her well for fifteen years, and that something about the way she responded to you raised your concern.  Something left you feeling still unsettled.  You need to talk about THAT with her, but you need to do that in a way that does not make her too defensive.  Your approach can be something like, “I’ve been thinking more about our conversation the other day and I realized that although you said that you are not sexually active, when you said that, you looked away (or you looked down, or whatever she did that left you feeling suspicious).  Maybe we can talk more about a range of sexual activities, some of which may be fine for people your age, and others that are much more risky.  I know that thoughts and feelings about sex can be fun, exciting, and even a little scary, especially at your age, but they can also lead to some very risky situations that make you extremely vulnerable.  As your mother/father, I want you to be healthy and to enjoy your teenaged years – BUT I also want to know that you are safe.”

Most importantly, keep the conversation alive!!!! Your daughter needs to know you have not “given up” or dismissed this issue.  She needs your insight and your guidance more than she is willing to admit!  If YOU need help with “keeping the conversation alive,” then YOU should consult or meet with a professional who can give you some more conversational roadmaps to guide your way.  Your daughter’s pediatrician is a great place to start!  YOU call and ask for a brief consult.  You may also contact a local psychologist, social worker or nurse to help you in this matter.

Your concern about stepping in to make sure she is protected, and about whether or not you are, in some way, encouraging and condoning sexual behavior is a very good and healthy concern.  You mention that you have told her, “repeatedly,” that you think she is too young.  The big question here is this:  Do you think she is “too young” for ALL sexual behavior?  Are there SOME sexual behaviors you think she is old enough to experience?  The tricky line you need to walk is one that acknowledges that your daughter’s body and mind have matured to the point where ALL sexual behaviors are rather interesting, and that SOME sexual behavior can be both fun AND safe.  For example, kissing, hugging, tender holding and some touching may meet the “fun/exciting AND safe” criteria.  Telling any teenager that he or she is too young for all sexual behavior is like letting an eight year-old child go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween night, and then telling him or her that ALL of the candy is bad or unsafe!  Your job as the parent of a young child is to differentiate between the safe and unsafe Halloween treats!  Similarly with teenagers and sex, your job as the parent is to help them differentiate between safe and unsafe behaviors that are put before them everyday, everywhere they go!  Not to do this is – and to maintain that ALL sexual behavior is somehow bad or forbidden – is to increase both their curiosity and their feelings of guilt about when they actually do engage in any sexual activity.  Know that if they feel guilty about this behavior, and if they perceive that you would only disapprove if they were to talk with you about their feelings and experience, then THEY WILL TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE!!!!!

Above all else, this is the biggest reason why you need to find ways to “keep the conversation alive” between your daughter and you.  The topic may be awkward – all the more reason for YOU to guide it.  If you feel like you are in over your head in your attempts to guide the conversation, then YOU get the help you need.  There are many resources you can access to help you; friends, counselors, health professionals, books and even websites!  Keep searching until you find the resources YOU need to help you to maintain the position as a primary, safe and loving resource for your teenaged daughter!  Not to do so is to miss an opportunity to understand this critical part of a teen’s life from her or his perspective – and that is a failure to empathize.  As one of my favorite authors, Dr. Robert Brooks, states, “failing to be empathic with our words and actions reinforces negative dynamics that DECREASE our children’s ability to see us as helpful resources.”  I join Dr. Brooks in warning parents of teenagers that if we do not find ways to be empathic toward our teenaged children, NOT MATTER WHAT THEIR EXPERIENCES ARE, they will shut us out of their lives and they will get the help they need from someone else!!!

I understand that you think your daughter is too young for sex.  However, your maintaining that stance is NOT going to be helpful to your daughter.  Her developing body and mind, thanks to the normal and healthy process of puberty, have already begun to tell her otherwise!  As a result, your daughter is likely to feel excited AND confused, curious AND nervous – all normal feelings associated with learning about sex.  Your daughter needs YOU to be a useful and helpful resource.  She needs YOU to help her determine what is OK and what is not, what is normal and what is too risky and unsafe.  If she sees that you are trying to talk about this stuff, and that you are trying to understand things from her perspective, she is so much more likely to keep talking to you – not to someone else – when she is worried or anxious, or even when she is pleased and excited – ALL of which are normal and common phases of developing healthy attitudes and behaviors about sexual life.

Will your talking about it “encourage or condone this behavior?” Hopefully, as stated above, your talking about it with your daughter will encourage healthy and permissible sexual behaviors, while simultaneously encouraging her to talk more openly with you about the risks of engaging in some other sexual behaviors prematurely.  Ultimately, your daughter will make her own decisions.  Hopefully, her decisions will be informed by her ongoing and empathic conversations with you!


David L. Gleason, Psy.D.