It’s one thing to know your kids are having sex. It’s another thing for it to happen at your house, with your permission. Paula Greenspan reports on how to navigate this tricky topic
It’s no secret that sex is a big deal for teenagers. They think about it, they talk about it. And usually, they do it.
On average, both girls and boys in the UK have sex for the first time at the age of 16. Which, if you’re the parent of a teenager or young adult, can suddenly start to feel very real.
Have you ever wondered where all those teenagers are doing it? Nobody likes to think of their child taking risks by having sex outdoors or in the back of a car. But what’s the alternative for them?
Well, if they’re living with you, there’s a good chance that the safest place for your kids to have sex is under your roof. Which is a pretty uncomfortable thought for a lot of parents. So what do you do when he or she asks for a partner to stay over?
Is your child ready for sex?
In an ideal world, you’ll have been discussing sex and relationships with your kids for years so the subject won’t be new to the two of you.
But there’s a massive difference between having a theoretical chat about and actually giving them your blessing to do it, especially if they’re still quite young.
According to Suzanne Pearson, psychologist and director of Sharing Parenting, there’s no right age to begin allowing your child to have partners stay the night. “However, most parents tend to consider it more over the age of 16,” she says.
Yes, 16 is the legal age of consent but that doesn’t mean sexual maturity suddenly kicks in at midnight on your child’s 16th birthday. There are other things to consider , such as how well your child knows his or her partner; whether it’s a happy, committed relationship, or just a fling; whether your child can handle the emotions of a sexual relationship; and if they are putting themselves at risk of a sexually-transmitted disease or pregnancy.
And: do they really want to have sex?
That last question is a big one. It would be easy to assume that when kids ask for a partner to stay over, it means they want you to say yes. But in some cases your child might, in fact, be looking to you to be the one who says no.
It’s worth considering whether your child is feeling pressure from friends, or a boyfriend or girlfriend, and may not have the confidence to say no themselves. After all, it’s far easier to say ‘My mum won’t let me’ than ‘I don’t want to’.
You know your child best and in this situation and you’ve got to think about whether they’re delving into something they’re simply not ready for.
“Trust your instincts about how your child feels,” says Suzanne. “If you know your teenager well, you’ll know if they’re relying on you to say no.”
If you do say no and your teen simply agrees without arguing about your decision, chances are it was what they wanted to hear.
When young children ask to sleep over at a friend’s house, you’d probably call the friend’s parents to check it’s OK with them. However, when sex is involved with your older teens, you might want to think twice before picking up the phone.
It’s a grey area and a very difficult decision for parents to make.
Suzanne Pearson believes that by making that call behind your child’s back, you’re crossing a line. After all, just by asking your permission and involving you in the relationship, your child is showing trust in you. One phone call could break that trust.
“If you ring the partner’s parents you’re undermining your relationship with your son or daughter,” she says. “If you really want to do that, make sure to ask for your child’s permission first.”
Not everyone agrees with this approach. Dr Linda Mallory, educational psychologist and author of Parentuality: How to Have an Amazing Relationship with your Child, has a different take.
“It’s about the health and safety of everybody involved,” she says. “It’s about being open and honest, and in order to do that I would feel it was important to speak to the other child’s parents.”
So what do you do? One mum found middle ground when her 16-year-old son wanted his girlfriend to stay for the weekend.
“Rather than asking, he more or less told me that she’d be staying over for the weekend. I didn’t ring her parents but I knew his girlfriend well and I spoke to her on the phone to ask if her parents had agreed,” she said.
“She said they had, and after having a think and a chat with my partner, I agreed too.
“The fact is, they were going to have sex anyway so at least this way they weren’t somewhere unsafe or doing it in public.
“Then I put loads of condoms in the bathroom and told them to help themselves.
“They didn’t use the ones I’d bought but I knew they were having safe sex because we’d talked about it and I felt better knowing the condoms were there if they needed them.”
Once you’ve agreed to let your child have a partner stay over, you have to live with the reality of it.
Being aware that your child is sexually active is very different to feeling comfortable knowing that he or she is having sex in the next room right at that very moment.
Hopefully this isn’t a decision you’ve made lightly. And if you’ve thought it through, you’re likely to have a good reason for agreeing.
But parents are parents, and it probably won’t stop you from worrying.
So what do you do when you’re lying in bed, blinking at the ceiling and driving yourself crazy wondering what they’re up to in there?
“You need to be clear about the reason why you made the decision and genuinely feel comfortable with it,” Suzanne says. “Remind yourself of that, and that you love your teenager.”
Believe it or not, you’ll get used to the idea. Eventually.