Dear Annie,

I think my 16-year-old daughter may be having sex with her 18-year-old boyfriend. What should I do?

Freaked Mom

Dear Freaked Mom,

You don’t say anything about your daughter’s level of maturity or the relationship with her boyfriend. Maybe none of that matters to you if your personal values don’t allow for any sexual relationship at 16. Those feelings are valid and you don’t need to justify them to anyone.

Of course, you should talk with your daughter about what you suspect. But before you do, take a slow deep breath and calm down. (Several breaths would be even better.) Now ask yourself: “What do I want to have happen? And how much direct control do I have over getting what I want?” For example, if you want your daughter to stop all sexual activity until she’s married, you’re going to have problems if she doesn’t wish to comply. No one has that kind of control over a 16 year old. On the other hand, if you want to improve the level of trust and communication you have with your daughter, well, you’ve got some control over that.

The values you’ve taught her are fundamental. Teens whose parents openly and consistently discuss what is acceptable sexual behavior are much less likely to engage in random, meaningless hook-ups. Those teens have learned that sexual intimacy is a very personal and special way of expressing closeness between two people who share a high level of caring and trust for each other. Parents’ values may not determine what teens do in every situation, but they definitely inform their choices. When you talk to your daughter, be calm and be realistic. Sex is a primal survival urge (just like hunger, thirst, and defending your family). You don’t need me to tell you that sexual feelings in teens can frequently trump rational thought. Your ability to influence her decision (after the fact) depends a lot on who your daughter is, her attachment to her boyfriend, her relationship with you, etc. This may not be a genie that can be neatly put back into the bottle. If that’s the case here, your best move is to make sure that she’s unequivocally aware of your values, the physical and emotional risks of teen sex, and the imperative of protecting herself from pregnancy and STDs 100 percent of the time. Also you must do whatever it takes for you to remain a safe person for her to talk to. I hope this helps.

In friendship,

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