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It’s incredibly difficult for many parents to view their teenage child as sexually active or even sexually interested. In fact, a recent study from North Carolina State University found that many parents view their own teens as sexually disinterested but other teens as highly sexual and, therefore, as a threat to their own child’s sexual safety. This view allows parents to retain an innocent view of their own child while placing full sexual responsibility on their child’s peers. This approach to parenting ultimately impedes a parent’s ability to constructively influence their child’s sexual choices, since it is founded on fantasy and denial.

For many parents with this head-in-the-sand approach to their child’s sexual development, the discovery of sexual activity, or even promiscuity, comes as an unwelcome shock. Because they have refused to acknowledge their child’s sexual maturation and her responsibility for good reproductive decision making, they may have missed opportunities for important conversations about the touchy subject of sex. For these parents, news of their child’s sexual promiscuity may evoke a strong and counterproductive reaction in the form of punishing or controlling strategies.

A study of 5000 teens conducted by Dr. Rebekah Levine Coley of Boston University indicates that an overly controlling reaction to teenage sexuality may actually precipitate more, not less, sexual activity. More broadly, the study suggests that parents who generally engage in controlling rather than influencing parenting styles have a higher probability of raising sexually active teens. Sexual promiscuity not only puts teens at greater risk for STDs and pregnancy, but it’s also correlated with alcohol and recreational drugs abuse among teens.

So while sexual promiscuity can create serious hazards for teens, the solution does not seem to lie in ratcheting up parental control. Rather, studies suggest that increased parental engagement and support may be the key. Along with being honest about the awkward fact of your teen’s sexual maturation and personal sexual responsibility, suggested strategies include:

  • Increased two-way communication (with a parental emphasis on listening)
  • Fun family outings
  • Meals together
  • Conversations that are supportive and curious rather than judging
  • Communication that is open rather than agenda-driven (i.e. creating a context where it’s safe for your teen to talk about sex, rather than forcing conversations about sexual responsibility or behavior)
  • Fostering a balance of freedom and responsibility