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...and then my Mom walked in on us.

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emma asks:

I'm 17, and recently me and my boyfriend decided to have sex for the first time. My mum was out, but she came back early and we didn't hear her! She ended up walking in on us just before we were going to have sex. She went mad and started screaming at me, and it was a really bad situation. She really doesn't want me to have sex until I'm married. But I feel ready now, I don't want to wait! How can I make her see this? And also she's never going to trust me and him alone together now, how can I get around that?

Heather Corinna replies:

I'm so sorry that was your almost-first-time sexual experience. If it's any consolation, you're hardly alone: a whole lot of people have had this kind of experience with sex and a parent.

Ultimately, I'd say your biggest issue right now is earning your mother's trust back, not finding a way to have sex. Seriously, sex can always hang on a bit, it's not going anywhere, and in this situation, any sex you have will likely wind up being something you have to be sneaky about and thus rush, so it's probably not going to be that great right now, regardless. Suffice it to say, if you do have sex and have a negative consequence like an unplanned pregnancy, with how your mother is already feeling, you'd be looking at a living hell. That's good for nobody.

Huge rifts in the big relationships in our lives tend to require immediate care: it's not sound to put them on hold or consider them minor matters. If you were dishonest with her or sneaking around, you did break a trust, and that one is on you. To boot, if sex in your house is against the rules and you knew that, it's also on you that you chose to break that rule. When a rule isn't fair, the way to deal with that is to work around negotiating that over time, rather than just breaking it, especially if you want to avoid this kind of result.

By all means, you've a right to your own opinion, values and choices around sex and when it's appropriate for you to have sex, and she's a right to hers. However, when you're a minor, and living in her care and on her dime, she also has a right to set various rules for the household she manages, jointly with another parent or on her own as a single parent. So, while you're living in her house, her rules do... well, rule.

One thing to understand about people who are older is that while, for young people, time often seems to drag on and on and pass very slowly, the older you get, the more that speeds up, sometimes to a truly dizzying pace. So, for a whole lot of parents, the time it took for you to get from, say, the age of seven to the age of seventeen, passed really fast, to the degree that many parents feel really unprepared to have a teenager. So, teens being sexually active, no matter the situation, can feel very hasty or sudden, on top of many parents valid concerns about some of the possible negative consequences of sex, or clashes in values around sex.

As well, even though we all know -- and people's parents know this, too -- that many of the adults telling teens to save sex for marriage did not do that themselves, that often comes out of the belief that if they had done so, their lives or sex lives would have been better. That may or may not be true, but I think you can understand how it might seem like it, especially given how pervasive that belief is. I think it's also important to recognize that for parents who feel that way, it often does come from a good place, a place of them wanting to try and protect you from harm or from having sex mess up your life, even if it is possible to have sex outside of marriage or before a given age without those negative consequences, too.

Please know that I don't think screaming at you is healthy behavior or marvelous parenting on her part. Obviously, this was handled poorly by everyone all around: you both made some mistakes here, not just you. And yes, she's the adult, so a bit more of this is on her, but at the same time, since this is about you wanting to engage in adult activities, you're going to need to approach this with the understanding that you both need to come to the table as adults. If you want to talk to someone about starting your adult sexual life, you have to bring your maturity to the conversation.

I know that right now you're probably not feeling particularly sympathetic towards your mother, which is understandable if that's so. But for you two to try and work this out, you're both going to need to make an effort to understand where the other is coming from, and if you can take the first step towards doing that, it helps open up the door so that she can make the same kinds of steps herself. And if you can try your best not to be reactive (in other words, she says sex needs to be saved for marriage, and you immediately snap back that it doesn't), it's going to help her to avoid being reactive, too. Sex and values are such personal things, so it can be hard not to take them personally, but I'd do the best you can. Your mother's values and desires for you are more a reflection of who she is than of who you are.

I'd start by asking if you two can just sit down and really talk, very honestly and openly. Suggesting you two set a ground rule that even if either of you get upset, no one is going to scream or yell at the other would be great. Screaming and yelling doesn't foster good communication.

Opening that conversation by saying you want to understand her, and listen to how she is feeling and what she is thinking is a good move. Let her have her say on this, and let her feel heard. Try not to be reactive when she is talking and just listen: you both might find basic compassionate listening tips are a big help to keep in mind during these kinds of conversations. You can then ask her to let you have your turn and express your own thoughts and feelings. You have different beliefs than she does, which is fine, but be sure to express them in a way that's about your feelings and beliefs, rather than ragging on hers, or saying she's wrong in what she thinks and feels. Express how you two are feeling as different, not as one way being right and the other wrong.

I'd also make a point of apologizing for breaking her trust. For sure, if she hasn't created an environment where you can be honest and disclose what you're doing without fear, that's her error as a parent, but she likely doesn't need you to point that out: she either knows that already or will figure it out in time. And when it comes to issues around sex, she's also hardly alone in that: that's a trouble spot for many, many parents.

Don't focus on how you just can't wait another single minute for sex and need to be having it NOW. What that will do is make clear to your mother that you may NOT be ready. For sure, sex can be important and is no small part of our adult lives, but it's also something people with maturity can keep in perspective: having sex shouldn't be more important than the integrity of our closest relationships. What we also usually learn is that if we compromise that integrity for sex, it's rarely a worthwhile exchange, especially in the long run. Do focus on repairing your trust, talking about why you felt ready (including how you ARE ready, like how you are prepared with reliable birth control, safer sex, negotiation skills, a healthy relationship, etc.) and why you feel like sex before marriage fits your values, and on how you and your mother can find some kind of middle ground that you both feel like you can live with. You might also offer to have another discussion like this that also includes your boyfriend: after all, he's likely breached her trust, too, and to really work this out, they may also need to resolve some things.

What are your options right now in terms of sex? I'd suggest just communicating with your boyfriend that for right now -- as in today, this week, maybe this month or more -- you need to deal with this with your mother, and while you want to be sexual with him, this isn't the time for it. You're going to be pretty stressed about this whole deal for a while, and again, that's not a headspace that tends to result in very good sex or sex that's that worth having, especially if you're risking more upset in your living situation. You need to at least get the situation with your mother cleared up some before you do anything else, at least to the point where you can be above board with her about being sexually active. It also seems unlikely that having sex in your house is something she is going to agree to, especially anytime soon, so I'd say sex there until you have an agreement about it is something you should consider absolutely off the table. Breaking trust again would be a bad move, if you ask me.

In our sex readiness checklist here at the site, I include, as a part of readiness, being in an environment supportive of your sexual activity. I mention that not because people who are ready for sex can't also be in unsupportive environments (obviously, that happens sometimes), but because our environment does tend to be a factor when it comes to if sex is going to offer us more good stuff than bad stuff. On top of the fact that stress and panic can tend to make for crummy sex, as a minor, not having parental support -- and more still, strong parental disapproval -- can mean that you have a tougher time getting things you need, like reliable birth control and sexual healthcare, to mitigate some of the risks of sex. If you're having to keep sex a big secret, that also can mean you may not have good emotional support for times when you need it, which we sometimes can when it comes to sex.

That's not the only factor in deciding if sex is or isn't right for you at a given time, but I do think it's one worth putting real stock in. You're at an age where you have the ability to live on your own in the very near future, so if you and your mother can't reach any kind of agreement on this, your wait to when you can live under your own rules might be a very short one that's very much worth your while, and could result in a sex life that's a lot more positive and beneficial for you.

I want to finish this by letting you know that when you're on the cusp of adulthood as you are, it's so, so common for all kinds of conflicts between mothers and daughters to amplify and be pretty highly charged. That doesn't mean it's hopeless, at all, for the two of you to come to some kind of understanding and to work through this. It just may not be easy, or something that happens with just one talk, and there might be times things get a bit better, and times when it gets tougher again. But sometimes, too, in any kind of relationship, if both people are really invested in working things through, a big conflict can be a real gift, allowing each an opportunity to understand the other better and get to a new level of the relationship and even a new level of understanding about themselves. And even if you two can't work this out, or she doesn't try as hard as you do to work through this with compassion and patience, I think you stand to benefit by doing your part, okay?

I'm going to leave you with some links I think will be of help to you in having these conversations with your mother as well as with your own sexual decision-making and in communicating about these issues with your boyfriend so that you can have his support and understanding as you work all of this out. I wish you the very best with all of this, and hope all of you can come through this and arrive at a much better place.

written 21 Apr 2009 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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