I had the privilege of working with Anne Kerr for a year as she partnered with Be Broken on parenting issues in 2021. One of her sayings that will always stick with me is:
You did not manage your sexuality perfectly,
and neither will your children.
That statement may be simple, but it is also profound. The implication is, rather than fret and become anxious worrying if my child will “mess up” somehow in his or her sexuality, I can expect it and be ready to respond well when it happens.
Here are four steps you can take to respond well when your kid messes up:
1. Expect It
The first step toward responding well is to expect they will make mistakes with their sexuality. Think of it this way, your child is not “bad” because they do not manage their sexuality perfectly 100% of the time. Your child is human when they do not manage their sexuality perfectly 100% of the time.
While we are here on earth—and while your child is still here on earth—we can strive to move continually toward God, yet we never quite make it before heaven. We are doing our best, hopefully learning and improving, but there is no expectation that any of us achieve perfection. Even Paul said,
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
The message your child needs to hear from you is NOT, “I expect you to make no mistakes with your sexuality.” That will lead to anxiety and shame in your child. What is worse, that will cause your child to withdraw from you when they ultimately do make mistakes.
Instead your child needs to hear you say, “I made mistakes with my sexuality and you will too. I am here for you when that happens and will help you.” This gives your child assurance and comfort, no matter how well or how poorly they manage sexuality.
It is helpful to think of children mismanaging sexuality as immaturity. A child looking for naked images out of curiosity about sex is an immature behavior. Masturbation is an immature way to respond to new sexual feelings. The same goes for listening to or retelling a sexual joke, reading erotic literature, and so on. These are things children typically do but can learn to outgrow. Parents can expect children to act immaturely from time to time while they are outgrowing these behaviors.
2. Prepare for It
The very first thing you say—the first sentence out of your mouth—is the most important thing to your child when you discover they have made a mistake with sexuality. They will fear your first sentence, even if you have previously assured them you will support them. This is especially true the very first time they confess or you discover something they have done that was inappropriate.
This does not need to be something to worry about, but something you can practice and be ready for. I will make it really easy for you by giving you just two sentences to memorize. You don’t need the pressure of trying to figure out the best thing to say in the heat of the moment.
First Sentence for Responding to Confession
If your child does confess doing something immature with their sexuality, I recommend your first sentence be:
I’m so glad you told me.
That’s it. Say that and let it sink in. They will probably be happily surprised by this response and are more likely to open up to you. They will already feel shame and know it was wrong, so there is no need for you to point that out. This will also make them much more likely to confess again in the future if they need to.
First Sentence for Responding to Discovery
It is more difficult when you discover your child was doing something sexually immature or inappropriate and realize they were trying to hide it from you. Dishonesty, for me anyway, was always worse than whatever my kids were being dishonest about.
This may be harder to understand at first, but I highly recommend your first sentence after discovery to be:
You are not in trouble.
I can sense resistance as I am writing! I know this seems the wrong thing to say, but stick with me a moment. If you say, “You are not in trouble,” as your first response, and wait for that to sink in, a few things happen:
Your child will pause, come out of self-defense mode, and listen, since this was not what they expected.
Your child will open the door to relationship, after shutting it and preparing for the worst.
Your child becomes curious about what you are thinking and will be much more likely to want to talk.
Telling your child that they are not in trouble makes it possible for you to help them learn from their mistakes and perhaps even do better next time.
3. Tell Your Story
At the moment of discovery your child will be afraid that you do not understand them or why they made the mistake they made. Even if you have not made the exact mistake your child made, you have made plenty of mistakes at their age. You do understand what that is like.
After assuring you child with “I’m so glad you told me,” or “You are not in trouble,” they need to hear one more thing from you before you ask them anything. They need to hear your story.
If you have ever done whatever it was they did, they need to hear that now. If not, think of the closest example you can come up with when you did something you should not have done and share that.
Your child needs to talk about what lead up to their mistake, but that is not fair if you as the parent have not shared your own faults first. Don’t take a lot of time, just share what you did and when it happened.
Here are some real parent stories as examples:
When I was 9 at a sleepover two of my friends showed me pornography and I didn’t say “no” but looked at it with them.
Some kids were talking about a book having something exciting in it so I got the book and it had descriptions of sex between people who were not married, but I read it anyway.
When I was 8 I found naked pictures of people in history magazine at my grandparents house. They made me feel funny inside and I always wanted to look again when we visited, but I was afraid to tell anyone.
I discovered masturbation at age 13 but was afraid to tell anyone and didn’t know what to do or how to stop.
Your story needs to be very short and share general categories of behavior, not graphic descriptions. This will prove that you do understand how your child feels at a time your child really needs to feel understood.
4. Ask Questions
After you have responded well and shared a story with your child, there are some questions you can ask that will help them process what happened and plan to do better next time. Here are some suggestions:
Tell me more. What lead up to what you did?
How did you feel before and after?
What do you think or feel about what happened?
Does this bring up any questions about sex I can answer?
What can you do next time to help you react better in the future?
Is there any way I can help you moving forward?
Can we pray about this?
Notice there is no lecture in this. You child does not need a lecture. What a child does need after making mistakes with their sexuality is to process what happened, including talking about their feelings.
If your child continues to make similar mistakes it is an opportunity for you to uncover the real problem and better solutions. When your child makes the same mistake more than once you can work together to find patterns you and your child can address.
Perhaps feeling lonely or bored is what precedes them acting inappropriately. If so, you can help them devise a plan for when they feel lonely or bored. Perhaps curiosity about sex is what preceded the event. You can help them find better ways to resolve their curiosity. Becoming mature means your child knows healthy ways to respond to feeling lonely, bored or curious.
You now have some things to do to be ready to react well when your child makes mistakes with his or her sexuality.
Expect it to happen. Come to understand that your child will make mistakes with sexuality and practice feeling calm about that reality.
Memorizing these two sentences:
I’m so glad you told me.
You are not in trouble.
Be ready to share your story. You might even practice by sharing stories of mistakes you made with your sexuality as a child or teenager with your spouse or a close friend.
Make a list of questions to ask your child and keep it where you can easily find it. Seven suggested questions are listed above.
If you have already responded in an unhelpful way to your child “messing up” it is never too late to go to them and apologize. You can even try telling your story and asking some questions.
If you have not yet faced this situation, I hope you can walk away from this blog feeling more confident in responding to your child in the future. You are the right parent and you can do this!