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Your teen ready to date? Don’t panic!

Famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth has written a new book to help parents address the uncomfortable subject of their teens becoming sexually active. In this excerpt, Dr. Ruth shares what to expect when adolescents start dating.
/ Source: TODAY books

Famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth has written a new book to help parents address the uncomfortable subject of their teens becoming sexually active. In this excerpt, Dr. Ruth provides advice on what to expect when your teen is dating for the first time, and how to create an atmosphere for open communication and honesty.

Chapter seven: When your teen starts dating
New parents eagerly await every one of their baby’s “firsts”: first smile, first time he rolls over, her first steps, and so on. Those good feelings at witnessing the child’s progress continue as the baby grows up and goes through various phases — until the baby becomes a teen and the “firsts” have to do with sex. Developing an interest in the opposite sex, or the same sex, is a stage that every human goes through, and of course parents are happy that their children have the sexual desires they’re supposed to have, but let’s face it, this stage also comes with a lot of trepidation. When it comes to cutting the apron strings, dating is a major snip.

Let’s start by analyzing why this is so. Some of it may have to do with your own dating experiences. If you had a few broken hearts or other problems during your dating years, that’s naturally going to make you worry as your offspring enters the world of dating. And then there were the good parts: the kisses, the romance, the sex. For you, they were good, but for your baby? What it means is that your baby is not your baby any more, and so that’s another reason for feeling nervous. And then there can be serious ramifications of dating and sex. What if you hate the young lady your son is dating? What if your daughter’s dating a drug dealer? Or her beau has no manners? Sending your child off into the unknown is a scary proposition.

Sticking with the pack
The best way for young teens to get into dating is to go in groups. There’s much less pressure all around, especially for you. And you should actively encourage them to avoid pairing up as long as possible. But in the end it’s out of your hands, and at some point your teen is going to have a girlfriend or boyfriend. And while that will scare you a little, it will also be a relief, because parents don’t’ want to see their child feeling left out. If most of your teen’s friends are also without a steady date, then it’s fine; but if they all start to form couples, then having your child be the odd man or woman out will also cause you concern.

You might think that you have no impact on how your teens and their friends interact, but that’s not totally true. If you can find ways of facilitating their group get-togethers, that will encourage them to stick together. So if they need a ride to the movies, try to make yourself available. Stock up on snacks so that if they want to hang out in your basement, they feel welcome. If they seem bored, as teens often do, take out some old board games and put them where they can see them. Don’t suggest that they play or they’ll never go near them, but if they’re around, you never know. Make an effort to get to know all of them. Your own teens may cringe at your attempts to speak to their friends, but if you’re not a stranger, the bonds you create will actually help your teens: If their friends feel comfortable in your home, then they’ll be more likely to come around; and when they’re all at your house, at least you know what they’re up to, which is always a relief.

You’re going to have to learn to be a bit tolerant. A group of teens make noise and will usually leave a mess behind. If you come down too hard on your teens, then they’re not going to volunteer your home as much. And if the group is elsewhere, you have no control over the situation whatsoever. No matter how raucous they’re being, don’t just go hide in your bedroom. If the group knows that you’re hiding from them, you won’t have much influence on their behavior. You want to make your presence felt so that no one will decide to light up a joint or raid the liquor cabinet.

A lack of friends
If your teen doesn’t seem to have friends, then that is a problem. Because everyone needs to have friends, it makes your teen vulnerable. If the wrong person comes around, who may be seeking to use your teen rather than really be friends, your teen will never see it coming because she’ll be so glad to have a friend. So you have to get to the bottom of why a child’s social life is way below par. If you can’t figure it out on your own, then send your child for counseling.

Benefits of counseling
I understand why people hesitate to send a child for counseling. As a society, we look down on people who have a “mental illness,” which can include depression, for instance. Rather than risk labeling your child, the temptation is that “she’ll grow out of it.” But psychological issues are just like physical ones in that the later you deal with them, the worse they get and the harder they are to fix. So despite the temptation to hope that the problem is just a passing phase, I strongly suggest that you take action and get professional help if you notice something peculiar in your teen’s behavior. If you’re not sure, then take your teen to see your family doctor. And if your teen brushes off the problem and tells you to mind your own business, don’t listen. If you see signs of trouble, do whatever it takes to get to the source and deal with it.

There are also things you can do yourself. Try to see if you can figure out how to make your teen more appealing. Maybe if your basement had one of those wide-screen TVs, that might act as a lure. Or if your teen had the latest video games hooked up to it. If your teen is overweight and you think that is part of the problem, make a concerted effort to help cut some of those pounds by not buying junk food, signing her up for an exercise class, getting him a bike, or whatever else would be helpful.

While most teens make friends either at school or in the neighborhood, that’s not necessarily the right approach for every teen. If a teen has a particular interest that is not shared by others, he won’t fit in and also won’t make the effort to do so. But such a teen still needs companionship. In cases like that, see if you can help your teen find others who like the same thing. For example, if your daughter loves to act but didn’t make the school drama club or the school doesn’t have one, find out if and there’s a drama group in town, and help her join. If your son likes to cook but his schoolmates think this is too weird, see if you can set him up with some sort of internship at a local restaurant. Even if the people there aren’t his age, they’ll share the same interest; and if he’s serious, it could be a first step toward a career as a chef. Not every kid fits the general mold, and as your kid’s parent, it’s up to you to see where in society your child might fit best and then give him or her a boost to get there. Some teens are very resourceful, while others aren’t, but once you get them headed in the right direction, they’ll soar.

Eventually, most parents of a teenager will be having to deal with serious dating. And that is going to require another “talk” because no matter how thorough you were the first few times, at this juncture you have to make sure that you dot all your i’s and cross your t’s.

One of the biggest fears parents have with regard to talking about sex is that mentioning birth control and condoms for safer sex implies that they are giving their child the green light to actually engage in sex, so long as the child follows the rules about remaining safe. If the talk is given before the teen has started to date, then the time it will take to find a partner becomes a reassuring buffer zone that allows parents to let the word condom come out of their mouth. But when a teen is already dating, it means that the opportunity for actually having sex is close at hand, so I know that uttering statements about safer sex can cause panic to set in. But trust me, if you really want to feel panic, all you need to do is hear your child use the word pregnant. So this is a case of that noted ounce of prevention.

If your child is still a virgin, then I can guarantee you that the thought of having intercourse is even more scary to him or her than it is to you, and just because you speak about such matters isn’t going to push any teen over the edge. If your child is not a virgin, then it’s definitely worthwhile repeating the safer sex messages. So put aside your fears of causing your teen to have sex by talking about it. It’s much more likely that the opposite will happen. If a teen is hesitating about having sex, being reminded of everything that can go wrong — like a condom falling off — will probably delay matters even more. I’ve said that scare tactics don’t work, and they don’t in the long run, but they certainly can in the short run.

There are other reasons for a teen to delay having sex besides just the dangers. Being in a serious relationship changes your life in many ways. It can certainly affect your studies. It may give you less time to be with your friends. It ties you down so that maybe you want to watch football but your girlfriend wants to go to the mall. If your teen is not already madly in love, in which case your words would fall on deaf ears, let your teen know that being in love has responsibilities. Since teens seem to prefer shirking responsibilities to grabbing them, this line of argument may have some success — not in stopping a teen from dating, but in keeping the relationship from getting too serious.

Friends with benefits
Having said this, I know that for some teens these days that logic will have the wrong impact. They may say, “You’re right, I’m not ready for a real relationship, but I do want to have sex, so I’m going to find some friends to have sex with.” This is the concept from which the term friends with benefits is derived.

Obviously, I deplore such a concept. The main reason is that I believe sex should occur within a relationship. But another reason is that I don’t believe that in such situations both people are actually just friends. My guess is that one party has feelings for the other, and rather than not spend time with that person, will use sex as a bribe. And I’m particularly afraid that this person will be a young girl being taken advantage of by a boy, particularly if she has any self-esteem issues.

In addition, a recent study of students at Michigan State University* showed that students in such a relationship are afraid to develop feelings for the other person in case those feelings aren’t reciprocated. So here you have young people who might be able to fall in love but are holding back their emotions on purpose, and yet still having sex. To me there is nothing sadder. I’m a big believer in the pleasure that can be derived from sex, but I also know that such pleasure pales in comparison to the passion that exists when the two people are in love.

Furthermore, if someone is regularly releasing sexual tension by having sex with a friend, that person is going to be less inclined to make the effort to find a lover. So what such people are doing is wasting months and years of their lives when they could be sharing love with someone else.

Finally, what happens when someone who has been having sex with one or more friends does fall in love? Will his partner feel comfortable hanging out with his female friends with whom he’s had sex or will she feel jealous? I think there’s going to be a good chance she is going to feel jealous, whether openly or not, and so she’s going to want to keep him away from these friends. And then if his male friends are friends with these females, this girlfriend (or boyfriend if the sexes are reversed) will be trying to keep them out of his life too. How complicated is that going to be?

I don’t believe this friends with benefits concept is running rampant among teens. It’s probably more likely to happen among 20-something-year-olds who are already sexually experienced. But once an idea like this gets out, then younger, impressionable people will pick up on it, particularly if it is depicted in popular TV shows and movies. So what should parents do with regard to this type of behavior? You have to be very frank and make sure that your teen knows that you are dead set against it and why. It should not be part of a message that says they should not have sex at all. If you offer them a blanket rejection of any sexual activity, then if they’re going to disobey you for the least offense, it frees them to disobey you for every offense. The next thing you know, they’re going to have their own set of friends with benefits, if not for intercourse, then maybe for oral sex. So you have to maintain a consistent message, and to me it’s that casual sex is not only forbidden, but that it’s not good sex, and even if you’re in a relationship, sex is something that you have to be very sure about because it does come with a lot of responsibility.

Everybody’s doing it
Children of all ages are always using the excuse that “everybody’s doing it.” When kids are young, you can ignore them because you have more control and can enforce your rules. But it’s much more difficult to do that with teens. And if all your daughter’s friends who have boyfriends are telling each other about how they’re having oral sex, the day she gets a boyfriend the pressure will be on for her to follow suit, not only from her boyfriend, but from her girlfriends.

I’m not going to promise that you can overcome this pressure, but you have to try, and the approach that I would suggest is to tell her that she’s special. Now this is going to take more than words. You’re going to have to go the extra mile to make her feel special. Don’t go overboard, but do make a special effort. On Saturday morning, take her with you to have her nails done. If you see a nice top in a window, buy it for her, telling her she’s special. If she wants to borrow a piece of your jewelry, tell her that you’ll let her because she’s special.

Telling her she’s special is planting a seed. Through your actions, you’ll be adding fertilizer to the idea. If you do a good job, hopefully the concept will become deep-rooted. Then if she’s not sure about whether she wants to have oral sex with her boyfriend, she’ll say no because deep down she’ll be saying to herself, “I’m special and I’m not going to have sex with just anyone.” There’s no guarantee this will work, but it has the potential to have the desired results, and so my advice is to give it a try.

Of course if she does have the desire, then she probably will go ahead. But maybe that means that the relationship is a good one; and while it may bother you, it’s not the end of the world. Your job, as I see it, is to get her to wait until she’s really ready. Once she reaches that point, then it’s ultimately out of your control.

Using the media to your advantage
On the one hand, the media is always depicting sex as if there are no consequences and as if everyone is doing it, so that the young people who aren’t are made to feel bad. But there is another side to this. Sadly, many of the media stars do suffer the consequences of their actions and they’re always in the papers getting arrested or going in for rehab, or other such things. So from your point of view, as a parent, here are examples to hold up to your teens to show that “the good life” isn’t all that good. Here are people with tons of money and fame, and they’re not happy. They can’t find satisfaction. They’re hooked on the fast life, not just drugs or alcohol, even though it doesn’t bring them any joy. And you can be sure your teens have seen these stories. What they perhaps haven’t done is internalize them. They haven’t made the connection between their lives and the lives of these celebrities. They may not fully understand that if they don’t toe the line, they might end up going down the same dead-end street. So that’s where you come in, but gently. Don’t beat them over the head with the latest antics of this star or that singer. Instead discuss the incident with them and let them know how sad it is, how these people are wasting their talents and their lives. Make them appear pathetic, not evil. There’s a certain appeal to evil, but there’s no appeal to being pathetic.

The prom
Whether your teen has a steady or not yet, there’s one day of the year when every teen who’s a senior, and often a junior, needs to have a date, and that’s the night of the prom.

It’s tempting to climb on my soapbox here and denounce the craziness that prom night has become, especially with relation to the cost, but I won’t. The excessiveness that is my concern in this book has to do with sex. There are two phenomena that occur on prom night. The first involves those couples who are going steady. For some reason, lots of girls who’ve resisted going all the way feel that the time to give up their virginity is on the night of their senior prom. I guess some of the “pressure” comes from the fact that the prom signals that high school is just about over, and so to mark this new stage in life there’s some need to lose one’s virginity. But there’s another reason that this occurs, and that’s because parents have been coerced into allowing teens going to a prom to stay out all night without adult supervision. While the whole class is supposed to be partying together somewhere, the opportunity for couples to separate themselves and find a place to have sex is there for the taking.

Honestly, if two 17-year-olds who have been going out for quite a while and are in a serious relationship have sex, it’s not the end of the world. However, if it’s something that you’re one hundred percent against, then it’s up to you to “ruin” prom night by making sure that your teen heads home when the official activities end. I just don’t want to be there when you make this announcement.

I am much more concerned by the casual sex that also seems to take place these days on prom night. While a couple who have been planning on having sex on prom night for months will come prepared with a condom, or at least I hope they will, two people who are not part of a long-term relationship might not. Of course in these times they might be having oral sex instead of intercourse, but you never know. So this type of casual sex is very risky. Certainly no one is going to bother to find out if the other person has been tested for STDs.

An even bigger cause of concern is that whatever takes place might be because of alcohol or drugs. Alcohol is certainly not on the agenda at the prom, but in many cases teens find ways of circumventing such bans. I’m not even sure if it wouldn’t be better if the prom-nighters could go to a bar and drink in a civilized manner rather than guzzle whatever liquor they can get their hands on in their cars or in an alley. Yes, it’s possible to get quite drunk in a bar, but if the drinking takes place over a longer period of time, as everyone gets tired, the pace of drinking may slow down. However, if the idea is to get as drunk as possible in the shortest amount of time, then the effects are going to be multiplied. And drunk teenagers are not going to be responsible when it comes to sex.

Finally there’s the danger of date rape. If a young lady is just about out cold, she may wake up to find that she’s no longer a virgin, and it’s also possible that she may not know who took her virginity, and whether anyone else followed suit. Alcohol is not the only danger; there are drugs that someone can put into a drink that the victim will not be able to taste or sense in any way, but soon enough that person will be powerless to stop herself from being raped, nor will she remember what happened either. I’m not saying that these drugs are that easy for a high school senior to get, and that such rapes are commonplace, but they certainly do occur, though mostly as a result of alcohol rather than date rape drugs.

Prom night used to be fairly civilized, but teens have been pushing the envelope for a long time so that now for many high schoolers it’s got the quality of a bacchanal. That’s sad, but I guess it’s one more genie that we can’t put back in the bottle. If it’s a junior prom, you as parents should be a lot more conservative. Seniors are on the verge of breaking away, so you don’t have as much control. But at the very least, you should give your teen the “be careful” speech one more time.

When you know your teen is sexually active
Some teens couple up and become two peas in a pod. You may want to pretend that they’re not having sex, but burying your head in the sand is not a good tactic. I’m definitely against your allowing them to sleep together overnight in one of your bedrooms. You don’t have to be a doormat. But you’re not going to be able to watch them every minute of the day and night, and so you have to face the reality that you’re not going to be able to put an end to their sex life. And once you’ve faced that fact, you then have to decide whether you want to become grandparents while your teen is just that, a teen.

If used properly, condoms are relatively safe with regard to protecting from an unintended pregnancy, but they’re not as safe as the pill. So if you have a daughter who you are fairly sure is sexually active, then you might want to offer her a visit to the gynecologist to go on the pill. Now she might turn you down because while she and her boyfriend may be engaging in sexual behavior, they haven’t graduated to intercourse yet. In that situation, there is a small risk that because you held up the possibility of her going on the pill that she’ll see that as a green light to have intercourse. But I do believe it is a small risk. In the first place, if she’s held back up to this point, she has many reasons for doing so, not just because she was afraid of what you would think. And in your speech, you’re going to reinforce those reasons. Remember, you’re not giving her the green light, but instead reminding her of the serious consequences that sex can have. But you’re also treating her as an adult, so that instead of having sex out of rebellion, she’ll only do it when she’s ready. And if you’ve raised a sensible girl, if she’s sure that she’s ready, then she probably is.

Some parents decide not to leave anything to chance, and so they place condoms in a drawer in the house and say to their teens that if they’re needed, to just use them, that no one will be keeping count. If you’re pretty sure that your teen is sexually active, then that’s not a bad idea. If something happens, you’re going to pay a price in any case, in worries if nothing else, so rather than just ignore the reality of the situation, taking charge of providing contraception makes a lot of sense.

When is a teen ready?
Many people ask me at what age someone should start having sex, and I always have to tell them that there is no set age. When it comes to driving, voting, or drinking, your status does switch from one day to the next when you hit that milestone birthday, but those are artificial restrictions. When it comes to having the maturity to enter a sexual relationship, for some, though admittedly few, 14 is the right age, while there are others who’ve reached their 21st birthday and are still not mature enough or have not found the right partner, which is an important deciding factor, at least in my book.

You have to remember that throughout most of mankind’s history, it was common for young people to get married in their early to midteens. If our children don’t have the maturity at that age, it’s not because they’re not physically ready but rather because we’ve held them back emotionally. We, as a society, have decided to treat teens as not yet having reached adulthood because we want them to stay in school and they require parental support to do so. But just because we’ve done everything possible to make sure that a 14-year-old is not an adult doesn’t mean that some 14-year-olds haven’t managed to reach adulthood despite our best efforts. They may not pick up their dirty clothes off the floor because they know that you’ll do it for them, but if they were put in a responsible position, they’d be able to take care of themselves. And having sex, assuming you can prevent a pregnancy, is the least important of the many adult responsibilities. In many, many countries, 14-year-olds do hold down full-time jobs and do support families. So it’s not that a 14-year-old is innately incapable of acting like an adult but rather that we force a lengthened childhood upon them. And therefore under these artificial conditions, clearly the vast majority of 14-year-olds are not ready to have sex. But some are, and many more reach that state as each year passes.

If you have a pot of boiling water and try to push the top down further and further into the pot, you’re going to have a harder and harder time, and if you let go for even a second that top is going to burst off because of the added pressure you’ve caused. It’s the same with a teenager. The more pressure you exert, the greater the internal temperature of the teen, and at some point there can be an explosion, or in the case of some teens, that can be a daily occurrence. But you have to understand that you are creating this artificial pressurized situation. You’re intentionally keeping them from becoming a full-fledged adult. Given the needs of a long education in our modern society, I’m not saying that you’re necessarily wrong. All I’m trying to get you to do is acknowledge that your teen is not naturally a child and so the conflict over many issues, including sex, is one to be navigated. There is no one answer that will fit every teen. Some teens couldn’t hold down a job flipping hamburgers at McDonalds while others could manage a Fortune 500 company. Some teens are so ready to have sex that there’s no stopping them, while others don’t really mind not having the responsibility of having a steady boyfriend or girlfriend. So you have to adjust your parenting to fit your teen, and you may not always be happy with the outcome. For example, being in a steady relationship is likely to have a negative effect on a teen’s grades in school simply because being in a relationship takes a lot of time, which takes away from the time to study. But if a teen has formed a relationship, there’s nothing you can do to change that, and if you did manage to keep them apart, your teen’s grades would probably worsen rather than get better. So you have to learn to adapt to the realities of your teen. You can guide teens, but only so far. If you’re constantly butting heads, then you have to look carefully at the overall situation and try to figure out how to reduce the pressure so that there are fewer explosions. You have to recognize that you are not in full control, that your teen is slowly breaking free, and you have to choose your battles carefully. Sometimes sex is an appropriate battleground and sometimes it’s not. And if it appears that you’re not going to be able to enforce celibacy on your teen, then you have to do whatever is necessary so that at least your teen is having sex as safely as possible, which may mean making that appointment with the gynecologist to get your daughter a prescription for the pill.

Parents of sons have a slightly easier time because it is not your child who can get pregnant. But your teen can certainly cause a pregnancy, and so you can’t be left off the hook. You have to talk to your son to make certain that he’s being careful. Exactly what you say may depend on your son. If he’s generally responsible, then you don’t have to be as repetitive about your warnings as when if he’s a daredevil.

As I said in the chapter on peer pressure, if your teen wants to be treated more like an adult because he or she is in a serious relationship, now is the time to give your teen more responsibility, not less. When a teen gets a driver's license, you might sit her down and say, “In exchange for using the family car, I’m going to ask you to drive around your younger siblings from time to time, and get a part-time job to pay for gas.” In this situation you might say, “If you’re old enough to be in a serious relationship, then twice a week I expect you to prepare dinner or do the family shopping.” What the responsibility will be will depend on many factors, such as which responsibilities the teen already has, but my point is that you want to underline the fact that with the perks of adulthood come the duties.

What effect might this have? Throughout history, the privilege of having sex was tied to marriage, which of course carried with it tons of responsibilities. When you decouple sex and responsibilities, young people look at it as a form of recreation and you get many of the problems we see, like the rampant spread of sexually transmitted diseases. So it’s important to try to make that connection in their minds, that with adulthood come certain freedoms but also certain responsibilities.

It’s important to set up the consequences ahead of time. I don’t think it’s enough to tell your teen that she’s spending too much time with her boyfriend. Instead you have to say, “I think you’re spending too much time with your boyfriend and it’s probably going to affect your grades negatively; and if that happens, I’m going to set up much stricter limits.” Then it’s up to her. Either she maintains her grades or you’ll force her to spend more time at home studying. Because she’s going to have a strong motivation to keep those grades up, so that she can see her boyfriend, you might be pleasantly surprised. And by giving her plenty of notice — and by plenty I don’t just mean in advance, but to repeat this warning often — if her grades go down, she’ll probably limit how much she rebels when you clamp down. Of course, you can’t be weak. You have to follow through with what you said you’d do, or otherwise you’ll lose all control.

Studying is clearly the most important activity in which your teen could be engaging, but the problem is that neither one of you will see the results for quite some time, until the next report card period. So I think the conditions you set up have to be a mixture of both schoolwork and household chores. You can tell immediately if the dishwasher’s been emptied, the garbage thrown out, the shopping done, or a sibling driven to piano lessons. And then if the goal isn’t met, you can dole out a relatively mild restriction as far as dating is concerned. It may take a few nights spent at home for your teen to understand that you’re serious, but eventually that message will sink in. And that type of immediate feedback, that shirking responsibilities means losing the privilege of dating for at least a short time, could go a long way toward getting her to work a little harder at her schoolwork.

I hate him/her
What happens if you can’t stand the person your teen is dating? The first thing you have to do is look at this young person objectively. Does he or she represent some danger to your child? Or is it just that this person gets on your nerves but isn’t all that bad? If it’s the latter, then there’s not much you can do. Luckily, you don’t have to spend that much time with this person, though sometimes that might not be true if the couple spend most of their time together at your house. (Which may not be such a bad thing since you get to supervise them when they’re under your roof.) But the more serious situation is when the person your teen is dating clearly is not someone you want associated with your child.

What happens in many instances is that the parent tries to break the couple up, the teen resists, and then parent and child are at each other’s throats. Even if the teen had some doubts about the relationship, rather than give in to parental authority, the teen is going to do everything possible to hold on to the relationship. So declaring war on your teen is just not a good tactic, both because it probably won’t work and because it will close you off from your child, which could lead to other negative consequences. For example, if your son knows that you don’t like the girl he’s dating because you think she’s not right for him, but you don’t go overboard trying to get them apart, he might resist having sex with her to prove that the relationship is not based on something as lowly as just sex, but that he really loves and respects this girl. But if you try everything possible to split them up, then they’ll cleave together, and it may be more likely that they’ll end up having sex.

If you find yourself faced with such a situation, your first job, before you say a word, is to fully assess the situation. If you try to break the twosome up, there is going to be all-out war between you and your teen. I’m not saying that you may not want to assert all the authority you can muster in order to break up the couple, but don’t do it without thinking through all the possible consequences because while you can’t foretell the outcome, you do want to have an idea of what might happen. For example, what if because of the pressure you put on them, the couple decides to elope? Then you’d be worse off than if you hadn’t done anything. But even without going to such extremes, if you become enemies with your child over this, you can end up losing control more than exercising control. So you have to tread carefully. For example, if you think your daughter’s boyfriend is bad news, you could ask one of her best friends what she thinks about him. If he’s really bad news, and if she’s really a true friend, she’ll tell you at least part of the truth. Maybe her assessment will be, “Yes, he has a lot of tattoos but he’s really a nice kid” or else she’ll tell you that he not only uses drugs, but sells them. By doing your homework, you’ll have a better understanding of the situation and can then plan out the best course of action. But if you let your emotions take over, then the outcome is going to be less certain.

If you believe that your daughter has been brought up to know the difference between right and wrong, plus she is a bright and capable child, then in the end you have to have faith that your daughter is going to do the right thing. If you are attacking her, however, you’re weakening her. If she’s undergoing an internal battle between her conscience and her attraction for her boyfriend, and then she also is confronted with a battle against her parents, that might tip her toward making the wrong decision. If she’s feeling overwhelmed, then it will be harder to be completely rational. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t speak your piece. As a parent you have a duty to give advice to your child if you think she’s making a mistake. Whatever her immediate reaction, she will take that advice back with her and think about it and use it to make her decisions. But if you step over the line and go from advice giver to authoritarian, then she may not weigh it carefully but could simply dismiss it because of its source, parents who are clearly “against” her. Remember, we may treat teens as children, but they are young adults, and part of the growing-up process is breaking away from the authority of their parents. It’s better for all parties if this is a gradual process, but if you push her up against a wall, then it can happen all of a sudden. And if it seems more important at the time for her to assert herself in order not to be treated as a child, then she might make the wrong move, because instead of making a conscious decision, it will be an emotional lunge for freedom. So while it’s okay to push, you have to understand that there is a limit so that you don’t push her over the edge.

Excerpted from “Dr. Ruth's Guide to Teens and Sex Today.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Reprinted with permission from Teachers College Press, Columbia University.