Welcome to Asking for a Friend, our new column where we track down answers to your most burning (and sometimes awkward) questions. To answer our very first query, we called on Melissa Carnagey, a sex educator, social worker, and the founder of Sex Positive Families.
Q: We have a kid who has made a habit out of stumbling into our bedroom at night (requesting a glass of water, nightmare consolation, philosophical debate, you name it). We’ve almost been caught in the act more than once. How should I react if my child walks in on us having sex? I don’t want to send mixed messages about something that’s natural.
A: Having a child wander in while we’re getting it on is a scene that many of us have either experienced firsthand or feared. But as you point out, sex between parents is natural, not shameful. Unfortunately, like so much about sex, our society has built up a major taboo around kids witnessing their parents in the act, which has made it even more difficult to feel confident about how to approach these topics with our kids.
First, it’s important to be clear that parents having sex or sharing intimate time together can be a healthy example of a loving relationship. I’m not suggesting they need to see it, but if they do walk into the space unexpectedly, that’s okay! It happens, and contrary to pop culture’s rhetoric, it’s not a situation that “scars” them. Sex is how many humans are created and it is healthy for children to have an awareness, through early and ongoing sexual health talks that people—even parents, grandparents, and other adults—may have consensual sex that is sometimes for the purposes of reproduction and sometimes just for fun.
If a child is old enough to know what is happening, they will most likely make a hasty exit. They may have a reaction of discomfort, but you can always follow-up afterward and acknowledge that you were having intimate time together. Let them know that if they have any questions, you’re available to talk further with them. Try not to react in a negative way, and most importantly, don’t lie. Sex is natural and not shameful, so we want to ensure they don’t internalize mixed messages. It’s also a good time to remind them of privacy and any expectations you’ve established in the home for respecting private spaces.
For younger children, fighting the urge to flee the scene is best. They may not realize what is happening, and you don’t want to startle, shame, or punish them. Stop what you’re doing to gauge what they need, redirect them back to their bed, but no need to draw extra attention as if what you were doing was wrong or inappropriate. When they have questions, you can address them honestly and simply with, “We were enjoying time together being close” or “We were having sex. Sex is something adults can do in private together.” Some younger children may also question if one of you were being hurt, and you can reassure them simply that no one was being hurt.
Your reactions and follow-up with your child can be teachable moments for supporting their understanding of topics like privacy, healthy relationships, and sex. When children are aware that the parents in their life share an intimate connection, it can be affirming and create a sense of safety.
Preparing children for healthy adult sex lives means supporting shame-free talks and ensuring they are aware of the importance of intimacy within adult relationships. And if your child seeks therapy as an adult, chances are high that it won’t be because of that one time they walked in on their parents getting it on, especially if they’ve come from a sex positive home.
Melissa Carnagey is a sex educator, social worker, and the founder of Sex Positive Families, an organization that offers sex positive education, workshops, and support for parents and caring adults to strengthen sexual health talks with the children in their world. Alongside Sex Positive Families, she teaches sexuality education to middle and high school students with EngenderHealth and Unhushed, and serves as an ambassador for the American Sexual Health Association. Melissa lives in Austin, Texas, with her partner Ryan, and their three children, ages 5–19.
Have a question for our experts? Email us at [email protected]. We’ll publish all queries anonymously because we know—you’re totally asking for a friend.
Share this story