Laura Cohen (not her real name) clearly remembers the first time her daughter caught her in an intimate moment with her husband. The two were lying together in bed when she heard tiny footsteps at the door. Then they saw the blond head of her then 6-year-old daughter peeking in the room.
“Why is Daddy naked?” her daughter asked curiously.
“Because it’s hot outside,” Laura said, doing her best to rearrange the sheets around her and her husband. “Go to bed.”
The Horror of Getting Caught in the Act
Luckily, Laura’s daughter found this explanation entirely reasonable. But Laura dreads the thought of this same situation occurring with her teenage kids. Which is why, since that night, she makes sure to triple check the bedroom locks.
For couples who want to keep having sex without being caught in the 18 interim years before their kids go off to college, this is a good practice to get into. “At the very top of the list of things that inhibit sexual desire is a fear of getting caught by the kids,” says Wes Crenshaw, a Lawrence, Kansas-based family and child psychologist who holds certificates in both sex therapy and sex education.
“The best thing to do to prevent this type of situation from happening is to sit your children down from an early age and talk about privacy and boundaries. It is not inappropriate to expect your kids to knock on your door—and get permission—before entering.”
It is also good for children to understand that parents need alone time together.
But you can’t plan for everything. And sometimes even the best-laid romantic plans of parents go astray—like when a teen unexpectedly comes home early from a sleepover, to see his parents entwined, half naked on the couch.
What to Do When Your Teenager Walks in On You
Though your first response as a parent to this situation might be to spew out a slew of half-baked explanations—“We were practicing a new form of yoga!”—the best thing to do in this type of situation, Crenshaw says, is to “pause, listen, understand, and stay sex positive.”
“I advise parents to take a deep breath, acknowledge the discomfort, then take their best shot. Tell your teen that sex is a great part of you and your husband’s relationship, that you enjoy each other’s company, and that you hope that one day he, too, will have this sort of emotional and physical relationship with a partner,” Crenshaw says.
(This response works, too, if a teen walks in on a single parent and a date.)
Most importantly, stay calm, and do not yell at your child. “The more we treat sex like it’s an illicit, dirty thing, the more it will drive kids toward perverse acts later,” Crenshaw says.
It’s okay, though, to ask for privacy—and to suggest that you talk again in the morning, says Crenshaw.
How to Move On
Just don’t expect that your teen will want to rehash all the details of the night over coffee and eggs. “Your kid may have difficulty tolerating the conversation. Just as it’s embarrassing for you, it’s also embarrassing for your kid,” says Kristin Carothers, a clinical psychologist at The Child Mind Institute in New York. “A lot of teens will want to try and get the scene out of their minds as quickly as possible.”
Pushing them to talk about their feelings, then, generally will not go well. Carothers advises saying something like, “I wanted to check in with you, and see if you were okay. I know last night might have been weird for you. But if you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”
The good news, says Carothers, is that these sort of unplanned-for incidents don’t tend to have long-lasting effects on your teens.
“There may be some discomfort and embarrassment for a while. But once everyone establishes that what happened was a natural part of life, things will move forward,” she says. “Your kids will be OK.”