Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: My son and I have a great relationship. I’ve followed your advice and been open with him about sex and birth control. Recently that paid off when he asked that I help his girlfriend get on birth control. He admitted they’d already had sex.
Her mom doesn’t know she’s sexually active, and I’m in a quandary about what to do. I don’t want to be a grandparent, and I’m aware that condoms aren’t nearly effective enough. But I feel bad going behind this other parent’s back to advise her daughter on contraception. Advice?
Katie: Though learning about a son or daughter’s sexual activity is rarely a parents’ idea of a celebratory tile in the Game of Life, your candid relationship with your son should be cherished. His trust gives you the opportunity to prevent the situation from taking a turn for the worse, but it’s doubtful that your influence extends to convincing the couple to put off sex altogether. They are, however, demonstrating responsibility, and you’ll do no harm by helping the girlfriend obtain birth control as soon as possible, assuming she’s over the age of consent for sex.
Ideally, it should be the girlfriend who tells her parents that she is sexually active and taking the pill. If you take this responsibility out of her hands and do it yourself, she will lose the opportunity to make this adult decision on her own and learn from it. Additionally, betraying your son’s trust, no matter how good your intentions, could make him think twice before including you in his future choices.
Sit down with each teen separately to reiterate that you’re helping them because you want them to be safe, not because you approve of teen sex. Remind them that her parents have as much right to know as you do and encourage her to tell them. After all, until she’s an adult, her health — both physical and mental — is their responsibility. If she still won’t tell her parents, reserve the right to call them up.
This isn’t the time to be a warm and fuzzy mother, but neither is it your time to use scare tactics. Instead, appeal to their sense of adulthood: If they’re mature enough to have sex, they should be held to adult standards of honesty and personal responsibility.
Dr. Wes: I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, though I often am. I maintain confidentiality when discussing these matters with teens as long as imminent safety is not an issue. Kids appreciate that, and parents understand that this is part of the therapy process. Exceptions include risk of self-harm, unprotected sex, or serious drug and alcohol use. For the most part, I err on the side of caution.
You are in a tougher spot because you have no clear obligation. There’s no ethical code for parents of teens, nor informed consent forms to sign. You really have to wing it and figure out what the ethical stance is on your own.
For some reason I can’t quite fathom, we’re still debating birth control in America in 2012. That defies all reason. As we’ll discuss in two weeks in this column, the statistics on how many kids are sexually active greatly underestimate the actual pool of those wanting to be. It’s a much smaller minority that remains abstinent by choice. So you were wise to prepare your son for this day and fortunate that he took you seriously.
I agree with Katie that you have a duty to try and convince this girl to talk to her parents. However, if she refuses, you are not in a position to force the issue or out her. Teens have a right to access birth control in this and most states at any age and to maintain confidentiality about that from their parents. While I wouldn’t suggest you take charge of the situation, I think your son has shown sufficient responsibility to work with his girlfriend to get the job done, and you not only have a right but an obligation to advise him on this topic. You could even have him sit down with his physician for a private meeting to discuss options, which he could then share with his partner.
This is far from a perfect solution, but it is well within your scope of practice as a parent and will help you avoid an early pregnancy in your son’s life. You are to be congratulated for having an excellent working relationship with this young man. Pat yourself on the back!