Q. My daughter, who is almost 11, walked in on my husband and me when we were having sex. It was late at night and we assumed she was asleep. It was all quite embarrassing and we are not sure how much she saw or how long she was there when we spotted her. In the moment, we were both very flustered and shouted for her to go back to her room. Eventually, when I followed her in I was too embarrassed to say much and she just said she had come into our room because she “wanted a drink of water”. She went back to sleep and that was it. Now I wonder should I talk to her again about it. She is the eldest and still quite innocent and though we have had the “where babies come from” conversation, we have not spoken much more about this. Can she be affected by what she saw and should I raise it with her again?
A. Being interrupted by one of your children when making love can be an acutely embarrassing situation for most parents. In hindsight, it is of course entirely preventable as you can put a simple lock on your bedroom door or have a privacy rule that children should knock before entering. However, many parents only bring in such rules after they have been interrupted once.
How children are affected
How a child is affected depends very much on their age and what they know about sex. A toddler/preschooler may not notice anything unusual and just accept what he/she saw without question. A child who has started school may wonder what was going on out of curiosity or could worry about what he/she saw and even need to be reassured that mum and dad were not fighting or hurting one another. At 10 years old it is likely that your own daughter has a good sense of what was happening, though may still be surprised, embarrassed or worried about it especially if she feels she got a negative reaction from you.
Raising the subject
Though you might be tempted to just leave it, it is probably a good idea to check in with your daughter about what happened, especially if you feel you reacted badly in the moment. Ideally, a follow-up conversation should be matter of fact and take place soon enough (for example, the next day) so it is not made into a big deal. It is useful to start by you apologising –“Sorry that you came into our room last night, when mum and dad were having some private time – we should have locked the door.”
This approach lets her know she has done nothing wrong and might make her comfortable to talk herself. Try to listen and suss out what explanation she needs about what she saw. Some children know what was happening and just need a matter-of-fact acknowledgement from their parents that it is all normal and fine – “This is what mums and dads do and is a sign they love each other.” Think through what message you want to leave her about what happened (for example, though very private, sex is normal and healthy and a sign of love between parents).
Talking about sex with children
As with all conversations with children about sexuality, the goal is try to honestly answer their questions about sex without over sharing or saying too much. Most importantly, you want to communicate to your daughter that you are open to talking about sex in the future and that she can always come to you with any questions or worries she might have. In my experience, children generally know more about sex than their parents think, though they often only get incomplete information from unreliable sources (peer conversations, plotlines on TV, stories on the radio or in newspapers, the internet, and so on).
As a result, it is important that parents talk to their children sooner rather than later about sex and make sure they have correct information. Uniquely as a parent you can put this information in context, talk about feelings and relationships and explain what values are important. The more you can be comfortable having these conversations, the better for your children.
Resources about talking to children about sex
Talking to children about sex is not a once off that you have about “where babies come from” but rather an ongoing conversation that you start when they are younger and continue into their teens and beyond. Fortunately, there are some great resources and books about talking about sex and relationships to children. In particular, the HSE has produced a book and DVD called Busy Bodies targeted at children in fifth and sixth classes and their parents (healthpromotion.ie) and the Irish Family Planning Association runs an eight-week course called Speak Easy, designed to provide parents with the information, skills and confidence needed to talk to their children about relationships and sexuality (ifpa.ie).
Good Role Model
Finally, though children as they get older might be embarrassed to think of their parents having sex, on the other hand they are delighted to think parents still love each other and that they still have a good relationship. Seeing their parents express affection to one another, being kind and considerate as well as romantic and caring all provides children with a role model about good adult relationships. In addition, having a solid parental relationship creates harmony in the family and provides children with a great sense of security as they grow up and progress though the teen years.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, November 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.