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Teens and sex: Should you let your child's girlfriend or boyfriend stay over?

Teens will do it if they want to, so isn't it better to be open and honest with your teen so they can make the best decisions for them and their partners? writes Sarah Catherall.

A few months ago, 17-year-old Tom* brought his girlfriend Annie* back to his family home for the night. They slept in Tom's room, and he told his mother Jane* that they were just friends. Teens and sex: Should you let your child's girlfriend or boyfriend stay over?

A few weeks later, after Annie had spent more nights at Tom's house, the Year 12 teen revealed to his mother that they were, in fact, in a sexual relationship.

Speaking by Zoom from their Auckland home, Jane shares her concerns about what has become an increasingly more intense and involved relationship, often under the family roof.

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She has talked to Tom about contraception, and even bought him condoms. She has also talked to her son about consent to ensure that Annie wants a sexual relationship.

"I'm not happy with it, but I'd rather they were here than in the back of a car,'' Jane says.

One weekend, Annie stayed the weekend and wanted to stay Sunday night, too. However, Jane sent her home.

"I needed my space back, and I also needed to spend some time with my son. It wasn't ideal as I had to say it to her too, but it was getting too much.''

Among her peers and other parents with sons and daughters of Tom's age, Jane says it's a dilemma they often talk about: should they allow their teens to have sex under the family roof?

Jane, who raises her two sons week about with their father, points out that parents get advice about all sorts of parenting stages, but as her son transitions to adulthood, she is often perplexed about sex and underage drinking.

"There was no way I would have been able to bring my boyfriend home for the night when I was at school. My father would have had a fit,'' she says.

No-one has studied whether parents in New Zealand are more permissive of teen sex under the family roof now. However, based on what's happening overseas, and from anecdotal evidence, they probably are.

Experts say that in countries where adolescent sexuality is accepted and openly discussed, sexual risk-taking tends to be lower than in places where it is taboo to talk about sex, particularly adolescent sex.

Here, teen pregnancies have halved in a decade. However, of those who are sexually active, fewer are using condoms and contraception, according to the Youth19 publication.

Dr Jude Ball, a public health specialist at Otago University has studied adolescent behaviour, and has found teens are less likely to drink, smoke, take drugs, and have sex than two decades ago.

In 2001, 32 per cent of high school students had had sex, and 21 per cent were sexually active. By 2019, this had dropped to 21 per cent who had had sex, and 13 per cent who were sexually active; a quarter of all 16-year-olds had had sex, and 15 per cent of 16-year-olds were sexually active.

Ball approves of the fact that if teens are having sex, more are doing so in the family home.

"It's likely to be safer for young people. Being where adults are is a safer situation than being somewhere else where sexual coercion and date rape can be a risk.''

Asked why young people are delaying sex, Ball says they are typically starting adult-type behaviours later.

"Young people are also having less time in face-to-face unstructured activities like going to parties. That means they have less opportunities for sexual connection, and less opportunities for drinking and smoking too.''

She refers to how much more open parents are about sex today than when she was growing up in the 1980s.

"It was virtually unheard of to allow a sleepover or sex at home then,'' she says.

That was the case for 48-year-old Louise*, who never had a boyfriend to stay over when she was a teen growing up in Wellington.

Today, though, her 16-year-old daughter's boyfriend stays with them at least two nights a week, partly because he lives out of town. "Otherwise they don't get to see each other,'' Louise says.

They sleep in the same bed, and her daughter is using contraception, which she initially started for hormonal reasons.

"We have a very open relationship, and I trust her a lot. She is well-informed about sex. My parents were fairly liberal but we never talked about sex and so, for me, it's important I talk with my daughter about sex and that it is her body.''

"I would rather that my kids were here in a safe place. I'm the trusted adult, in our home where they are comfortable and safe.''

Considering herself to be more liberal than her friends, she says; "I know a lot of people wouldn't share my perspective though.''

In her book, Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex, American sociologist Amy Schalet compares attitudes to adolescent sexuality in the United States and The Netherlands, and finds they are wildly divergent.

In the US, she writes that "teenage sex has been dramatised - fraught with cultural ambivalences, heated political struggles, and poor health outcomes, generating concern among the public, policymakers and scholars''.

In The Netherlands, teenage sex - from the first kiss to sexual intercourse - is considered a normal part of youth development. Schalet cites a survey of Dutch teens that found two-thirds of 15- to 17-year-olds were allowed their boyfriend or girlfriend to sleep over in the same room.

In an interview with Stuff, Schalet says there should be checks first: parents should ensure their teen is in a positive relationship, where there is trust, mutual respect, and an ability to negotiate conflict.

Along with ensuring they're using contraception, it's better for parents to be open and willing to talk if their teens are sexually active.

"For girls, and parents of girls, is there a conversation about what the girl feels physically ready and desiring of? There should be an emphasis on taking it slow, and figuring out in a step-by-step way what she wants and doesn't want.

If the teen is a boy, he should be urged to pay attention to what the girl does and does not want,'' Schalet says.

"With girls I would always want to emphasise that love and sex are not the same thing, in that being in love and feeling physically ready for sex are not the same thing, and that it is important for girls to know and listen to their own bodies and the signals they are getting about what they want and don't want, as well as their hearts and heads.''

In the United States, she writes that many American parents see their role as "containing and directing, rather than giving full range to, raging hormones''.

They often have rules to contain early sex: no dating before 16 or keeping the door open when girlfriends or boyfriends are visiting.

However, parents are usually stricter with daughters, imposing rules against dating or being alone with boys in a way that parents of sons often don't.

"Given the assumption that when offered the opportunity, teenagers may not be able to control themselves against the forces of their hormonal urges, permitting a sleepover of the kind that is common in Dutch middle-class families strikes many American parents as ludicrous,'' Schalet writes.

Dr Sue Bagshaw, a primary care adolescent and sexual health doctor at 298 Youth Health, Christchurch, thinks it's better if teens stay in the family home with a boyfriend or girlfriend, as long as parents check the relationship is mutually respective.

First, though, parents should talk to their teens, to check their values around sex - what they think the role of sex is in a relationship.

Parents should ask if their teen is having sex if they don't know, and ensure they are using contraception to avoid STIs (sexually transmissible infections) or an unwanted pregnancy.

"Also you want to talk about the emotional effects of a sexual relationship. Friendships change when you add sex into the mix, and casual sex can potentially damage emotions. There is a potential for feeling used.''

Dr Terryann Clark, a sexual health expert at Auckland University, and co-author of the Youth19 project, says there is poor access to sexual healthcare in New Zealand.

"Much of the narrative in teen sex is shaming, blaming and secretive. Young people feel their parental discomfort and hence don't talk about sex and relationships with them. Young people need quality information and shouldn't be shamed when they seek it, and they should get services when they need them.''

"If they can't talk to us about positive sexual experiences, they also won't talk to us about their negative and coercive sexual experiences.

"As a parent, I would rather know and help my children navigate their sexual lives and their relationships.''

* Names have been changed