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ONE MOTHER'S STORY // Dealing with a sexually active teen

I could hardly move when the doctor came into the waiting room and beckoned me to her office.

My heart was pounding. The expression on her face confirmed my suspicion even before the gynecologist spoke the words: "Yes, your daughter is sexually active."

The doctor, whose counsel I had sought with my daughter's permission, asked whether I wanted to start my 16-year-old on birth control. My initial reaction was an adamant "no!" I could hear my mother's counsel; consenting to the pill is just like giving them permission to have sex.

Just as quickly, my response changed to a wimpy "yes," since it was clear she was already having sex.

Then came all the other questions: Why? When? Where? With whom? I wondered if I had failed her as a parent. Was I inattentive to her needs?

After several minutes of self-pounding I reached my conclusion: No, I had not failed at my job. I had been a terrific mother, and I would not allow a choice that she made make me feel otherwise.

I'm a clinical therapist. So I asked myself: What would you tell a client to do in this situation?

My advice would be: Talk to your daughter about her behavior and your feelings about it.

The mother in me realized this was easier said than done.

On the drive home, I asked her why. But before she could say a word, I asked when. She told me it happened in a restroom at school, and it had not been much fun. On one hand I was angry. But I also felt sorry for her, given the pressure that society puts on teens.

At any rate, I had to decide whether to punish her or use this as a teachable moment. I decided on both, with a greater emphasis on the latter.

The punishment part was easy _ no phone, no car, no parties for two weeks. My style, generally, is to let children learn by consequences. So I spent time explaining to her the possible outcomes of sexual activity _ pregnancy, venereal disease and heartache, to name a few. I also talked about how these outcomes could affect the goals she has set for herself.

I expressed my concerns over several weeks and worked logic into regular discussions. She actually seemed relieved to have this line of communication open to ask much-needed questions.

One was, "How old were you when you had sex, and where did you do it?"

"Uncomfortable" doesn't begin to cover what I felt as I told her about my embarrassing past. I realized then, though, how difficult it must have been for her to discuss her sexual experiences with me. Sharing my experience sensitized me to her struggles _ a pivotal point in our relationship.

We now talk openly about the subject, making comments on appropriate and inappropriate behavior when we see it. We discuss news articles and TV shows on the subject, and I must say she appears relieved. I know I am.

My daughter told me lots of kids are having sex and don't know who to go to for answers. Unless they become pregnant, they don't go to their parents.

Over the years as a social worker, I have developed several theories on teen sexuality. As a mother experiencing emotional paralysis, I had no theory on anything.

Since talking to my daughter and starting her on the pill, I have much more insight. A few survival tips may help other parents who suspect their teenage daughter may be sexually active:

Be upset. I give you permission to be angry.

After you calm down, be willing to hear things you are not prepared to know.

Get help with the problem, if needed. If you can't handle this, seek professional counseling or the help of a trusted friend or family member.

Hug your daughter and assure her you are upset with her behavior, but that you still love her.

Let her know this is a difficult subject for you, but you will do your best to listen without being judgmental. Then really do it. The best way to ruin trust is to make an insincere promise.

Discuss the consequences of having sex too soon. Stress the importance maturity plays in the sexual experience.

Don't doubt your effectiveness as a great parent. Peer pressure is stronger than you.

Jenkins is a therapist and freelance writer living in Atlanta.

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