You did what? Coping with youth risk taking
June 15, 2021 3:51 PM   Subscribe

My almost 13 year old, recently made an objectively bad choice with numerous health/safety risks to them and others. I need help coping.

I’m very concerned with their explanation of how they decided to make this bad decision, the ‘why’ of it all. Listening to their answer to ‘how did you know this was a good decision for you’ , was very alarming, as they didn’t have an answer other than they just wanted to do it. They had made this bad decision with limited forethought, and felt ok doing that. They weren’t put on the spot to answer this reflective question mind you, we had been calmly discussing what had happened and sharing adult insights into risks they may not had considered. I believe their answer was sincere, not rushed.

Prior to this incident, I would have described this kid as pretty level headed, bright and considerate. And while I certainly expected there would be some questionable decision making and risk taking along the way to adulthood, I cannot stress enough that this particular decision was shocking given the variables, which were in their control. It would have been less shocking, but still distressing if they were say 16, to give you perspective,

My question isn’t about how to handle the kid (partner is taking the lead and is well equipped), my question is how do I cope with the sudden realization that my kid’s decision making around risk is terrible (perhaps not always, but there is this precedent), and my new fear that they may evolve into a teen that stumbles badly, possibly making life altering bad decisions as they mature? I’m terrified and sad.
posted by walkinginsunshine to Human Relations (41 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In the end, the kid is 13yo. They aren't equipped yet to make perfect decisions. They are going to fuck up. I'm sure that's not reassuring to your feelings right now, but you have to give your children the room to screw up and learn from those mistakes. It sounds good that you were able to talk them about this in an "adult" way after the fact, and hopefully they identified their poor behavior and maybe learned a little from it?
posted by kuanes at 4:01 PM on June 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds like a perfect description of the young adolescent mind to me. The part of the brain that foresees consequences and weighs decisions against them — the "executive function" part — actually worsens as children approach 13, which is thankfully the nadir. You see a sociopath, or at least someone who is vacant in decision-making faculties; having taught this age, I just see absolutely typical cognition for the age. And yes, they can have this consequential ineptitude and also be level-headed, bright and considerate.

I would suggest reading about the adolescent brain to understand this, to help mitigate the risk, and to help yourself get through what can often be a hair-raising few years.

And for the record, you say you would be less shocked if he were 16. I would be more shocked. By 16 they are starting to recover from their vacancy.
posted by argybarg at 4:02 PM on June 15, 2021 [84 favorites]

I mean, your kid is a human child. Their brain has 10 more years of maturation before they're capable of what you're expecting. It seems like you have decided that you did a bad job as a parent when you're not even half way done yet. Not to mention many people *never* learn how to properly evaluate risk at all. Thinking about risk is a bonus skill we get by working on it in situations like this one, it's not built in or guaranteed.
posted by bleep at 4:03 PM on June 15, 2021 [13 favorites]

How your kid is now is not an indicator of how your kid is going to end up. Kids fuck up.
Be glad (I’m sure you are) that things turned out okay. It will be a long time before you trust this child again, but that day will come.
posted by SLC Mom at 4:14 PM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

As a teenager, I always thought, "How cool will this be when it goes perfectly?!" and now I'm old and I've learned to think, "How badly can this go wrong if it goes much worse than perfectly?"

Teach a kid to see what can go wrong, and how to figure out how to mitigate the major risks (death, traumatic brain injury, pregnancy, STD, jail, sex criminal registry, angry wasps) or at least find out the risk and see if they think a TBI or an angry wasp attack is worth however awesome this is going to be.

Also, look at the people around you and realize the degree to which they're all doing the same stupid things, guided by their guts instead of reason. It's a human thing; avoid the catastrophes and the rest will likely sort itself out as the kid gains experience with making mistakes. Let them feel the impact of mistakes and failures, not on the "I'm punishing you because you failed/screwed up," kinda way, but the "you're where you are because of your mistake, now you just need to figure out where you go from here," kinda way. Failure is usually cheap at that age, so encourage learning from failure, a skill so many people never learn.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:15 PM on June 15, 2021 [12 favorites]

Oh good grief, this is how the brains of children work. It just is. I thought you were gonna come in and say something like an actual reason that was extremely problematic or something. But lacking forethought? Just wanting to do something and going ahead and doing it without their prefrontal cortex getting in the way? Congrats, you have a kid.

It's not your kid's fault their brain isn't developed. There should be consequences for poor behavioral choices and actions, that's good parenting. But your child isn't ruined or defective. They're just 13.

If teenaged brains were better at understanding risks we wouldn't have x sports or people to go fight our wars for us.
posted by phunniemee at 4:18 PM on June 15, 2021 [30 favorites]

The prefrontal cortex of a sub-adult is simply not capable of the kind of risk-assessment and decision-making adults have. Like yes there are parenting things that need to be done to help and guide and provide harm-reduction but he's literally not capable of making great choices all the time or every time.

One of the ways you can feel better about this is learning more about child and adolescent brain development, and then formulating some plans with all the parents involved AND the tween to build a more robust support ladder so the kid gets lots and lots of opportunities to fail safely (he HAS to, it is the only way to learn or else he will be an overcautious anxious adult who cannot handle any sort of risk confrontation), to practice hypothetical decision-making with risk analysis, and understands how to activate his support system when challenged with tougher calls. A human learns how to control their impulses, they don't come with that software pre-installed.

All kids get all kinds of opportunities to ruin their lives and do some really gobsmackingly bad shit. You have just encountered your first big disappointment that he's not somehow a fully grown adult in a subcompact body. This is a growth opportunity for you both - a necessary one that was unavoidable and will be unavoidable again probably really soon and repeatedly.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:28 PM on June 15, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I think it's worth remembering that 13 year olds aren't just bad with consequences, they're bad with valence - "what if I sneaked out of school early and got ice cream nearby" and "what if I did this thing that is actually technically a felony because it sounds exciting" feel about the same. It's not that they are unusually reckless about very dangerous things; it's that the danger of parents and teachers being mad about getting the ice cream feels about the same as the danger of parents and teachers being mad about anything else.

Also, IME, kids who have been brought up in safe, loving environments sometimes need some actual, repeated, documented information about how brutal the state is and how far you can fall. A kid who has been treated fairly and is maybe a bit sheltered doesn't expect, eg, the prison industrial complex. This isn't a failure of parenting - no kid should have to expect the prison industrial complex and if a kid gets to thirteen without that looming dread, well, that's good. It just means that now is the time for more education on that front.
posted by Frowner at 4:29 PM on June 15, 2021 [52 favorites]

Man I wish you’d told us what this was, because the extremely vague description could be anything from “forgetting to wear a mask indoors at a friend’s house” to “smoking weed” to “joyriding in a stolen car.”
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:29 PM on June 15, 2021 [53 favorites]

So the “health risks” framing and the 13/16 distinction make me think that this is either a sex issue or a weed/drinking issue. And either of those things make me think that there’s probably a fair degree of peer pressure involved. (Which is probably still true even if it’s not one of those things, actually.) The problem with that is that you don’t just have to worry about your kid; you have to worry about their friends, too, which is something you have even less control over. I’m often grateful for how responsible my peers were when I was 13. There are things you can do about this, but in terms of coming to terms with their decision-making, it might be helpful to think that it’s probably just not your kid being dumb; it might be that they’re gullible
posted by kevinbelt at 4:32 PM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

how do I cope with the sudden realization that my kid’s decision making around risk is terrible (perhaps not always, but there is this precedent), and my new fear that they may evolve into a teen that stumbles badly, possibly making life altering bad decisions as they mature?

I'm just going to focus on the coping part. There are a few things you can do for yourself here. One is to breathe, do some centring, etc. and/or expend some energy with some dancing, working out, etc. You've had a shock to your sense of safety and it's okay to acknowledge that. You could watch a comedy or something like that.

Then it's time for a bit of self-talk. Our children are not wrapped in cotton wool and there are some things we can save them from (for example, vaccines for things) and some things we can't (a world without drugs in it.) Your child is the same person they were yesterday and the risks are lower than yesterday on this vector, because now you personally have a better idea of what's possible.

Where you are right now is a better place, because your view is more correctly in line with everything we know about adolescents and their brains/emotions/choices.

Finally, for your child, you can address the question of risk and reward and all that more head on (but gently and not like, in a flurry of drama.) Some things that can help kids with awareness of certain things: First Aid or Lifeguard training, good self-defence training like IMPACT/Wen do, activities that teach split-second decision-making like sailing, etc. These will not change their brain - this is again a bit more about your feelings than changing reality. But it may provide them with some checklists and things, and you'll know you're taking some actions.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:40 PM on June 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

You have been deliberately vague about their choice, which is okay, but the fact that you say it would have been less shocking if they were older (and not more, which is what I would expect re: risky behavior) makes me wonder if their choice was specifically social or sexual in nature.

I bring this up because while the “they just wanted to” explanation is still very likely, I also think a choice that involves friends or sex is one they might feel an extra dose of shame or fear about discussing with you. It’s possible their decision-making was more involved than they’re telling you, even though they still made a choice you think is risky/wrong.

FWIW, I definitely gave similar “I just did” explanations for bad choices that I actually spent weeks agonizing over before I made them. It was just that I knew my parents wouldn’t respect it if I said that, eg, I chose to give in to peer pressure because I wanted my friends to like me, and it felt worth the risk. And, I mean, my parents would have been right, objectively , but I didn’t want to have the conversation when I knew what they would say, and it just seemed easier to make them amorphously mad & frustrated than specifically mad & frustrated.

It’s obviously not an approach I would advocate, and I can see how it could throw you as a parent for a major loop. But… it’s what I did. And I think lots of perspectives might help you get a better handle on what could be happening in a Kid Brain.

One last thing: please remember that one bad choice is not “precedent,” or an indicator that your child’s decision-making abilities will not mature. It sounds like you did the right thing by having a long and thoughtful discussion about their choice, and even if you never fully understand the inside of their brain, it’s likely that the next time they’re faced with a risky choice they’re going to remember this moment.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 4:43 PM on June 15, 2021 [23 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your input. I didn’t want to be specific for fear of answers/feedback about what happened vs. how to cope, which is what I’m after.

But, alas. He had sex with his girlfriend of one month. It was consensual. None of his friends are having sex. The social ramifications, if any, are yet to be fully realized.
posted by walkinginsunshine at 4:48 PM on June 15, 2021

Oh, and I meant to add: it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to make my parents mad—it was also, specifically, that I was ashamed of my choice to give into peer pressure, and I didn’t want to own up to that. I would rather my parents think I was “dumb” than “weak,” which is how I already felt in my own head. I think it’s possible that compassion for them, rather than fear and disrespect, might help you both recover from this moment.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 4:51 PM on June 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

A human has just no way of knowing that sex is anything other than very, very good until someone tells them. You just have to let yourself off the hook for being a human with a human child.
posted by bleep at 4:54 PM on June 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

First, a reminder that how you handle this will shape him in fundamental ways. I’m married to man in his 30s who is still unpacking the incredible amount of baggage and shame his loving, liberal, otherwise wonderful mom instilled in him about sex.

Sex is fun and beautiful and a healthy normal way to experience joy and pleasure and connection. And there are very good reasons to wait until you are a bit older to do it, and very real risks that have to be managed (I’m assuming they didn’t use a condom or else you would probably be less upset). Honestly, 12 year olds have been having sex or exploring sex for...millennia. This isn’t actually THAT crazy. Historically up until very recently we have put the burden on teenage girls to control pre-marital sex by “fending off” their overeager boyfriends. We’ve rightfully tried to release girls from that burden and empower them to want and enjoy sex, too, and it’s a little messy as a society as we figure out how things develop from here (add in porn and you’ve got a pretty tangled knot of influences on kids coming of age today).

All that’s to say, your son isn’t a crazy risk taker who is a bad decisionmaker. He is a pubescent boy who happened to be fooling around with a girl who was into it instead of managing both of their libidos to stop (which used to be the presumed normal way of things).
posted by amaire at 5:10 PM on June 15, 2021 [60 favorites]

how do I cope with the sudden realization that my kid’s decision making around risk is terrible (perhaps not always, but there is this precedent), and my new fear that they may evolve into a teen that stumbles badly, possibly making life altering bad decisions as they mature? I’m terrified and sad.

I think the fact that your son is willing to have calm discussions with you and your partner is a great sign—that you have a strong bond, and that he trusts you. This is the best possible setup for a teen who makes better decisions.

What you don’t want is a kid who senses they should feel shame around sex (rather than that it’s a healthy and normal desire that is generally better if you’re older, because it comes with a lot of responsibility and things to consider), or that they should hide stuff from you. Those are the conditions that can lead to really bad decisions later on.

But yeah, this is where your kid is, developmentally. 13 year old brains just are not good at weighing risk. They get better at it as they age, and you can help them develop those skills, but please don’t feel like your kid is a major outlier or somehow doomed to be a bad decision maker from now on.

Gently, from one catastrophizer to another: you’re catastrophizing. It may help you to talk to a counsellor—they’ve seen it all and can probably offer some perspective and coping techniques.

Good luck. You and your partner sound like good parents, and it sounds like you have a good kid.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:14 PM on June 15, 2021 [21 favorites]

Oh dear. You are definitely catastrophizing. Your kiddo having consensual sex with his girlfriend is probably one of the least bad things I can think of, if they used a condom or otherwise had access to birth control. I know he's young, but some kids do start having sex around this age. Teenagers are also sexual beings. In the realm of bad decisions, I'd put this firmly in not-so-bad! If they didn't use birth control, then it's time for serious, frank, mature discussions about reproduction, reproductive health, and birth control, and it's time to buy him some condoms.

Why do you have sex when you do? Because you want to, and you have a consensual partner. I think the shift here is thinking of your child in a new way, because perhaps you think of adults as being sexually active.

I think there's a lot to unpack here, but maybe it's a bit more also about your feelings about sex and shame and your kid's sexuality, and not as much about why your kid made this decision. I think you have some ideas that kids who had sex early are bad kids who make poor choices. Was there a lot of slut-shaming in your community when you were young? A suggestion that kids who had sex were bad?

This is going to be okay. The important thing is to make sure your kid has knowledge of consent, birth control, and STIs, and access to condoms. And it's important to make sure you don't shame your child about doing something that is quite literally natural.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:21 PM on June 15, 2021 [12 favorites]

Uh, some of us had sex at 13 and didn't grow up horribly damaged as a result. I'm not saying you're wrong to think that 13 is too young, just that having consensual sex at 13 isn't so unusual and it doesn't inevitably lead to doom and disaster. Now, if it was unprotected sex, that's another matter.

You can insist that the kid waits until he's older, you can threaten and punish and set strict curfews and all kinds of things, but... honestly? Once a kid has had sex, they're probably going to find ways to keep doing it no matter how much you don't want them to. What you can do here is impress upon him the absolute necessity of consent, using protection, etc. And try not to panic. I can understand why this might be alarming for a parent, but your kid's behavior is not far outside the norm.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:22 PM on June 15, 2021 [11 favorites]

None of his friends are having sex.

Also! I don't see how you can possibly know this. This might be what the friends say; this might be what your son tells you. How on earth could you know this? Maybe they are, but they are also experiencing some shame and aren't talking about it.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:22 PM on June 15, 2021 [15 favorites]

Kids make bad decisions because they're kids. I did some similar stuff that really freaked out my parents at that age, and I really wish that they had gone to therapy to talk about their fears about me. I was being a teen (and in doing so I was playing with that relationship between childhood and adulthood and really wanting to be an adult, prematurely) and the ways that they reacted to that weren't great for me. I think a therapist for them would have helped my situation. For me and my parents it was not about my specific decisions as much as it was about their fears that I was aging, that I would become a bad person, that they would lose control over me, and that I would not be capable of taking care of myself as an adult. It was really more about them than it was about me. This may or may not resonate; it is just my perspective from my own experience.
posted by twelve cent archie at 5:29 PM on June 15, 2021 [7 favorites]

If it reassures you at all, that he answered with "I just wanted to do it" is not evidence that he is terrible at decision-making. Sex is a hard enough thing to talk about, and our own motivations/desires around sex harder to talk about still. And I don't mean "hard to talk about" in the sense of "it's awkward to talk about it with mom & dad," but really in the sense that it's hard to find the right words for it, at the level of language itself. Being able to talk about these psychological aspects of sex is a skill that is developed over time (if we're lucky), and it's not one that any 13 year old I've ever met is much good at. So really, when anyone is asked to answer a question that they're not able to give a good answer for, they'll come up with the best and closest thing they're linguistically capable of mustering, which in your son's case, turned out to be "I just wanted to do it."
posted by obliterati at 5:37 PM on June 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

If you found out about this because he came to YOU you’re already doing better than most parents.
posted by tristeza at 5:40 PM on June 15, 2021 [54 favorites]

Oh wow, he just had sex? I mean, it does sound young but…if he didn’t use birth control/condom for disease protection that’s concerning but…are you sure your feelings are about risk here? Like what could possibly be the social ramifications? Also I’m 50 and not having babies so “just wanted to” is my reason?
posted by warriorqueen at 5:42 PM on June 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't know that kids really have the capacity to understand the seriousness of that particular decision-making situation. They don't have enough life experience anywhere in that arena to believe anything they're told. There's a lot of other things you can extrapolate back to some kind of age-appropriate analog but this simply does not track. I don't blame you for being absolutely thrown, knowing what you know as an adult.

But that's also why twelve isn't old enough to consent. You can't say "X made a bad decision what if he's just crap at it" when it isn't a decision twelve year olds should have an opportunity to make in the first place.

I'm glad it's worked out for some people, but I've known a number of men who had some experience of sexual activity as a tween or young teen in a generation when that was not considered sexual trauma and at best was winkingly a "no-no", and they were fucked up by it even if it was more or less same-age and "consensual". (I would say a number of men I know who had some shit to overcome did not actually engage in sex but were exposed to distressing pornography or locker room talk or other people's behavior or similar, when they were not mature enough to handle it. A few experienced actual predation. But for some of them it was "just" same-age relatively unscathed sexual activity that they simply were not emotionally capable of handling, which did a lot of internal damage first and then they reached an age where it started affecting their relationships.) But they were "supposed" to be super cool with because it's just sex amirite no big deal, so there was no support and no help until they'd carried that baggage sometimes into their 30s or 40s.

I'm concerned that you have observed the same thing and what you're actually afraid of is the life trajectory of someone who experienced sexual trauma as a child and, unsupported, acts out in various ways that often invite additional bad decisions in an escalating manner. This feels like an especially difficult genie to put back in the bottle, right?

I don't think any of that is inevitable, but I do think this is a red flag that you guys have some bigger parenting challenges that you need to meet more fully that you've been prepared to, and luckily there's lots of child development specialists and psychologists and social workers who can help you with that. I don't think you're completely wrong to be concerned about his decision-making and impulse-control mechanisms in the shorter term, but I think it's more that you need more help to help him with those, and to know when and how to be the boundaries when you know he's not able.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:47 PM on June 15, 2021 [27 favorites]

I did adjacent things and my reason if asked would probably have been the same or "I just felt like it." I definitely wouldn't have told or talked about it with my parents though so your kids got that improvement over me.
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 5:48 PM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Talk to him again and again about contraception, consent, sex as a mutual activity, and more. Buy books and get flyers, leave them available, make sure he knows they're available. 13 is young for sex, not too young for it to be safe sex. I made condoms available for my son, talked a lot about how I didn't approve of sex at a young age, but that his/their health and not making an unplanned baby are really important. Talk about how nude selfies can be considered child porn and Just Don't. And lots of talk about mutual respect. Talk about how some people are gay, bi, trans, and that sexuality and its expression require thoughtfulness on their part. And I think it's a good idea to be sex-positive; the sex ed messaging can be weird about it.

Kids have sex because they have desire and opportunity, because sex is an extraordinary drive, and 13 year olds may not have a lot of impulse control. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 6:01 PM on June 15, 2021 [8 favorites]

There's actually some interesting reading you can do about how teenagers really CAN'T use their brain to consider the long term consequences of their actions because that part of their brain isn't fully developed yet. I'm pretty sure I read about this in a book (The Brain that Changes Itself?), but this article pretty much covers it.

So, part of the coping can just be understanding that these kinds of decisions that don't seem well thought out (to our adult brains) are a phase of development, and not your kid being particularly any more risky and reckless than evolution has made us all.

It may help to look back on some of your own teenage decisions that weren't made with your prefrontal cortex and remember that we all went through this development, even if it manifested in different decisions (one of my friends STOLE A CAR). While I didn't have penetrative sex for a couple more years (the only kind of sex that counted as sex in my school) I and lots of other 13 year olds were engaged in sexual acts when I was that age! And we were existing in a real soup of slut-shaming in the early 00s.. so it doesn't seem that bizarre to me that someone who is growing up in a less virginity-obsessed generation would have sex at that age.
posted by euphoria066 at 6:03 PM on June 15, 2021 [7 favorites]

I spend most of my time with teenagers, many of them your son’s age, and I can tell you that while indeed they are not the best at evaluating risk, this generation is, as others have pointed out, thinking about sex and sexuality in a more enlightened way than those before them. I don’t think simply having sex is indicative of a problem, assuming protection is involved.

The way you make sure there isn’t life long trauma over sex is to approach this from a sex positive perspective, full stop. Sex is fun! Which is why we “just want to”. The important thing is to teach him about consent, safe sex, sexuality and gender, etc, as others have said more eloquently.

But your question is about coping so here’s my advice there; while we look at a 13 year old and see a “kid,” they think of themselves as fully formed mini adults. Think back to yourself at that age and try to reinhabit the mindset; if you happen to have old journals that’s a huge help! I would also recommend reading some contemporary YA lit; I mostly read queer YA, and would recommend Jack of Hearts and Other Parts; while the main character is gay, it talks about the sex lives of teens of all sorts of stripes. Instead of thinking about the terrible thing that has happened, think of this as an opportunity to understand who your son is now and how to meet him there.
posted by nancynickerson at 6:25 PM on June 15, 2021 [18 favorites]

Ack, missed the edit window, but this feels important: out of all the students I’ve had, the single thing that seems to determine how open they are with their parents is whether or not they think they’ll “get in trouble” for whatever it is they are doing/whomever they are. And it’s kind of heartbreaking to see the feelings of not belonging and shame for the kids who don’t feel they have that support. Best case scenario they glom onto a favorite teacher or coach (and we do our best, but we can’t replace a parent) worst case scenario they have no adult interaction and do their own thing which really leads to dangerous risks. It sounds like your kid came to you on their own to share this, which makes me think you fall into the former category, and if that’s right then know that that mitigates the scary “omg now they’re going to make terrible decisions for years” fear you’re battling.
posted by nancynickerson at 6:37 PM on June 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

Definitely catastrophizing.

It isn't that it isn't a big deal, but I think if it's approached with an OMG PUNITIVE tone .. it literally may backfire into encouraging the behavior. I think if the tone is dialed down just slightly, you'll be right on point.

Anecdotes above regarding men and late onset trauma would be valuable to relay, likely the crux of why it's not chill.

The winkwink phase of dudes and sex misappropriation should die, in nearly whatever form it takes.

I'd have a candid discussion giving this (young) person the integrity of an adult, and probably a, "hey, even I didn't hook up with new girlfriends/partners super early, here's why.."

13 is young, but of the possibilities, this could be pivoted into a valuable or informative experience. Good luck and relax, if you can!
posted by firstdaffodils at 7:00 PM on June 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

You're definitely catastrophizing, but if you're looking for more general help on how to cope with teenagers/young adults and their complete lack of forethought, The Teenage Brain gives an excellent explanation of how teenage brains work on a neurological level, along with some tips for managing it. I read it when I was working on an adolescent psych unit but it's a really insightful read in general if you have to spend any extended time with teenagers.
posted by Amy93 at 8:00 PM on June 15, 2021

Hey, congrats on being good parents who could actually talk about this. I would likely have been beaten, sent to military school and/or disowned.
posted by scruss at 8:02 PM on June 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

You're talking about him as if he is 16, not 12. This isn't so much a decision he made as a surprising/worrisome thing that has happened. Twelve is a developmentally unusual age to be having intercourse. Are you sure that's even what happened? (And, um, how are you sure?) I'd be more concerned about how he is in a context that is sexualized enough that he has the interest/inclination/opportunity/know-how to have this occur with another kid his own age. What are his internet habits like? Is he watching porn? How did he get access to that, if so, and how much? Has he been sexually abused? Has his girlfriend been sexually abused? What is their relationship like, and what/when/where have they been doing sexual things before? Has he been sexual with other kids before? (Kids don't start with intercourse.) Was there any planning or communication (e.g. buying condoms or planning for parents to be gone) or did this just happen? Whose idea was it?

I think your worry is appropriate, but maybe misplaced. He didn't make a bad decision, he had an experience that isn't developmentally appropriate happen. I'd focus on why it happened and look for red flags there, not focus on "bad decisions."
posted by shadygrove at 8:46 PM on June 15, 2021 [9 favorites]

What theora55 said is the correct approach, in my view. There is no putting that particular genie back in that particular bottle. It's out now, and all you can do is be careful about what it hears you wish for.
posted by flabdablet at 9:04 PM on June 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

It seems like what you’re actually reckoning with is the fact that your child is now capable of sexual desire.

This wasn’t a coolly calculated risk where they showed profound carelessness; it was (if protected) a relatively safe, natural desire. I agree there is some risk, including the emotional, and you are free to handle that as you wish, but “I wanted to” is just about the only reason to have sex. What else were they supposed to say? “I was trying to piss everyone off”?

If they’re not using protection, then they’re missing the risk management piece. But having sex early didn’t make them sexual, they were already feeling sexual feelings, and most people don’t behave rationally under the fog of desire.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:38 AM on June 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Reminder: the question here is not asking for consensus on how worrisome the child's act is or isn't, but how OP can best cope with their new understanding that he is capable of unexpectedly risky or impulsive decision making of at least a fairly significant degree. This doesn't mean you need to ignore the context, but please use it to inform your answer to the actual question. Thank you!
posted by taz (staff) at 5:00 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Well, just because someone can reach the pedals at 13 doesn't mean they should drive. It probably isn't the end of the world that he did some experimenting, but I think some family counseling to help him understand why certain behaviors are best deferred until a person is older, and to help you come to terms with what occurred and help you guide him going forward, would be in order.
p.s. As my old auntie always said, "Little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems."
posted by SageTrail at 7:13 AM on June 16, 2021

If personal perspective helps anything, I was seen as a (boringly, for my classmates) considerate and foresighted kid who, because of this trait, simply didn't enjoy taking risks very much. The problem at that age is (as per the brain development explanations by others above) that one can experience dropouts; things one did that one cannot possibly explain even to oneself afterwards, and that do not mesh with one's own self image (which in itself tends to be a bit wobbly at 13); things one said without ever really intending to say them (nor believing in them); that kind of stuff.
You seem to be worried that you're looking at the beginning of a tendency, the first signs of an actual across-the-board loss of level-headedness, brightness and considerateness (is that a word?). You very likely aren't. This seems to be an example of what one would call some systemic inconsistency at that age, or maybe: misfirings of an otherwise functional engine. But if you keep talking to the kid like a real person, you're more likely to help keeping the ship as level as possible.

[yeah and I would definitely take a calm moment to talk to them about sex safety and enjoyment, instincts and partner-mindedness now the bottle has been opened]
posted by Namlit at 7:22 AM on June 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

One way of coping: reconsidering your own ideas about risk. Your child's beliefs about the actual risks of sex at their age might not be less rational than your own. A difficult thing we parents need to do as our kids develop more autonomy is learn that they WILL have different ideas than us, and while it can feel like their choices are "wrong" because they are not the ones we would make, that doesn't necessarily mean they are particularly bad. They have different worldviews and learning to accept that they will make different choices and, yes, make mistakes (just as we all did!) will help you a lot.
posted by metasarah at 9:12 AM on June 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another thing to do: Find out from your son what he thinks "normal" is among his peers and make sure that he's able to evaluate peer info realistically. I recently had an interaction with a 13 year old who was convinced that he was the only person in his eighth grade class who had not had sex - he assumed that the other kids were all telling the truth, that the reason they used "virgin" as an insult was that literally all of them had already had sex and that a friend of his had sex with a bunch of girls already, halfway through his eighth grade year. He did not think they could possibly be lying, insecure, etc; he thought that he alone was behind on this standard developmental milestone.

A kid who really believes that all his peers are having sex is going to think "this isn't risky, it's a normal thing that everyone my age is doing". If he is a particularly truthful or trusting boy, he may be making decisions about sex based on the facts and risks as he knows them with the only problem being that his facts are wrong. Adults make decisions based on what seems safe and normal for peers, it's just that we develop better methods of assessing what our peers are doing and what the outcomes are likely to be.
posted by Frowner at 11:50 AM on June 16, 2021 [9 favorites]

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