Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad and have been going out with a wonderful woman for quite a while. She sometimes spends the night, but last time, my 8-year-old daughter walked in on us while we were making love. I don’t think she was there very long, but she was crying and seemed frightened by the whole thing, and my girlfriend didn’t take it too well either. What should I do? Did I just scar my daughter for life?
A: Ah, yes, the joys of single-parent dating. Bedtime stories are done, the kids are asleep, you and your lover slowly make your way from your candle-lit dinner to the bedroom for a little adult time—clothing optional. Things are going marvelously, wonderfully, delightfully… Then, out the corner of your eye, you see a teddy bear in your doorway—and it’s attached to your child. What a way to ruin the mood.
Chances are you haven’t done any long-term damage to your daughter. But in situations like these, it’s important to respond right away—even if you’re convinced that she wasn’t watching for very long. Young kids can be confused by entangled, naked bodies and the accompanying sound effects, and may worry that mom or dad (or both) are fighting and are hurting each other. Here’s what you should do:
- Stay calm. Yelling at a child to “get out of here!” could frighten her even more and convince her that you were doing something bad.
- Don’t let her go away alone. If she runs away on her own, go after her. If not, take her by the hand and lead her back to her bed. Then, sit with her and reassure her that you weren’t being hurt or hurting anyone else. If you think she’s mature enough to understand, tell her that adults sometimes express their love for each other that way. But don’t be surprised if you get a sarcastic snort. Even very young children have seen a lot more than we had back in the day and they usually know a lot more about things than we give them credit for. If she asks for a more sophisticated explanation, give her one, complete with the proper names for the organs involved. But don’t go overboard.
- No apologies (unless you screamed at your child). Your child may have gotten the message earlier than you would have liked, but she needs to know that sex is a normal thing that grown-ups sometimes do. If you act embarrassed or ashamed (and you very well may be), your child could end up with the idea that sex is, well, something to be embarrassed and ashamed of. If you want your child to have a health attitude about sex as she gets older, that’s exactly the wrong message.
- Talk to the other adult involved. Making sure your child is okay comes first. Once that situation is resolved, you need to check in with your girlfriend. If she’s thrown her clothes on and is slipping out the back door, don’t let her go—you guys need to have a chat. Yes, getting caught in the act can be disconcerting, but it shouldn’t affect your relationship. Although it might make her think twice before agreeing to sleep over at your house ever again.
- Use protection. No, not that kind. Your choice of birth control is your own business. The protection I’m talking about is called a lock: install one or make better use of the one you already have.