Ask Allison: I found a sex toy in my teen’s bedroom. What should I do?

Dear Allison: Help! I found a sex toy in my teen’s room, and I’m at a total loss about what to do about it. Do I talk to her? Ignore it? I feel totally unprepared for this!

OK, first of all, take a deep breath. Before I get to the expert advice, I did want to share my philosophy on sex as it relates to teens, just in case any readers have more sex-related questions in the future and so you know where I am coming from.

I’ve long subscribed to the theory that since just about every human on the planet will have sex and does have sex, we need to work hard as parents to remove shame from the narrative. Having sex — or anything that goes along with it — is genuinely part of being human, and it pains me to think of how many people, often girls and women, believe there is something dirty or wrong with what is an absolutely normal part of adult life. So as a parent, I’ve worked hard to foster an open dialogue and positive conversations about sex with my two teens (even when they sometimes don’t want to, or sometimes even when I’m a little bit uncomfortable), and I’ve also worked hard to remove any sort of shame and stigma from those dialogues, as it’s my belief that shame is also something that is taught, not something innate.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t encourage thoughtful and careful and safe sexual experiences — in fact, I think we certainly should — but I’d never want my kids to be embarrassed about sex or their bodies or anything that goes along with those experiences. I thought this was important to state both for this answer, and for any future questions from readers that may arise.

With that out of the way, I reached out to author and sex educator Logan Levkoff for some advice on how to help you. “There are two different strategies on how to handle this, because it really depends on where and how you found the sex toy,” Levkoff, who has a Ph.D. in human sexuality, marriage and family life education, says. “There’s a difference between snooping through their stuff, which means that this toy wasn’t yours to find in the first place, or if they left it out somewhere for you to see. If it’s been left in the open, you have an opportunity to say to your child, ‘You are absolutely entitled to a personal pleasurable life but we all live here. I want to be able to respect your personal space, so please don’t leave it out for others to find.’”

Author and mom of teens Allison Winn Scotch. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kat Tuohy)

Author and mom of teens Allison Winn Scotch. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Kat Tuohy)

Levkoff raises an excellent point about privacy and respect, something all parents of teens are learning to navigate as we go. While you didn’t specify in your question where you found the toy, Levkoff notes that if you were sniffing around your child’s room or looking through a drawer, discovering the toy really wouldn’t be much different than reading their diary: It wasn’t meant for you, and you need to leave it alone.

“We don’t want to embarrass our kids, and truth be told, if a teenage girl has a vibrator and understands pleasure and it’s important to her, that’s not a bad thing,” she says. Should you discuss it? It depends, Levkoff says. “I think the reality is everyone knows their own kids, and if you have a kid who will be so humiliated with this interaction or discussion with you, then you don’t have to explain that you found it,” she says.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t discuss it with your teen. If you plan to, find a way that would work with your teen and wouldn’t send them running to their room with their hands over their ears. Nothing may be more cringey for your child than a sit-down to discuss sex, so Levkoff advises finding moments that will connect with your child. “There are opportunities for conversations in general about the importance of pleasure. Maybe it’s a TV commercial or a show you’re watching together, or a song you’re listening to,” she notes.

In essence, you don’t have to say, “Um, hey, so I found your vibrator, do you want to talk about it?” — because your child almost definitely does not. But you can still have value-based conversations about sex without your kid wanting to crawl under the covers and play white noise until you leave them alone. In fact, it’s important to discuss consent and birth control and alcohol and all the other things that can help them make smart decisions when the time comes. Finding a vibrator doesn’t have to be the focus of the discussion, but perhaps it’s a catalyst for other topics.

Finally, Levkoff points out that if your reaction to finding this toy is strongly negative, it’s important that you ask yourself why that may be the case before addressing it with your teen. “Ask yourself: ‘Am I envious that they know what to do with their bodies already? Do I think there’s something wrong with it?’” she suggests. Which leads me back to my original point about shame and it being our obligation to raise children with a healthy mindset about their bodies. If your reaction to finding this toy — regardless of whether or not it was left out in the open or if you found it snooping — is one of disapproval, sit with those feelings and ask yourself some hard questions before you pass that disapproval along to your child.

It can be tough watching our kids get older and making adult choices and having adult experiences. I totally get that and don’t want to dismiss it in any way. But ultimately, our job as parents is to send them out into the world as healthy individuals. They’re going to have sex lives at some point; that is a fact. By all means, discuss your values around sex and how you hope our kids will treat others and how others will treat them, for example. But as far as our own baggage, if we have any, let’s be sure not to pass that along. Establish trust and leave room for an open dialogue with your teen. That’s really the best solution in just about any circumstance — sex toys and beyond.

About Ask Allison: Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of nine novels. Her 10th book, Take Two, Birdie Maxwell, will be released March 5th, 2024. She lives in Los Angeles with her family — including two teens. Need more help demystifying the experience of parenting your own teens? Email Allison at [email protected] with your question, and it may inspire a future column.