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Birds & Bees

In the Event of Children Interruptus, Stay Calm

June 10, 2002|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was a sweltering afternoon. The kids were in the backyard engrossed in play. Inside, the parents exchanged knowing glances and dashed to the bedroom.

They closed the door, stripped naked and stretched out on the bed next to each other. Just as they were starting to caress and kiss, the still air was shattered by the voice of their 6-year-old blasting in. "Here's the mail!" their daughter announced with the neighbor girl in tow.

"I rolled off the bed onto the floor and hid on my knees while my husband threw on his robe that was beside the bed," recalled the woman, who said that she and her husband each assumed the other had locked the door. "He took the mail, said calmly, 'OK you guys, go outside and play now' and went into the bathroom."

The couple, who asked for anonymity, weren't sure what had registered with the girls.

"The most embarrassing thing was, I had to call my neighbor and tell her what had happened, just in case her daughter, who was 7, said anything," recounted the woman. "I thought, oh my God, what did they see?"

That was six years ago, and the woman, now 42, said her daughter never asked questions afterward, and she doesn't know if her neighbor's daughter ever did. "I never heard, and I wasn't going to ask," she said.

It happens. Children accidentally intrude upon parents while they are being physically intimate. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but in a poll conducted by www.wholefamily.com, 50% of parents who participated claimed that a child had stumbled in during the sex act, or at least while they were trying to get into the act. Human sexuality educators and psychologists advise parents to buy a lock for their bedroom door and teach their children that a locked or closed door means they want privacy. But even locks don't always prevent children interruptus. So parents would do themselves a favor, the experts said, by thinking in advance about how they want to deal with a child walking in on them mid-sex.

"Parents should remain calm, not overreact and keep their wits about them," said Deborah M. Roffman, who has been a human sexuality educator for 30 years in the Baltimore area and is the author of "But How'd I Get in There in the First Place? Talking to a Young Child About Sex" (Perseus, 2002). "How they respond determines how the child will respond and whether or not the experience will be traumatizing."

Obviously, most parents are shocked and embarrassed when they roll over, basking in the afterglow of lovemaking, to see that their 3-year-old has been standing there wide-eyed for who knows how long. Many parents fear that a child witnessing parental lovemaking, something Freud called "the Primal Scene," will become sexually aroused or permanently confused. Not so, say psychologists, who add that a single incident is not harmful or damaging. Indeed, many of the world's children sleep in the same room with their parents (75% by one estimate), observing parental lovemaking throughout childhood without damaging their adult development, writes human sexuality educator Debra Haffner, author of "From Diapers to Dating: A Parents' Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children," (Newmarket Press, 2000).

Like Roffman, Beverly Palmer, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, urges parents to stay cool when a child intrudes. "If your embarrassment is all that the child takes away, then that is a problem because the child associates what the parents were doing with something that is not OK," said Palmer, a clinical psychologist who has a practice in Torrance specializing in sexuality.

Parents should first take a deep breath and gently ask the child to leave the room (yelling "Get outta here," for example, would be a bad move). Assure the child that one or the other parent will come to talk to them in a minute. Start by asking the child: "What did you see? What were you thinking about? Is there something you want to talk about?" If children are not forthcoming, said Roffman, parents shouldn't pressure them but assure them that they are available for questions anytime.

"The child may be very confused, scared or curious and might even think that someone was hurting someone," said Roffman. "If the child doesn't know anything at this point, [try] a simple statement like, 'You may have been surprised by what you saw because you didn't know that adults like mom and dad enjoy each other's bodies by kissing and touching.' "

Children may ask why their parents were naked. "You can say Mom and Dad were naked because we enjoy holding each other's bodies and hugging and kissing because it is warm and cozy," said Roffman.

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