I’ve watched parents raise children for 30 years (and raised four of my own), so I know how challenging it can be.

Here, I share a question that came to me as a pediatrician, as well as my answer to this parent. I hope that this will be helpful for other parents who may be experiencing the same issue.

Dear Dr. Meg,
I have an 18-year-old daughter involved in unhealthy relationships. She feels that she must have a boyfriend. She has been involved with different guys in a short period of time. She does sexual things with these guys, including oral, fingering, and a number of other things. She seems to think love is sex and continues to run from guy to guy. She is constantly tied to her cellphone and sexting with these boys.

We, her parents, have talked to her and encouraged her often and prayed for her. It saddens our hearts to see her ruin her life and be used by boys who don’t love or care about her. She is very secretive and believes she is making adult decisions.


Saddened Mom

Dear Saddened Mom,
Your daughter is desperately seeking attention and affirmation from men. Most girls seek attention when they feel they aren’t getting enough of the right type of attention from their fathers, when they have experienced sexual abuse, if they are insecure, or if they have friends who hook up with boys. Regardless of why she does this, the remedy is the same as it is for all promiscuous teens: She needs more healthy attention from both you and her father.

Our culture over-sexualizes children and adults, telling them that sexual experimentation is risk-free, healthy, and should be encouraged. None of these are true and it is your job to inform her of this. Here’s what I would do if she were my daughter.

Related: When Your Eight-Year-Old Wants Pierced Ears and a Bikini

First: You and her father must spend more time with her. She will give you pushback — but that is OK. Ask her to do things with you on the weekends, such as going out to dinner. It is particularly important that her father spends as much time with her as he can. We parents incorrectly believe that our teenagers don’t want to be with us, but that is far from the truth. They need more time with us and less time with friends, particularly if they are struggling with an issue as serious as sexual promiscuity.

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Second: You need to be stronger in your communication. Tell her that, while you don’t judge her behavior, it is harmful, wrong, and will lead her to heartache, disease, and probably depression. Be firm about this and make no bones about it. Often teenagers act out in order to see if a parent cares enough to tell them to stop. They are dying for someone to be strong enough to stand up to them and let them know that their behavior is wrong.

Your husband should insist on meeting these guys she dates (unless she is off at college and this is impossible).

Even older teens and young adults act very immaturely in order to see if someone will fight for them (because they don’t feel they can fight for themselves). I would treat her sexual behavior as seriously as if she were taking drugs. It is indeed life-threatening. I have spoken with many young women who have contracted HIV through promiscuous sex — and your daughter needs to know that this is a real possibility.

If your daughter were taking drugs, how would you respond? You would, I hope, never let up on her until she got help. You would pursue her, tell her that you love her and that you will be unrelenting in your effort to help her change her destructive behavior. In fact, your husband should insist on meeting these guys she dates (unless she is off at college and this is impossible). This will embarrass your daughter — but who cares? She will know one thing: Her father is fighting for her. I guarantee that will make her feel loved and just maybe, she’ll stop this bad behavior.

Many parents throw their hands up, believing that all kids act this way and that this is normal. Don’t do this — those parents are wrong. They are afraid to fight for their children. This is war and your daughter needs you to fight for her because she doesn’t have a clue how dangerous this is. Many adults, even psychologists, will tell you that this is “normal, experimental teen behavior” and that exploring one’s sexuality is healthy. This is nonsense.

I have seen it all — and I have never seen a promiscuous teen who is happy. They grow into adults who deal with diseases, infertility, depression, and sometimes PTSD.

Related: How to Connect with Your Teen Whether You Want to or Not

One final word. Tell your daughter this: Twenty million Americans contract a new sexually transmitted disease every year in the U.S. and the vast majority don’t know they have it. She will be one of those folks. And then tell her that there are over 30 STDs now and many people who have one, have multiple. If you don’t want to have such a frank discussion, pick out sections of my book, “Your Kids at Risk,” and find a few pages for her to read that show what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about teens and sex. The numbers will scare the pants off of her.

This is tough parenting and there is no room for equivocation. Be strong, loving, and firm, and she will thank you one day.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.