Like any sane single parent, you do your best to keep your private life private. But kids are kids — they wake up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, need help with math homework when you least expect it and almost always forget to knock. So what do you do if they stumble in on you and a new partner in an (ahem) intimate moment? Follow our advice below.

1. Don’t worry — you haven’t scarred anyone for life. “Don’t overreact,” says Dale Atkins, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. “Getting caught in bed by your kids is uncomfortable for all of you, but it’s not the end of the world. Your child won’t end up afraid of intimacy or afraid of you or your partner. Take the situation for what it is — an embarrassing moment that will teach you to lock the door next time.”

“Intimacy is a normal and healthy part of life,” says Andrea Engber, who raised her (now) 20-year-old son by herself and is the author of The Complete Single Mother. Engber found that staying calm was the key to reassuring her son at age five when he woke up looking for his cat and wandered in on Engber fooling around on the couch with then-boyfriend Mike. “Kids take their cues from you,” she says. “I didn’t act startled, like I’d been caught committing a crime, so he stayed calm, too. I found his cat, carried him back to bed and explained that everything was OK.”
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2. Do take responsibility for what happened. “Don’t ever make it the kid’s fault!” says Engber. “The worst thing you can do is yell, ‘What are you doing in here?! Go back to bed!’ so bite your tongue if you feel those words coming out. You’re startled and angry with yourself, but don’t blame the child.” Instead, say “Sorry, we forgot to lock the door” and apologize for making him or her uncomfortable if the child seems upset. If this happens more than once, Atkins advises re-thinking the boundaries in your house: “Are you always walking in on your kids in their rooms? Then they’re going to walk in on you. It’s important to teach your kids to respect privacy.” Engber says she always had a “cover-up plan,” such as staying under a blanket. “You don’t want this to be one of those times when your bra is hanging off the lamp and clothes are strewn everywhere. If your kids are in the house, make sure you can do damage control quickly.” And never have an overnight guest when your kids are home unless it’s someone they already know and like — if this is their first introduction to a new partner, it’s going to be much harder for them to feel OK about the relationship.

3. Do expect your kids to feel jealous. Even if they’re already comfortable with your new partner, your children may not like seeing you in bed with someone who is not their other parent. “When they see that you’ve moved on, it means they have to give up on the idea that their parents are getting back together,” explains Atkins. “It can also feel like a betrayal — here’s someone else receiving your affection.” Jodi Seidler, a single mom and founder of (a single parent support network), agrees and notes that while her 16-year-old handled it gracefully when he interrupted her in bed with a new boyfriend, that “caught in the act” moment wouldn’t have gone so smoothly when Sam was younger. “If he saw me just holding hands with someone, it would upset him, because at that point he wanted his mom all to himself,” says Seidler. Explain that you care about your partner very much and making love is how adults express that affection, but nothing can replace how much you love your child.

4. Do take this as an opportunity to talk about sex. Even if your child already knows how babies are made, they may have questions about what they see. “Just tell the truth,” advises Doris Jeanette, PsyD., a psychologist in Philadelphia. “Some sex acts can look scary to a child, so reassure them that you’re not hurting each other, that you felt safe and loved, and this is all a normal part of how adults show their love for each other.” If you’re dying of embarrassment just reading this, it’s OK to let your child know that you’re uncomfortable. But clarify that you’re uncomfortable because you were seen in a private moment, not because you were doing something wrong or shameful. “Eventually, talking about what happened made us closer,” says one single mom who was caught in a “rather compromising situation” with a lover when her 14-year-old daughter came home early from a neighbor’s sleepover party. “She was tentative for a few days, but said she understood that my life involved more than just her. We discussed the event in greater depth several times, and then again some more once she became sexually active herself and she had come to know me as a normal, human mom with needs very much like her own.”

5. But don’t push them to talk more than they want or need to in order to relax. “Sam came in, saw us, and went straight to his room,” says Seidler of the time her teenage son caught her in the act. “I gave him a few minutes, then went in and asked, ‘Are we OK?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Sam knows we can talk about anything, so if he said it wasn’t a big deal, I knew we were fine,” notes Seidler.

And that may be the way many kids feel about the experience. “They may not care... and they may just want to move on,” says Dr. Jeanette. “Younger children might not even know what you were doing, and it’s fine to just let it go.” The key is to know your child well enough to gauge when he or she needs to discuss something and when to leave things alone.

6. Do include your partner in the discussion. Do this only once you’ve had some one-on-one time with your child first. “After you’ve worked things out, it can help for your boyfriend or girlfriend to say, ‘I know that was awkward, and I’m sorry you had to see that, but I really care about you and your mom/your dad,’” says Dr. Atkins, who helped a patient navigate that situation when her 14-year-old son walked in on his mom taking naked pictures with her boyfriend. “Even though the son talked it through with his mom, he and the boyfriend couldn’t look at each other for weeks afterwards.” Atkins’ patient finally intervened, suggesting the two talk about “the elephant in the living room.” Her boyfriend admitted that he was worried about what her son must think about him, and the pair was able to work back to their previous friendly relationship.

7. Don’t make your children keep your secrets. “A lot of kids worry about what they should say to their other parent after this experience, and you’ll make it worse if you suggest that this should be ‘our little secret,’” says Atkins. Similarly, you shouldn’t expect your child to be the messenger of your new relationship news. Let your ex know what’s up in your life (with a minimum of graphic detail), so nobody gets caught off guard by awkward questions from your kids. That way, the two of you can continue to do your best at parenting your kids even though your lives have taken you in different directions.

Virginia Sole-Smith is a freelance writer in New York City. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, Prevention, Seventeen, Woman’s Day, and Women’s Health.