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Love, Sex, and The Teenage Brain
Teen romance and the possibility of sex…It’s one of the most complex and difficult topics we talk about as parents with our children. Ensuring that your teenager has good information and a healthy attitude towards opposite-sex relationships is a challenging parental responsibility. We know that our teenagers go to parties, hang out, sometimes drink and some have sex.
According to a 2005 Statistics Canada report:
o About 12% of teens have had sex by age 15 and by the time they reach age 17, 28% of teens. By age 24, 80% of young adults have had intercourse.
o Among sexually active youth aged 15 to 24, more than a third of them had more than one partner in a year, and 30% did not use a condom the last time they had sex.
o Teenage pregnancy has been steadily declining over the past 25 years. However, the number of teenagers contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia continues to rise. This indicates a decreased use of condoms or an increase in oral sex, which many teenagers mistakenly believe eliminates the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.
So what influence do we have as parents? According to a 2005 University of Regina in Saskatchewan study, teachers emerged as the most important source of information about pregnancy and STD prevention. The study also found that peer influence was more important than parental disapproval in predicting whether a student would have sex. The findings suggest that teachers and peers are more important than parents in providing good information and instilling attitudes in our teenagers. Parental disapproval has little impact. In fact, parental disapproval often has the opposite effect that one is trying to achieve.
Romance and the Teenage Brain
The conflict between young love and parental disapproval is not new. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, his “star-crossed lovers” showed the havoc teenage romance can wreak on families. Today, it is perhaps understandable and acceptable for the school to be a more important source of information than parents for some information about sex. However, most of us hope that our values are important to our children and will help them make decisions about sexual behavior.
When your son or daughter falls in love, the change in personality can seem extreme. As if they were attacked by an alien body grabber. The power of teenage love and sex is very strong. Many parents feel responsible for their teenager’s risky behavior and are overwhelmed with guilt. Parents, and especially mothers, often feel the judgment of other parents whose teen behavior is less extreme. This can lead to further feelings of isolation and ineffectiveness. Some parents, and especially fathers, can become authoritarian out of frustration and end up giving up or “washing their hands” of the problem out of a sense of incompetence.
Being more influential helps equip you with knowledge about the forces at work when a teenager falls in love. It is important to understand how the adolescent brain works. Recent scientific research on the brain sheds much more light on how much hormonal activity influences our teenager’s thoughts and actions.
Brain structures and brain chemicals influence how teens first delve into romance. David Walsh describes it this way in his book Why Do They Act That Way?: A Survival to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen. Around the age of ten, the body produces androgenic hormones. That’s when the first crush can happen. It is during puberty that the real awakening of sexual interest and sexual desire occurs. That’s when “falling in love” can happen. The hypothalamus drives testosterone surges in both boys and girls and increases levels of dopamine, the hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure. Due to developmental differences, boys and girls have different attitudes toward sex and romance. The increase in testosterone in boys leads them to see girls as sexual objects. Teenage girls tend to be more attracted to boys because of the relational aspects of spending time together and talking.
Although sexual interest is always part of falling in love, falling in love is not always part of sexual desire. The prefrontal cortex (the place of reason and judgment in the brain) is inactive and not yet fully developed in adolescents. When we fall in love, we don’t use our rational brain and impulse control. “Pleasure” comes from the hormonal interplay of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. It is a powerful mix of natural neurological “chemistry”. All these high levels of hormonal fireworks cannot be sustained by the brain for long. Intense feelings of “in love” are even shorter in teenagers than in adults. A crush only lasts about three months on average. They then move on to another relationship due to the intoxication and excitement, or stay as the relationship moves into a calmer and more comfortable stable state called the “in love state”.
During the “standing in love” phase, the prefrontal cortex cools down and engages. The adolescent is in a better position to judge the appropriateness of the relationship. An adolescent may wonder, “Why am I in this relationship?” Now a different set of hormones is released. In girls, it’s oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “cuddle” hormone, which is also involved in childbirth and promotes attachment. In boys, the hormone vasopressin makes them more protective, loyal and attentive to their partner’s needs.
Often parents worry that their child will fall in love with the “bad apple”. The concern about a teenager’s judgment is valid. The prefrontal cortex is not completed in the brain until the age of 21. In this rigidity of love, the bad influence of a boyfriend or girlfriend leads the “good” child to do things completely out of character. For example, they may engage in some risky behavior out of loyalty and love, such as destroying property for his “rush.”
Sometimes love’s darker side of jealousy and possessiveness comes through. It’s confusing for many teenagers. After the famous “crush,” feelings and then attachment hormones can cloud judgment. He can become controlling or physically or sexually abusive. When the question “why am I in this relationship?” comes to mind, her memories of her “in love” days and the current cuddle hormone and lack of experience make it difficult to understand the wisdom of getting out.
Tips for talking to teens about sex
Countries with low rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases address sex more openly. If trusted adults, teachers, and parents don’t speak up, teens will get information from peers or the media. It is important to distinguish sex from sexuality. Sex is about biology, while sexuality is about biology, psychology, values and spirituality. It is important that you see your role as supplementing the logic, wisdom, and judgment required by the adolescent’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. Active listening, validating feelings and showing respect will help open up discussions and reduce power struggles.
David Walsh suggests the following tips and dos and don’ts in his book Why Do They Behave That Way?
1. Get motivated. If you don’t talk to them, someone else will.
2. Educate yourself. Being informed overcomes nervousness and builds confidence
3. Make yourself comfortable. It’s okay to admit some discomfort. It will help everyone relax.
4. Make it an ongoing conversation.
5. Don’t try to cover too much in one discussion.
6. Choose a suitable time when there is an opportunity for a quiet, private and uninterrupted conversation
7. Discuss sexuality, not just sex. They need to know about the place of sex in a healthy relationship.
8. Discuss dating as a time to have fun and get to know each other.
9. Don’t preach or lecture.
10. Make it a dialogue
11. Share your values
o Emphasize the importance of respect and honesty in all relationships
o Talk regularly with your sons and daughters about sex and sexuality
o Communicate the values you believe are important in romantic relationships
o Provide accurate information about contraception and sexually transmitted diseases
o Get to know your teen’s friends so you know who influences them
o Really listen to your teen: their fears and worries and validate their feelings that show acceptance and love
o Talk to other parents, join a parenting group, see a counselor for ideas and support
o Don’t get angry or lash out at the boyfriend or girlfriend you’re worried about
o Don’t mock or make fun of them
o Do not assume that your son or daughter will not engage in sexual behavior
o Don’t be quiet and let the “instant sex” that happens on TV and in the movies be your children’s only example
have about sex and sexuality
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