Teen Sex and the Brain

A teen's choices can impact them more than they realize.
By Julie Baumgardner
August 25, 2017

There’s an ongoing debate about whether teen sex is really harmful over time.

Drs. Joe McIlhaney and Freda McKissic Bush wrote Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children. They say that casual sex during the teen and young adult years affects bonding later in life.

Imagine sticking some clear shipping tape to your sweater to remove lint. The first time you pull it off, it grabs fuzz and some hair. It’s still a little sticky, so you continue to use it. But eventually, the tape loses its stickiness.

Similarly, research indicates that sexual activity and having multiple partners hinders the ability to develop healthy, mature, and long-lasting relationships.

What does teen sex have to do with brain development? Probably more than you realize.

  • The prefrontal cortex is still developing until the mid-20s. This part of the brain is responsible for setting priorities, organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, and controlling impulses. It also initiates appropriate and moral behavior.
  • During the teen years, sexual activity triggers chemical reactions within the brain that help shape it.
  • This brain transformation has a huge physical and psychological impact on all things sexual. A person’s decision-making ability, which comes from the highest center of the brain, can lead to the most rewarding sexual behavior. That is, unless premature and unwise sexual behavior during adolescence damages the brain’s formation for healthy decision-making.

Additionally, the authors sound the alarm concerning an apparent relationship between teen sexual activity and depression. 

Studies indicate that:

  • Sexually-active teens are three times are more likely to experience depression than their abstinent peers.
  • Sexually-active girls were three times more likely to have attempted suicide.
  • Sexually-active boys were seven times more likely to have attempted suicide than their virgin friends.

McIlhaney and Bush say that parents play a critical role in helping teens develop in a healthy way.

  • Surveys consistently show that teens primarily look to their parents’ advice about sex. Structure, guidance, and discipline from caring adults can positively mold the adolescent brain.
  • Teens need parental support as they take healthy risks, like learning to drive, trying out for sports, or going off to college. Activities like these help young people separate from their parents and grow as individuals.
  • If parents or other caring adults don’t guide their teens, their poor choices can negatively impact their future.

Although it may be complicated and uncomfortable, you can prepare your child for some genuine threats to their well-being. (For example, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and the emotional baggage of seeking to bond with multiple sex partners.) Taking these issues seriously and keeping the lines of communication open are essential to healthy relationships in the future.

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