The Adolescent Sexual Brain
It is a common scenario: a teenager brings her boyfriend over for dinner so that her parents can meet him. However, almost as soon as the front door opens, her parents have an immediate reaction to him. He’s already not good enough for her.
The problem is that she is already in love with him, especially if the two are sexually active. Sexual intercourse has certain effects on the brain for both male and female teens. It releases large amounts of oxytocin into the female brain and vasopressin into the male brain, and both hormones help to create bonding between sexual partners.
What is interesting to note is that these hormones can create strong emotional attachments, even if at first teens don’t feely particularly attracted towards one another. According to her book, The Female Brain”, Louann Brizendine pointed out that oxytocin is released after a 20 second hug, promoting a trusting bond with that person, even if he is not very trustworthy at all. A similar effect happens in the brains of men, where the release of vasopressin supports bonding with his sexual partner despite how good or bad she might be for him.
Another brain hormone affected by the development of love and bonding between two sexually active adolescents is the decrease of serotonin. This is a calming neurohormone that is reduced in those who are “in love” creating higher levels of energy for that person even to the point of obsession.
Of course, another neurotransmitter that is released in the brain during sexual activity is dopamine. This is usually secreted during activities that bring excitement, pleasure, adventure, risk-taking, and drugs. It typically leads to feeling good, higher levels of energy, exhilaration, and focused attention. Dopamine is often the cause for an individual’s desire to repeat the activity that brought on the pleasurable feelings, which is why dopamine is often termed the “reward signal”. Dopamine is also the very chemical that can produce addictions, whether those are to drugs, sex, gambling, or other risky behavior. However, too much dopamine can be dangerous, affecting an adolescent’s developing brain and influencing its final maturity.
Furthermore, once teens are sexually active, they typically move through a cycle of sexual involvement, breakup, sexual involvement, and breakup. Teen relationship breakups can contribute to depression and suicide attempts. In fact, research indicates that depression and suicide are higher in teens that are sexually active.
Because the adolescent brain is still developing, it is recommended that a teen not be left to make a decision about sexual activity on his or her own. It is not until their mid-twenties that a young adult’s brain comes to full development and appropriate, mature decisions can be made. For this reason, it is worthwhile to have a conversation with adolescents about sex, especially if there is any indication that he or she is expressing interest in becoming sexually active.
A parent might facilitate better decision making by asking questions, setting boundaries, and encouraging their teen to spend time with groups of friends versus one person at a time. Examples of boundary setting might be prohibiting a teen’s attendance to parties without parents, encouraging the avoidance of private places to make out, and role playing to develop responses that will work in order to curtail an intimate experience.
One valuable resource for caregivers is the book, Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children. Encouraging appropriate decision making, and when needed, discussing forms of protection and even planning make a long term impact on a teen’s future.
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