Sex education for teenagers is usually pretty good at covering the physical and practical issues – reproductive health, sexually transmitted infections, and contraception. What sex education can sometimes gloss over is the emotional consequences for teenagers engaging in sexual activity. Sex educator Liz Walker from the Youth Wellbeing Project and teen boys life coach, John McMahon from Motov8, deliver sessions that help teens develop a whole-of-person approach to sexuality.
Our own teen years are a long way behind us and memories can be foggy. What we experienced as teenagers may also differ greatly to what our own teenagers are experiencing. There’s no denying we live in different times. We asked Liz and John to explain a bit more about the emotional consequences of sex for teenagers, so that parents are better equipped to have meaningful discussions with their kids.
What are the emotional consequences of sex that teenagers should consider?
LIZ WALKER: The limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain, is the most active part in a teenager’s brain. It’s fuelled by surging hormones and the struggle to find identity. Adding sex to this already unstable period of development with potential feelings of abandonment, regret and depression is not helpful. The feelings of euphoria are high in a teen relationship, which leads them to believe that the next step of sex will make them feel more complete or more empowered. In some cases this may happen, but often a young person may feel ripped off, confused, guilty, sad and sometimes depressed. If the relationship doesn’t last this can lead to subsequent sexual relationships and unhealthy patterns of hooking up.
“Young guys are often surprised when their girlfriend doesn’t want to do the same as what they’ve viewed online. Young women who give into unrealistic expectations are left feeling violated and confused.”
JOHN MCMAHON: When a relationship becomes a sexual one the emotional connection goes through the roof. This is actually how it’s meant to be, but if it’s with the wrong person then you set yourself up for unnecessary emotional pain – emotional pain that teens just don’t need to carry, with all the other things going on for them already.
How might they feel emotionally after having sex?
LW: Good feelings might include relief, happiness, infatuation and satisfaction, because after all, people young and old have sex because it feels good. On the flip side, if there is pressure or coercion involved, a young person may feel regret, shame, guilt, depression or intense sadness.
JM: Momentary counterfeit love and acceptance, but potentially used, abused, walked over, guilty, lost and depressed.
What signs might there be indicating that a teenager is not ready for the emotional side of sex?
LW: If a teen is feeling as though they need to have sex to keep up with their peers or to prove a point, they might be quite anxious about having sex, however they may still push through the warning signs. A higher percentage of teens are choosing to have sex when under the influence of alcohol so inhibitions drop, but this can end up with disastrous consequences such as being manipulated into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do.
JM: When they have doubts and are questioning their decision or reasoning, where there is a strong feeling of pressure from friends, or when they are going against their parents’ known wishes.
How can a teenager protect him or herself against negative emotional consequences?
LW: If a young person wants to avoid negative emotional consequences, they really need to be asking themselves if the decision to be sexually active is free from pressure or manipulation. Although they may feel emotionally and cognitively mature enough, delaying sex may be the smartest thing.
“Teens want to hear what parents have to say about sex and will appreciate common sense advice”
They also need to consider what they are and are not prepared to do. Pornography has formed the sexual framework for many young people, including insecurity about the shape and size of their body parts. Young guys are often surprised when their girlfriend doesn’t want to do the same as what they’ve viewed online. Young women who give into unrealistic expectations are left feeling violated and confused.
JM: They can choose to prolong their first sexual experience until they know they’re in a better emotional place to cope. They could think about their friends who are sexually active and take a look at how stable their lives are. I’d advise them to think it through thoroughly and write down the pros and cons, and talk to someone who’s qualified to help, such as a school counselor, school nurse, sex educator, trusted family members or parents.
Are there any questions a parent could ask of their teen to help facilitate a conversation around this?
LW: Parents of teens need to aim at raising emotionally whole adults and should be asking questions relating to expectations of healthy and respectful relationships. Teens want to hear what parents have to say about sex and will appreciate common sense advice which brings balance back into a pornography-dominated domain. Parents who don’t have these conversations are at risk of raising teens who listen to peers and websites more than sound common sense advice, which in turn, may result in adults who struggle with attachment and meaningful relationships.
“Teenage boys need to be taught to think with their heads and not their penis. I’ve spoken and counselled dozens and dozens of guys who have been emotional wrecks after failed sexual relationships.”
JM: Not so much one question, but a series of questions and intentional conversations over years in preparation for this very important step in a young person’s life. Parents might be of the belief that there is more potential for emotional fallout for girls than for boys. That’s not necessarily the case. Once a relationship becomes a sexual one it instigates a far greater emotional and sexual drive and undertone. If guys think they can turn this off once the relationship ends they’re kidding themselves. Each relationship sets the tone and temperature for the next. Teenage boys need to be taught to think with their heads and not their penis. I’ve spoken and counselled dozens and dozens of guys who have been emotional wrecks after failed sexual relationships.