Why Teen Sex Is Linked to Depression

'Teenagers don't have the maturity for physical relationships, regardless of what adults in our culture say'

by Meg Meeker, MD | Updated 25 Feb 2017 at 11:16 AM

I am often asked to speak about sex to high school students. Many adults shudder at the thought of talking to kids about sex — but I love it. First, I have a captive audience, and second, I get to talk about two things that I am very passionate about: the dangers of teen sex and the joys of sex in marriage.

Many adults worry that kids will be too shy to ask questions, but I have found them eager to have their questions answered in an honest, upbeat manner.

I do not take the topic of teens and sex lightly. I have seen the pain of STDs in 13- and 14-year-old children in my office as a pediatrician, along with other serious health issues caused by sex.

Related: Why Sex Is So Dangerous for Teens

Most people are aware of the physical repercussions of sex:

  • We now have 35 known STDs. In 1960, we only had two.
  • Teenagers make up one-third of the U.S. population, but they carry 50 percent of STDs.
  • One in four teens has an STD. (Over 80 percent of those infections have no symptoms, so they can go undetected, which is dangerous for the teen, their future sexual partners, and their future children.)

You may be familiar with those numbers, but few are aware of the emotional repercussions teen sex can have.

For the thousands of teens I’ve treated and counseled, many of them — yes, teen boys too — have depression related to sexual activity. I consider it an STD with effects as devastating as HPV, chlamydia, or any physical infection. Consider these numbers:

  • In 2015, roughly 3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year — that’s about 12.5 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds.
  • From 1999-2014, the suicide rate in girls ages 10 to 14 tripled.
  • About 20 percent of teens will experience depression before they reach adulthood.

I believe it is no coincidence that as STDs have become an epidemic in teens, so has depression. The correlation is startling.

Depression in a teen occurs on a biochemical as well as psychological level — and the two are linked. We know that the levels of specific hormones in the cerebral spinal fluid of depressed teens are different from those of non-depressed teens. And, we know that depression occurs when a teen experiences un-grieved losses — hurts that have been buried in their psyche, festering like abscesses. When a teen doesn’t deal with a traumatic or hurtful event, he ends up stifling it and the negative emotions come out sideways. He becomes angry, withdrawn, and depressed.

Consider a 15-year-old girl who feels pressured to have sex with her boyfriend. She finally does, and two weeks later, he breaks up with her.

Think about a 17-year-old-boy who has had multiple sexual partners (as most 17-year-old boys are encouraged to do). He has sex because he believes this is what he must do to be a “man.” However, not all of those sexual encounters go well. He is too ashamed to admit this to his friends and knows he can’t talk to his parents about it, so he pretends like everything is fine, suppresses his feelings, and continues having multiple partners.

Or consider a 15-year-old girl who feels pressured to have sex with her boyfriend. She finally does, and two weeks later, he breaks up with her. She can’t explain to her parents why the breakup is so upsetting (she may not even know why herself), so she tries to find consolation in the next boy she dates — starting an unhealthy cycle and not dealing with the grief and the loss.

Teenagers don’t have the psychological or cognitive maturity to handle sex, regardless of what adults in our culture say. And they certainly can’t handle sex with multiple partners. Depression occurs by un-grieved losses and the truth is, sex for teen boys and girls causes many losses on many levels.

This is why simply talking to your child about “safe sex” (a term that even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t use anymore) is not enough. It’s your job as your son or daughter’s parent to help set them up for a lifelong, monogamous relationship and to get them there as emotionally unscathed as possible — not to simply cross your fingers and hope your child doesn’t get one of the over 35 STDs.

Related: If You Don’t Teach Your Kids About Sex, the Culture Will

The misconceptions many parents have about their teenagers are these: that teen boys are nothing more than vats of hormones, that girls want to be sexually active in high school and college because that’s what girls do, and that sex is really fine for kids if they use “precautions” and stay “safe.”

First, boys have minds, hearts, and spirits, and treating them otherwise is wrong. Second, most girls don’t want to be sexually active but have no one to counsel them how to postpone sex. Finally, terms like “precautions” and “safe” are meaningless. How is a teen to avoid hurt if he has sex, bonds to a girl, and then breaks up? And studies show that condoms don’t protect equally against different diseases — so being “safe” is nonsense. I can’t tell you how many 16- and 17-year-old boys come up to me after I’ve spoken at their school to talk about the emotional scars they have from sex.

Do more than teach your child about the physical harm that can result from sex. Talk to them about their feelings and make sure they understand the emotional and mental connection that sex has. You need to be the person to tell your child this and know that they want to hear what you have to say. Work very hard to protect their hearts and minds as much as their bodies because trust me, nobody else is going to help teach them what you will.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including “The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.”

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