As it is an age of self-discovery, adolescents tend to explore a lot. They are very impressionable. They are easy to engage in conversation, as long as they are interested. They are also able to understand and retain a great deal of new information that has been presented to them. Adolescents can pick up new learnings pretty quickly. So what is to say that they cannot possibly understand the concept of sexuality at that age?
The Role of Family in Adolescent Sexuality
Proper development of sexuality is vital to adolescence. Thus, the ability to openly communicate with adolescents exhibiting tendency to prematurely engage in sex is important due to its serious short term and long term repercussions. Because many adolescents are reluctant to discuss the matter of sexuality openly, only a reassurance of confidentiality and truthful assessment of consequences of premature sexual activity will enable healthy discussions and address potential problems.
However, some parents are not comfortable in discussing sexuality with their adolescent children while some are. Unsurprisingly, the attitudes of adolescents reflect the same as their parents. The problem lies in the mindset rather than the need to improve the communication skills of parents. The issue of sexuality supplies adolescents with plenty of pressure and it may cause them to wonder whether their experiences are normal or not.
Parents should make an effort to create a safe and open environment at home where they can openly and comfortably discuss a matter like this with their adolescent children. Not educating adolescents about sexuality may lead to consequences that may be much more difficult to deal with. It is therefore crucial that parents create opportunity for a healthy conversation about sexuality with adolescents.
The Case of Unwanted Teenage Pregnancies
Adolescents aged 10 to 19 make up 13% of the population of the United States. 42% of adolescent girls have experienced sexual intercourse by the age of 19 while the figure is 44% for adolescent boys which is not that far from the females'. While these figures are normal, more pressing is the number of early adolescents engaging in sex before age thirteen. A recent study found that a number of adolescents aged 12 to 15 were already sexually active, with 8.5% of the respondents saying that it was unwanted.
Premature sex among adolescents, while natural in general especially in some cultures, yields physical and psychological repercussions on their holistic development. In the United States alone, 18 out of 1000 teenage girls will have had at least one pregnancy before the age of 20. In 2017, more than 194,000 has been recorded to have been born to teenage mothers aged 15-19 in the United States. The figure worldwide is a whopping 12 million girls with at least 777,000 birthed from mothers under 15 (WHO, 2019).
Motherhood is the primary reason for adolescent girls dropping out of school. Worse, more than half of teen mothers are unable to graduate from high school. While adolescent fatherhood is directly responsible for the low high school graduation rates among males, females suffer more. Only 50% of girls who drop out because of motherhood will graduate from high school at the age of 22 and only 3% of those who became mothers before 18 will be able to obtain a degree before reaching 30.
One negative aspect of teenage pregnancy is the immature, and sometimes turbulent, family life that ensues. Adolescents, due to underdeveloped psychological and emotional maturity, are ill-equipped to handle parenthood’s challenges. The struggles of adolescent parenthood do not cease to manifest in adulthood and as a result, adversely affect relationships, families, and inevitably, society as a whole.
Another negative aspect is the stigma – threats of violence, social isolation, and constant discrimination both teenage mothers and fathers face. Whereas teen mothers are often labeled as irresponsible and immature, teen fathers on the other hand are thought to be unable to control their sexual desires, and selfish if they deny responsibility for the pregnancy.
Why and how did teenage pregnancy became a taboo?
The Drive Against STDs and HIV/AIDS
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in adolescents, regardless of severity, pose negative consequences. A study conducted in 2019 found that in the United States, adolescents aged 15 to 19 represented more than 91,000 of all reported diagnoses of gonorrhea. Cases of chlamydia in sexually active teenagers are present in 62% of all reported chlamydia cases.
Furthermore, a recent DNA examination demonstrated that human papillomavirus (HPV) or genital warts can be found in 26% of all females aged 13 to 20. Racial and socioeconomic factors involved do not curb the spread of adolescent STD; double are the chances of sexually active African American females to contract STDs than their Caucasian counterparts.
About one in four of human immunodeficiency virus, more commonly known as HIV, cases are among adolescents aged 12 to 19. Due to the long period between contracting HIV and its progression to (and diagnosis of) AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), it is presumable that the number of HIV-positive adolescents is much higher than those whose condition progressed into AIDS.
Living conditions contribute greatly to the number of those afflicted with HIV; an overwhelming number of AIDS-positive adolescents live in urban areas, and a sizeable number are minorities. An early misconception about AIDS was that it being a primarily a disease affecting only homosexuals. Later studies debunked this - heterosexuals are as equally prone to the virus.
Frequently overlooked are the negative social and psychological risks of early adolescent sex. Most common reasons for early sex are instability at home, peer pressure, and curiosity. Due to the lack of knowledge, adolescents are ill-prepared to face consequences. In the same manner, they are hesitant to ask questions about the natural aspects of sexual intimacy that could otherwise help open healthy discussions concerning contraception and safe sex.
Without knowledge, unpleasant sexual experiences, more common among female adolescents, often become the dominant pattern that persists well into adulthood. An adolescent’s self-esteem suffers immensely when sex is exchanged for affection, understanding, security, honesty, and approval of peers.
Adolescence is the physical and psychological transition that children go through before reaching adulthood. Therefore, simultaneous with their physical development, the ability to initiate unhesitating, honest, and healthy discussion about sexuality must be instilled in adolescents to steer them towards the proper perspective that will be carried on to adulthood.
The noticeable physical maturity in some adolescents should not be mistaken for psychological maturity. Most untrained adults, unfortunately, make the assumption that physically mature adolescents will act and think like adults when in fact, no matter how physically mature an adolescent may look like, their emotional and cognitive development are still premature.
And even though some adolescents may seem very wise for their age, it must not be concluded that it is okay for them to explore the matter of sexuality alone. No matter how mentally or psychologically matured an adolescent may seem, proper guidance from their parents are capable adults should still be encouraged and never overlooked.
Early Adolescence: The Importance of History
Early adolescence is signified by increasing consciousness about bodily changes as well as the start of struggles concerning personal identity and independence. In terms of bodily changes, concerns include fear of either too slow or too rapid physical development. These concerns, in turn, influence the self-esteem of adolescents, prompting behavioral changes (angst, alienation).
From an adult’s perspective, teenage angst and alienation may seem trivial (due to the adult’s having overcome the stage), but for the adolescents currently experiencing it, it can be psychologically taxing. It is out of the question that adolescents should have their parents’ utmost support when going through this particular stage in their adolescence.
Before engaging in sex, masturbation is the most common sexual activity. When an adolescent starts to engage in premature sex, there are underlying factors that influenced the decision. But frequently, previous sexual abuse is involved, almost always with an older adult. Thus, it is of primary importance to explore the history of the adolescent to investigate whether there is a history of sexual abuse.
An overwhelming majority of premature sex cases among adolescents are rooted in domestic instability. Most of the time, sex serves both as an escape from the dysfunction and as a way to rouse the concern of the parents.
Often dismissed as a minor influence, premature sex among young adolescents can be attributed to imitation of sexual promiscuity among adults, whether portrayed in the media, or as immediate as a family member. This is the reason why parents should monitor, or rather take note of, what their child is viewing especially in today’s age of internet and social media.
In all these situations, the availability of a confidential and objective authority is needed. Adolescent sexual behavior is, most of the time, reflective of self-esteem or lack thereof. Concerned health agencies, whether state-funded or private, run aplenty. Consistently aiming for middle and high schools, they provide qualified personnel medical professionals and counsellors that can tend to the physical, emotional, and psychological needs of the adolescents.
Middle Adolescence: Consciousness, Peer Pressure, Independence
For middle adolescents aged 15-17, peer pressure and need for approval are the preeminent factors that influence sexual behavior. Their need to prove themselves and establish their own identity prompt them to be bold in decision-making.
In this respect, sexual activity may just be perceived as just another rite of passage for them to feel a sense of belongingness among their peers. Similarly, sexual activity can also be seen as their bridge from teen to adulthood, and certain images that the media convey, combined with lack of responsible parenting and guidance, are partly responsible for this behavior
The percentage of adolescents doing it for fun should also be considered. Because adolescents are highly impressionable, what they see portrayed on media has a heavy influence on them. If they see that the actors in shows or their friends posting about it are showing that they are having fun doing it, it would most likely heighten their curiosity. Eventually driving them to try it themselves.
Middle adolescence, due to its transitional nature, is also the stage when parents shift from “rules for children” to “rules for teenagers.” Because of the adolescent tendency to engage in adult activities (including sex), parents often commit the mistake of prohibiting an activity without the benefit of clarity.
As a result, adolescents partake in sexual activity out of need to prove that they are capable of making decisions independent of parental consent. This is why parents should take the time to talk to their children and explain thoroughly first instead of prohibiting something outright and in that instant. Adolescents hate being treated like they won’t be able to understand as they know that they can be reasoned with and are not that hard to teach.
Late Adolescence: Independence and Greater Awareness
Sexual maturity peaks during late adolescence. Late adolescents experience a significant increase in maturity and cognitive development during this stage. In contrast to early and middle adolescence, this stage is almost devoid of the need for peer approval. Characteristically, late adolescents crave for physical independence from family and tend to focus on building happy, long-lasting relationships.
Sexual concerns include awareness, or lack thereof, of the negative consequences of unprotected sex (i.e. unwanted pregnancy, STDs) which is why groups are advocating for proper sex education in schools. Adolescents of this age, or as early as possible, should learn about contraceptives and safe ways to have sex as they have probably already learned about sexuality at this age.
A Collaborative Effort is a Must
Legislators, educators, and parents must consistently strive to devise ways to boost the knowledge of adolescents about human sexuality. Teenage pregnancy and STDs are by-products of the inadequacies both in the education system and parenting. Prevalence of STDs and teen pregnancy are a menace not only to the adolescents, but to families, and most importantly, to society in general.
There is a desperate need to take an unbiased and completely scientific look at adolescent sexuality in order to raise adolescents with sufficient self-esteem and healthy minds. A collaborative effort is a must to ease children – the next generation - into responsible, healthy adulthood.
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CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. (2017, June 22). About Teen Pregnancy. CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/teenpregnancy/about/index.htm
CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. (2017, June 22). Over Half of U.S. Teens Have Had Sexual Intercourse by Age 18, New Report Shows. CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2017/201706_NSFG.htm
CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. (2017, June 22). STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults. CDC/National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/adolescents.htm
Lindberg L., Maddow-Zimet I., & Marcell A. (2019, April 8). Prevalence of Sexual Initiation Before Age 13 Years Among Male Adolescents and Young Adults in the United States. JAMA Pediatr. 173(6):553–560. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.0458
World Health Organization. (2020, January 31). Adolescent pregnancy. World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-pregnancy