Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Teen Dating and Dopamine

by Linda Shaw 
How can understanding how the brain works with regards to sex and dopamine help parents?

Most of us associate the brain chemical dopamine with the feeling of pleasure. Dopamine rewards the brain with “good feelings”, excitement, and ‘emotional highs’. This “feel good” high is strong enough to motivate us to revisit rewarding activities such as food, certain drugs, and sex.

What does dopamine have to do with my teen?

Puberty is driven by sex hormones such as estrogen for girls and testosterone for boys. Other neurochemicals within the brain also help create our sense of sexuality. Dopamine couples with oxytocin (females) and vasopressin (males) to create the feelings associated with “romantic moments.”

Using these neurochemicals our brain creates pathways that allow brain cells to communicate with one another. These pathways can be molded and shaped with patterns of behavior. Over time repeated behaviors become stronger while ignored behaviors weaken. In other words, the brain, much like muscle, can be changed and shaped according to behavior.

But what does this have to do with dating? Or falling in love?

Sexual behavior depends on patterns, and much of our sexual behavior is based within the brain. Because dopamine is such a powerful hormone, once a pattern of “pleasure” has been established it becomes easier to “fall” into this mode of reward.

Infatuation and casual romantic gestures such as hugging, holding hands, inferred glances, and kissing release the neurochemical dopamine into the brain. With repeated exposure these “harmless” activities burn a stronger path of desire.

Why is this a problem for young teens?

This path of desire is nature's way of bonding two people together. The neurochemicals are “values-neutral”(McIlhaney and Bush)  and cannot distinguish between a soul mate and a casual “friendship”. Plus once the pattern for these chemicals has been created within the brain, compulsive behavior may begin. McIlhaney and Bush maintain that “this certainty correlates with neuroscientific findings that sex has an addictive effect on the brain.”

Ed Vitagliano  states that “every time we expose young people to sexual imagery we are releasing the tidal power of these brain-based chemicals. Early exposure to pornography – or simply sex on TV – may be opening sexual pathways in the brain way before other faculties (like self control) can be engaged. “

McIlhaney and Bush agree and state that “sex is one of the strongest generators of the dopamine reward,” and “for this reason, young people particularly are vulnerable to falling into a cycle of dopamine reward for unwise sexual behavior – they can get hooked on it.”

What is a good age for my child to begin dating?

The age of 16 has traditionally been the agreed upon age for brain maturity, but each parent knows their own child best. If your teen showed signs of immaturity, compulsive or impulsive behavior would you allow them to drive a car? Why would responsibility for their health and family be less important?

Society pulls on our teens to date at a younger and younger age. It is important for parents to understand that when we allow, encourage, or provide opportunity for our teen to touch, smell, hold hands, and kiss, we are “kick starting the chemical avalanche that was meant to lead to life long bonding”(McIlhaney and Bush).

How can I help my child to learn self-control when it comes to sexual behavior?

As parents we must consistently communicate to our teens the powerful river of hormones that flows through them. Good intentions won’t be enough to thwart the power of hormones. Begin speaking to your child as a pre-teen about how powerful sex is and that it is meant to bring families together in long-lasting secure relationships.

Science has proven how these hormones are meant to bond us as a family.  Society has created moral laws to guide us in these difficult issues and learn how to practice self-discipline.

What can you do to help create experiences that are age appropriate for your teen? 

How can you best teach your teen about the power of sexual hormones?


Joe S.Mcllhaney - Freda McKissic.Bush - Northfield Pub. - 2008 

Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children

Vitagliano, Ed. "Bonded in the Brain." American Family Association Journal 34.10 (2010): 1-23. Print.
Publish Post
Rector, Robert E., Kirk Johnson PHD, Shannon Martin, and Lauren Noyes. Harmful Effects of Early Sexual Activity and Multiple Sexual Partners Among Women. Heritage Foundation, 2003. Print.



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