Teen Decisions Under Stress
We know the teenage brain does not finish maturing until the mid-twenties.
Psycho-social, psychological, and neuroscience tell us that teens make cognitive rational decisions in what are called “cool situations.”
These are situations when they have time to consider information, choices, are a non-stressful situation without pressure, and can seek adult advice.
However, such cool situations do not occur when a teenage girl or boy is faced with an immediate need to sexually respond to an overture by a peer or adult with a definitive “yes” or “no.”
An underage girl or boy should always of course say no to an adult’s sexual advance but knowledge and action on that knowledge can be very different when under pressure or even coercion.
What Can Parents Do to Prepare Their Teenagers for Decision-Making Under Stress?
- Child rearing that focuses on early respectful communication with children sets the stage.
- Parents who listen nonjudgementally and actively to their children’s thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and opinions from when they are young have children who will speak to them about intimate topics when they are older.
- In anticipation of puberty fathers and mothers need to discuss sexuality and bodily changes to anticipate with their sons and daughters, respectively. If they already have trusted open communication as noted above, this is difficult but if done slowly, gently, inviting open-ended questions girls and boys can learn about normal anticipated changes in their bodies and also about sexual practices, reproduction, and safe sex.
- If all of that occurs then parents and kids can be receptive to discussing the loaded question of consent during high stressful situations.
- Share with your teen that it is difficult for everyone to think clearly and make decisions when there is no time to reflect. That is when a teen must call upon previous decisions already well-formed in their memory banks. That is, they need a signal already in place that puts them in an alert state. Parents need to discuss this idea of an alert state under pressure.
- Ideas to share with your teens when approached sexually:
- If you feel unsure at all, say, “No” and don’t even permit persuasion. Leave the situation if your “No” is not immediately acceded to.
- Advise kids that they may need time that seems unavailable. This means to go on automatic with words such as, “Not now. I need time. Will discuss it later.” Learn how to signal yourself to go on “Pause Alert.” Give this vocabulary to your children.
- Most severely difficult situations are when consent isn’t possible because there is not a desired sexual experience but an aggressive assault. Teenagers need to understand the difference between sexual activity and aggressive activity. If any physical force or even a too strong tone of voice is used the teen is entering the aggression arena. Help your teen be clear on the differences (after you are clear as a parent on the differences yourself of course.)
Steps for Parent Preparation
- It’s vital to know yourself, your beliefs about young sexuality, homophobic feelings you may conceal from yourself, the impact your own previous sexual history plays when you are advising your teens. In other words, previous anxiety situations you have lived through may seep through your voice and gestures as you speak to your child about sexual consent, frightening them and losing their trust.
- Come to grips with your own unresolved anxieties about any of these issues (virginity, birth control, abortion, homosexuality) BEFORE approaching your teen. Only a calm parent can transmit a calm feeling to their child who is approaching new experiences that involve their body, gender, and sexuality.
Legal Ages of Consent
Legally there are 3 different ages of consent depending on the state you live in: 16, 17, 18. Discuss these variations with your child. They need to be informed in a calm and intelligent manner. There’s no reason to assume a 16 year old in Indiana is more cognitively mature than a 17 year old in Illinois or an 18 year old in Wisconsin. Parents should not depend on their state legislators to understand adolescent development. That’s the parents job no matter what the political persuasion or state laws and guidelines. A legislator is not an adolescent psychologist.
More Discussion with Teens
- Discuss with your teen the difference between passion driven short term rewards and long term consequences. This is a delicate topic that needs to be discussed respectfully.
- Another subject to be discussed at a carefully chosen time is the relationship between harassment and consent. Discuss and google with your teen the meaning of harassment. Make a list together of actions that can be considered sexual harassment by peers, teachers, coaches, and any predatory adults.
- Ask questions before telling your parental answers. Ask, “I know you care for your boyfriend/girlfriend but how would you know the difference between care, affection, and harassment?”
Listen as long as needed before giving your opinions so the teen has a chance to think carefully about this question.
Pause. Wait. Step Back. Don’t interrupt. And keep listening.