The Hooking Up Syndrome

Cary Scott LPC-S

man and woman smiling at each other

February 2017

Sex in teen culture is being sensationalized. Everyday our girls and boys are making choices based on false information. Information that says casual sex is harmless. Committed monogamous relationships are for when you get old. Sex is just fun and meaningless. These are messages given  to them routinely through the media and the culture of their generation. Gone are the days of anticipation, chasing, and romance. It has been replaced with a new attitude. An attitude that says, "Why go through all of that when I can have it right now?" After all almost everything else in their life is 'right now' so why shouldn't sex be the same? It can be very confusing and conflictual for our youth. Especially confusing since adults fall prey to immediate gratification as well. I have compared the excitement of sex to being akin to standing in line for a fierce roller coaster. If feels as though the wait is forever as your anticipation and curiosity builds and your excitement intensifies. You finally get on and the euphoric experience of the ride is even more appreciated just knowing how long you had to wait for it. Today all you have to do is purchase a 'fast pass' and your wait is over, curious imagination deferred. Instant gratification is their reality. Dating is a thing of the past and hooking up is what is now.  

The phrase ‘hooking up’ is used today to say “we can get together play around sexually even have sex without ever having to speak to each other again.” For many teens this sounds great, but the results are devastating. When we engage in sexual activity there are multiple types of hormones released. One hormone released, oxytocin, is responsible for our humanistic ability to emotionally attach ourselves to others and it is the same hormone released when a mother nurses her baby which aids in her attaching to her child. Most of our teens have no idea this is going on physiologically. Instead they are left with feelings of loneliness, depression, low self-esteem, shame and guilt for wanting a call the next day.

The long term effects of ‘hooking up’ can lead to multiple complications for romantic relationships in adulthood. This behavior pattern can significantly impair their ability to engage in committed, monogamous, healthy relationships in their future. The impairment may be attributed to not building resiliency to resist temptation and practice self-control. Especially for girls, training your body to ignore that biological attachment response can create difficulties for attaching to a life partner and feeling emotionally connected to that partner. In addition to dysfunctional relationships, ‘hooking up’ can become sexually addictive.

Although we don’t like to think about our tweens and teens engaging in this type of behavior, it is very much a part of their reality and they need our guidance. Studies have shown that kids are experimenting as early as 10 years old. We also know that teens that are sexually active are more likely to experience depression, suicidal thoughts and make suicidal attempts. Check out the “10 Tips for Treating the Syndrome” for ways you can support your teen’s social and emotional development.

10 Tips for Treating the Syndrome

  1. Talk to your teen openly about ALL of the details of sex. Chances are if they are asking questions then they are ready to know. This can apply to tweens and younger. Be mindful of using age appropriate language. Kids need to understand both the physical and emotional dynamics as well as the dangers.
  2. Use the end of the day and car rides to have conversations about their social life. Know who their friends are and what they are interested in. Listen for stressors and fears. Be empathic and judgment free.
  3. Watch for isolating, change in grades, unusual behavior and address them. When kids become sexually active they may become emotionally volatile, struggle to focus, and spend more time alone. Don’t ignore your gut feelings that something isn't’t right.  Check it out by talking to them and their teachers.
  4. Discuss personal boundaries and healthy boundaries in relationships. It is important that kids understand the function of boundaries and why they are important. Boundaries protect who we are as individuals and set the tone for all of our relationships. Having boundaries means that we have to enforce them through our words and actions.
  5. Encourage your teen to define the qualities in a partner that they value. Having romantic interests is all about figuring out what qualities we prefer, and don’t prefer, in a future partner. Our own personal values can be the foundation for identifying these qualities. While being cute and funny can capture our attention healthy relationships go far beyond that. Help them to explore the differences between characteristics getting their attention and qualities that make that person someone you really want to invest in.
  6. Discuss things your teen should know about someone before getting involved with them. Consider such things as knowing their full name, how old they are, who they live with, what their interests/hobbies are, values, number of sexual partners, social group and school performance.
  7. Discuss your teen’s expectations of sex. One good indicator of being ready to engage in a romantic relationship is being able to discuss the topic comfortably. Being mindful of personal expectations for the physical and emotional experience during and after and expectations of their partner can make a difference between a positive or negative outcome.
  8. Educate your teen about the emotional challenges of sexual relationships. For some individuals going to the next level in a relationship by having sex is a huge game changer. Partners can experience increased time demands, jealousy, insecurity, and anger. While, ideally, physical intimacy is meant to be an act of love, trust and increased connectedness in a relationship; when a partner isn't’t ready sex breeds more stress and confusion in a relationship.
  9. Raise the bar for defining self-respect with your teen. Self-respect includes how we engage our bodies, what we do with our bodies, and what we allow others to do with our bodies. Standing up for, being mindful about the treatment of bodies, and how we portray ourselves is critically important when building self-respect.
  10. Encourage your teen to know the reasons why they choose to engage in sexual acts. I always say that an informed decision is the best decision. If choosing to engage is centered on fear of not being like/loved, fitting in, breaking up, or coercion then this is a recipe for disaster. Being pressured into sex through persistent requests, threats, or emotional manipulation (“if you love me…”) are red flags for an abusive relationship. 

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