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Sex and mental health

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Sex and mental health

Today my 17 year old son shared with me that he is in a sexual relationship. I wasn’t completely surprised as I suspected he either was, or was soon going to be. I do however have some concerns.

Firstly, he does not know the girl very well. They have been talking online for a few weeks and face to face less than one week. This is a very sudden development.

My son is autistic and has mental health issues. He was diagnosed with autism only recently, and we’re working through that as well as significant depression and other related issues with a psychiatrist. He is highly intelligent, and this has been a contributing factor in how he’s masked his autism for his whole childhood. Some of his mental health issues stem from burnout.

He is very unstable right now, and we’re in the process of changing medications. There’s a really concerning recklessness about him, and he is in a hypomanic state due to adverse medication effects. He is vulnerable, and prone to bad decisions. I am worried that becoming sexually active is a bad decision for him right now. However, there is a certain amount of freedom that seems appropriate to give him at his age and I can’t see how I could (or should) realistically have prevented this.

My response when he told me this was to thank him for his honesty and tell him that I am worried he’s being a bit reckless. He acknowledged that perhaps he is, but said she makes him happy. I said please be safe and prevent pregnancy. He said he is.

I am unsure if there’s more I should do. I don’t think this is something he can really handle right now with his mental health so fragile, but I know he will do what he is going to do. It just feels like one hit after another at the moment, I’m exhausted and fighting battles on all fronts.

I don’t want this to end badly, it feels like we’re on a knife edge with him and it could go one way or the other in terms of his mental health. This seems like a complication that he doesn’t need and could send him into another spiral if it ends badly; and I’m sure it will end, because he is not himself at all. I want him to have happy, healthy relationships and to explore his sexuality safely, at the right time for him; this doesn’t feel safe.

Re: Sex and mental health

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Hi @NLSBH welcome to the forums and thank you for sharing what has been going on with your son. From what you have described, it seems like you are torn between knowing that he is of an age where sexual relationships are normal and to be expected and your very real concerns about his mental health, his vulnerability and the consequences of this relationship breaking down. Your care and determination to do the right thing by respecting your son while also wondering how you can protect his emotional and mental health really stands out to me.

I can see that you are wondering if you are doing everything you can for your son, and wanted to provide some affirmation from what I've read in your post while also giving some support. Firstly, I wanted to point out that it's very difficult to have a level of control over a 17 year old's relationship which isn't restricting for that age. We have a few articles on this topic, such as this piece on preparing for your teenager to be sexually active, talking to your teenager about sex which also includes a note of what sex may mean for your teen, and another piece on sexting and online sexual behaviour which may be relevant. For your son, the ReachOut space for young people also has a topic on sex which may provide some insight too. What I'm noticing is that you already have done a lot of these things with your son, including making sure he understands safe sex and being there if he has any worries. The fact that he feels safe enough to be honest with you is a huge achievement, and I'm sure that you will be able to continue to have these conversations respectfully if you need to. It may even be worth exploring with him what supports he has to manage this relationship if it does end poorly, for example friends or hobbies.

It's also completely understandable that you are concerned about whether your son is emotionally ready to be in a sexual relationship based on his mental health. You mentioned that he has been struggling with significant depression and now has been diagnosed with autism. You also said that he has issues stemming from burnout. I was wondering if he has been able to seek supports for his burnout, whether that is with the school if he is struggling academically or with his psychiatrist or another professional? It also seems that as he is switching medications it is causing a hypomanic phase, which can be quite concerning especially considering that it is manifesting in reckless behaviour. Additionally, hypomania from certain medications could suggest a different diagnosis to what he is already being treated for. Is his treating doctor aware of these side effects and perhaps how long they will persist for? Having some understanding of what you can do to manage this behaviour could help to make sure your son does not act any more recklessly than he may already be.

Finally, I can see that this is having a massive toll on your own stress levels. It is a lot to feel concerned about your son's safety on a daily basis, and I was wondering if you have any other supports you've been able to discuss this with? Making time for your own self-care can have a massive impact in being able to show up for yourself and your son. If you wanted some extra advice from a trained professional, we offer a 1:1 free Parent Coaching Service which may be helpful for you. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts Heart