BY ANNELISE GOLDSTEIN
Even in best cases, parenting a teenager has all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. There’s enough human drama to engage your full range of emotions. There’s enough intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat. There’s enough suspense to keep you up at night. There’s enough conflict to raise your blood pressure. And, of course, there’s romance and sex. There’s the heart-warming romance of the first kiss and suggestive SMS messages (handwritten notes of previous generations). And there’s first sexual experiences that tap into parents’ deepest fears. But unlike the movie, it doesn’t end. It’s 24 hours a day. Seven days a week. Anywhere between five to ten years.
Despite parents’ knowledge of the difficult sexual choices and pressures facing teens today, nothing prepares them for their teenager’s confession, girl or boy, of an unexpected pregnancy. Parents react in different ways. With anger, disappointment, fear, and worry. Many ask themselves, “Is this my fault?” “What could I have done differently?” “Could I have prevented it?” “How worried should I be?”
As a parent to a pregnant teen, there’s reason to worry. Teenage mothers and their children suffer numerous risks. Seventy percent of teenage mothers drop out of school. Teen mothers are twice as likely to end up on welfare. Half of all girls who become pregnant as teens get pregnant again within two years.
There are health risks. Pregnant teens often lack proper nutrition and prenatal medical care. A teenager’s bone structure might not be fully developed and can be permanently damaged by pregnancy and childbirth. Teen mothers are more likely to suffer pregnancy complications and have low birth weight infants. Low birth weight puts babies at risk for problems with respiratory, digestive and cognitive functioning.
Consequently, children of teen mothers face increased challenges from the very start. They are more likely to grow up in poverty, have health problems, have difficulties in school, be abused and neglected and become foster children. There are future implications. Boys of teen mothers are thirteen percent more likely to be incarcerated. Girls are 22 percent more likely to become teen mothers themselves.
What’s going on at national and state levels?
As most know, the US has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among fully industrialized nations. One in five teens has sex by the age of fifteen. One million American teens get pregnant each year. Thirteen percent of American babies are born to teens.
Georgia is ranked among the states with highest rates of teenage pregnancy. In 1992, Georgia was ranked fifth in the nation for teen pregnancies. Based on most recent statistics, Georgia has moved to seventh position, reducing its teen pregnancy rate of 127 per 1000 girls in 1992 to 109 per 1000 in 1996. Georgia ranks fifth among states for highest numbers of teen births to girls between ages of 15 to 17. In 2000, Georgia had 36 births per 1,000 girls as compared to the national average of 27 births per 1,000. This is down from 1990 Georgia statistics of 50 births per 1,000 girls.
Over the past ten years, Georgia has attempted to tackle this issue head-on. Georgia is considered a pioneer in creating community-based youth development projects. Teen pregnancy prevention is no exception. There are numerous state-wide initiatives including the Abstinence Education Campaign, Comprehensive Adolescent Health Services called Teen Plus, Planned Parenthood programs and Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Prevention Pregnancy (G-CAPP) launched by Jane Fonda (www.gcapp.org). Local programs include SMART Moves and SMART Girls sponsored by Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
What are risk factors for teen pregnancy?
Most researchers agree teen pregnancy is a complex problem without easy answers. Jane Fonda’s Georgia Campaign, based on national studies, identifies five risk factors of teenage pregnancy.
The first is poverty. About 80 percent of pregnant teens come from poor families. The second is sexual abuse. Two thirds of pregnant girls, aged fifteen or younger, have been sexually abused. On this topic, Fonda is passionate. “When a girl has been abused, she has also been brainwashed. A message has been sent that she is only of value as a sexual being. She is robbed of a sense of identity, she is robbed of a sense of having her own boundaries, a sense of ownership over her body”.
School failure is the third. Poor school performance leads children to lose faith in themselves. According to Fonda, one of the primary reasons teens have children before they’re ready is because they don’t feel they’ll ever amount to anything. They lack a vision of the future.
The fourth risk factor is lack of good parenting. Numerous studies show that having good role models, open communication and close relationships with parents reduces risk for teen pregnancy. The fifth factor is a lack of reproductive health services for adolescents. Lack of access to reliable information and birth control increases risks for pregnancy.
What can we do to prevent teen pregnancy?
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has released two reports assisting parents and educators in preventing pregnancy called “Talking Back: What teens want adults to know about teen pregnancy” and “Get Organized: A guide to preventing teen pregnancy. The National Campaign’s comprehensive website (www.teenpregnancy.org) offers a wealth of resources including tips for parents and guidance for teens by teens. These reports can be accessed and ordered at the website or by contacting the National Campaign at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 478-8500. Major points from the national campaign site are listed below:
What teens want adults to know about teen pregnancy
- Show us why teen pregnancy and parenting are such bad ideas: Let us hear real stories directly from teen parents about how hard it is and why parenthood would get in the way of reaching our goals.
- Show us what good responsible relationships look like: We’ll follow your example of respect, communication and responsibility.
- Talk to us honestly about sex, love and relationships: Even though we’re young, our feelings are real and intense. We want to talk about it, not be lectured.
- Know that telling us not to have sex is not enough: Explain why you feel like you do and tell us how you felt as a teen. Keep an open mind and remember that it may be different for us.
- Whether we have sex or not, we need to be prepared: We need to know how to avoid pregnancy and STDs. We need to hear information from adults we trust.
- Don’t leave us alone so much: If you can’t be home with us, know what we’re up to and help us find meaningful things to do. If we go to a party, make sure there’s an adult present.
- We really care what you think even if we don’t act like it. Even though we look grown-up, we want your help and advice. Even though we may not do what you tell us, don’t think you failed or stop trying.
Tips for parents to help children avoid teen pregnancy
- Be clear about your own values and attitudes about sex, love and relationships: Communication will be easier if you know where you stand on issues regarding teen sexu ality and your own sexuality.
- Talk with children early and often about sex: Be specific and age-appropriate. Emphasize the positive aspects of sex, love and relationships, not just down-sides or warnings. Books and videos can help.
- Supervise children and teenagers: Establish rules, curfews and standards of expected behavior.
- Discourage early, frequent and steady dating: Encourage group activities instead. Dating before age 16 increases risks of pregnancy.
- Take a strong stand against a daughter’s relationship with a significantly older boy or man: Older guys seem glamor ous but it sets up a power difference leading to risky situa tions. Limit age difference to 2-3 years.
- Make options for the future sound more attractive than pregnancy and parenthood: Help teens set meaningful goals and talk concretely about how to reach those goals.
- Let kids know that you value education highly: School failure can be a first sign of trouble. Keep in contact with the school and support the completion of homework assignments.
The recurring theme in these reports is teens want open communication and close contact with the adults in their lives, even if they don’t always act that way. Not just about issues relating to sex. Teens want contact with adults in all aspects of life.
Teens value and respect honesty. They respect differences in opinion but not hypocrisy. An adult’s actions need to be consistent with their values. Teens want real and accurate information both about sex and about love. They’re trying to figure out the world. They want to hear hard truths from other teens who have been pregnant or are parents. They also need to hear the truth from adults who care about them.
A critical point is the power of information. Research shows being prepared for sex doesn’t promote sexual behavior. Being well-informed about sexuality, birth control, STDs, pregnancy and parenting helps teens realize these are complicated issues with serious consequences.
The basic message to parents is Get Involved. Get involved in activities and discussions with your children that have nothing to do with sex. Get involved in educating and guiding your children in life choices and future dreams. Spend time with your teen and be present, not just in body but in mind and spirit. Tell them your views of sex, relationships and love and everything else for that matter.
Be more than an authority figure saying “No”. Show them who you are: a human being with thoughts, feelings, fears, concerns, hopes and dreams.
Two programs in Georgia that claim significant results preventing pregnancy:
- Cool Girls, Inc. (http://www.thecoolgirls.org/): This Atlanta-based program matches girls from disadvantaged backgrounds with adult mentors. Cool Girls is credited with dropping teen pregnancy rates among their participants by two-thirds. The program serves Fulton and DeKalb counties.
- STAND (Students Together Against Negative Decisions) www.mercer.edu/publications/discoveries/riskybus.htm: This program is organized in conjunction with Mercer University in Macon. The program uses 10th graders as peer educators on topics of sexual responsibility, pregnancy prevention and STDs. It claims to decrease both sexual behavior and unprotected sex among program participants.
Internet Resources for Teens, Parents and Educators:
www.teenpregnancy.org: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (see reports called 10 Tips for Parents, Talking Back: What teens want adults to know about teen pregnancy, Get Organized: A guide to preventing teen pregnancy, Across America: Preventing teen pregnancy in California, Georgia and Michigan)
www.realityworksinc.com: Baby think it over program helping teens make decisions about pregnancy and parenting through simulation learning
www.standupgirl.com: Place where girls can share the truth about unwanted pregnancies
www.tscnow.com: (Teen Support Chat) Staffed support chat room to help teens with problems
www.sxetc.org: (Sex, etc.) A website for teens by teens, Created in conjunction with Rutgers University in NJ
For Parents and Educators:
www.gcapp.org: Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP) Homepage. Includes research, reports, programs, events and contact information
www.talkingwithkids.org: Good advice about talking to kids about sex, pregnancy and STDs
www.cfoc.org: (Campaign for Our Children) parent and educator resource centers
www.etr.org/recapp/index.htm: Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention offers resources and ideas for teachers and health educators.
- United Nations Population Fund Press Release on Adolescent Pregnancy
- Robin Hood Foundation Report, 1996
- Kids Count Data Online, June 11, 2003
- Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP)
- National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
- Good Ideas from 239 Cities: A kid-friendly cities report
- “Health Communities”#