By Amy R. Kramer National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
Wednesday, May 4, is the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. For more information, please visit The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Teen pregnancy is a serious problem in the United States. Three out of 10 girls in the U.S. get pregnant before their 20th birthdays, and 1 out of every 10 babies born in the U.S. is born to a teen mother. This isn’t good for teens, it isn’t good for taxpayers, and it certainly isn’t good for babies.
Children of teen mothers are often born into situations that are less than ideal. Babies born to teens are more likely to grow up in poverty and apart from their fathers. They are more likely to struggle academically and less likely to graduate from high school. They are more likely to be born prematurely and at low birth weight. They are twice as likely to suffer abuse and neglect. They are also more likely to become teen parents themselves someday.
Teen childbearing costs U.S. taxpayers (federal, state, and local) more than $9 billion every year. Most of the costs are associated with negative consequences for the children of teen mothers – including increased costs for health care, foster care, and incarceration.
Teen moms face a lot of challenges too. Parenthood is a primary reason girls cite for dropping out of high school. Less than half of girls who have a baby before age 18 graduate from high school and fewer than 2% earn a college degree by age 30. Eight out of 10 fathers don’t marry the teen mother of their babies and most couples don’t stay together at all. More than half of all teen mothers will be on welfare within 5 years of giving birth. Teen mothers are likely to have a second birth relatively soon – about one-fourth of teen moms have a second child within 24 months of the first – which can further impede their ability to finish school, keep a job, or escape poverty.
There is some good news though – teen pregnancy and birth rates in the U.S. have declined dramatically in the past two decades. Rates today are at the lowest levels since the government started keeping track seven decades ago. Why such a big decline? Fewer teens are sexually active today than before and more are using contraception.
Five Things Parents Need to Know:
1. How Do YOU Feel?
How do you feel about relationships, sex, contraception, dating, co-ed sleepovers, etc. It’s a good idea to talk about this with yourself and get comfortable with what you believe, so that when the topics do come up with your kids, you know where you stand. For example, how do you feel if your daughter asks you for help getting on the pill? What about if your son wants to date a girl who is much older than he is?
2. Understand That You Really Matter.
Parents often underestimate their own power over their teens’ decisions. Parents are actually more influential than any other factor – more so than peers, partners or pop culture. In a recent nationwide survey, teens were asked, “When it comes to your decisions about sex, who is most influential?” Nearly half (46%) said parents, 20% said friends, 7% said religious leaders, 5% said siblings, and 4% said media. Embrace this and take advantage of it. Make sure your kids understand what you think and how you feel. They are paying attention, even when they don’t act like. It’s also important to listen to what they think and feel.
3. It’s More Than Just The Talk.
Don’t think of this as only one talk. It’s an 18-year conversation. It starts when kids are young, when you talk about body parts and feelings and it continues, in an age-appropriate manner, until adulthood. That’s good news! When you spend a lifetime having this conversation you can ease into it, you can go back and talk again if you feel like you messed up or left something out. An ongoing discussion over many years will also underscore the importance of these topics. Everyone in the world is talking to your kids about sex constantly – the music they listen to, the movies they watch, their friends, etc. – you need to be part of that lifelong conversation, too. Also keep in mind that when your teens ask you about your own past (when did you have sex for the first time, what did you do as a teen) it is okay to say, “This conversation isn’t about me. We can talk about me another time, but right now, we are talking about you.” Also, it’s important to stress that the risks and costs of having sex nowadays are far greater than when you were a teen, and that you want them to avoid some of the mistakes you made along the way.
4. Curiosity About Sex Is a Normal Part of Growing Up.
Kids are full of hormones and urges and curiosity. Just because they have questions about sex doesn’t mean they’re doing it. Too often parents overreact when their kids have questions about these topics – doing so only makes it more awkward for everyone. Remember that curiosity is normal; you want them to feel comfortable coming to you with questions.
5. It Isn’t Just Girls.
Teen girls don’t get pregnant by themselves. If we are concerned about too-early pregnancy and parenthood, we have to talk to our sons as well as our daughters. Too often the message to girls is “Just say no,” and the message to guys is “Be careful.” It takes two people to get pregnant – and only one to prevent it. Talk to your sons as well as your daughters about the risks and consequences of having sex.
And when you do talk to your kids – which you should do regularly – here is an important thing to include:
Contraception is essential! We all want young people to delay having sex for as long as possible, and it’s important to talk to them about waiting and make sure they know that not everyone is doing it (about half of high school students have had sex, which means about half have not and some are lying). If they are going to have sex, they need to use protection every single time. No exceptions. Make sure your kids know that.
Talking to your kids about waiting and also telling them that contraception is important are complimentary messages – NOT contradictory ones. It’s like when you tell them that you don’t want them drinking, or drinking and driving, or getting in a car with someone who has been drinking – but if that situation arises, they are to call you for a ride. It’s the same with sex. You don’t want them having sex, but you also need to say that if they are going to have sex, they must use protection, and if they need you to help them get it, you will.
One of the primary reasons teens don’t use birth control is because they don’t want their parents to find out. Tell them that contraception is a must. Dealing with an unplanned pregnancy is far worse than talking to them about protection.