Talking with your child about teen pregnancy

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What do your teens know about pregnancy?
By Courtney Macavinta

The media has been buzzing about an alleged pregnancy pact made by some of the 17 pregnant students at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts. The same week the story broke, tween idol Jamie Lynn Spears became a mom after a reportedly unplanned pregnancy. And according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, recent data shows that the teen birth rate is on the rise for the first time in 15 years. Case in point: Aa recent study by the CDC found that condom use is down among teens and first-time sex for those under age 13 is on the rise.

Though there is now dispute about whether the Gloucester pact was real, with 17 girls pregnant at one school--and teen pregnancy on the rise in general--does it matter if there was a pact? For parents, the question becomes: What do your teens know about teen pregnancy and how can you all play a role in prevention? Before you start in about the facts or your values about sex and pregnancy, try asking your teens what they think to truly get the conversation going. It also shows that you respect that they are young adults with their own ideas and values--and if they feel you aren't judging them it keeps the door open so they can come to you for advice and support.

Here are some tips for parents from Courtney Macavinta, founder of

Tip #1 Get informed

Explore web sites like to learn the facts about teen pregnancy and to get tips and resources for parents. Sign up for their news alerts to stay on top of trends and hot topics that will be great conversation-starters with your teens.

Tip #2 Ask your teens what *they* think causes teen pregnancy (and the STDs that can come with unprotected sex, too)

These hot-button media stories are a great launching point to ask your sons and daughters what they know about pregnancy prevention. Ask them questions like: "What do you think led those 17 girls in Massachusetts or Jamie Lynn to get pregnant at young ages?" Don't settle for answers like "They were stupid!" Ask them more questions to inspire them to dig deeper. And ask open-ended questions that encourage them to think about these issues for themselves and see their responsibility in making self-respecting choices. Ask them questions like:

  • What are reasons you think people have unprotected sex or sex at a young age?
  • What could have prevented those pregnancies?
  • What are the downsides of teen or unplanned pregnancy?
  • If someone plans to get pregnant at a young age, what do you think they're wanting?
  • Who influences you and your friends' decisions around sex and pregnancy/STD prevention?
  • In a relationship, who's responsible for taking steps to prevent pregnancy and STDs? Do you see any differences in how guys and girls are taught to prevent pregnancy and STDs?
  • For you personally, what's the best way to prevent pregnancy and STDs?

Tip #3 Ask them about their goals and how you can help

Most teen parents face numerous extra challenges. They have lower completion rates of high school or struggle to make ends meet long-term or many girls end up being single parents. According to The National Campaign: "Simply put, if more children in this country were born to parents who are ready and able to care for them, we would see a significant reduction in a host of social problems in the United States, from school failure and crime to child abuse and neglect."

One teen pregnancy prevention tact is to support your teens in designing a future they choose versus one they fall into by accident. Ask them questions like:

  • If you could have it your way, where do you see yourself in five years? What's your life like and what are you doing?
  • What do you need to do to make this happen?
  • What people or resources can help you reach your goals (including pregnancy/STD prevention)?
  • How can I support you in making your goals happen? What advice or resources do you want from me?
  • How can I make you feel more comfortable coming to me for help if you're struggling with a decision or make a mistake (which happens to everyone)?

Tip #4 Be honest

If you feel there are gaps in your teens' sex education, offer them info they need to make choices that keep them safe, healthy and on the track they want to be on. Be honest about what you've learned and wish you'd know when you were younger. Try not to be in denial: Almost half (48%) of high school teens say they have had sex. Teen pregnancy isn't the only issue. Unplanned pregnancy for 20-somethings is also an issue (Three-quarters of unplanned pregnancies--2.3 million--were to women 29 and younger.). So get them thinking about what they want, how they can make choices that support their goals, and how to include you as part of their trusted support network.

You don't have to ask all these questions at once! Ask when issues arise or you feel yourself getting fearful about what might happen to them. Empower them to start make choices based on what they really want in life vs. feeling powerless or aimless. In general when you start shifting from advising and telling to asking juicy questions, your relationship with your teens can stay open as they become self-sufficient adults.

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