Q&A: Teen pregnancy
September 2, 2008
The teen pregnancy rate has increased for the first time in fifteen years. This is apparent in the public eye with the news that Bristol Palin, the 17-year-old daughter of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is pregnant and the recent birth of Nickelodeon's Zoey 101 star, 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears' daughter. Parents are wondering how they should talk to their children about pregnancy, sexuality and the influence famous people and media attention have on the decisions of others. Joanne Cox, MD, and Jennifer Valenzuela of Children's Hospital Boston's Young Parents Program and adolescent medicine specialist Sara Forman, MD, took time to give their thoughts.
Teen pregnancy comes with a host of challenges (emotional, physical, financial and social), What are some of these that other young people should understand?
JV: Teen pregnancy changes family dynamics because parents have to confront the fact that their child is sexually active. Emotionally, adolescent girls are going through major hormonal changes and there is an even bigger hormonal flux when that is paired with pregnancy. Socially, they may become part of the gossip ring at their school. A teen mother's life drastically changes, and her relationships with her girlfriends may suffer. The financial burden is huge, with the cost of raising a baby estimated at $11,000 in the first year alone.*
What do you hope the Bristol Palin pregnancy will teach parents?
SF: Parents need to remember their kids are sexual beings and have hormones that make them have sexual feelings toward each other, and if you ignore that they will just receive their information from the media and friends. They are barraged by the media with messages that are not particularly healthy, and it's the job of the responsible adults in their lives to start talking to kids about these issues.
JC: Parents need to accept the fact that their children may become sexually active and they need to educate them about contraception. There is no evidence that providing birth control means your teen will become sexually active. It is downright dangerous to only teach abstinence. It is more important to teach them to delay the initiation of sexual activity and about contraception. A teen needs to know what to do if they get into a situation where sex is an option.
How should parents talk to their kids about sex?
SF: Bristol Palin's pregnancy is a wonderful opportunity for parents to engage their children in conversation about sexuality and a variety of issues, including the effectiveness of birth control, STDs and larger issues such as statutory rape, which is a part of the story that is starting to get a lot of attention. When engaging in sexual activity, there is more to worry about than just pregnancy. If you don't want you kids having sex at 16, it's time to engage then in a conversation about your attitudes about that. It is also a way for parents to hear from their kids, as opposed to just lecturing them. Parents should share their own values and beliefs, and even if their kids may not agree with them, they will hear them. Establishing an open line of communication minimizes risk.
JC: Having open communication with a teenager about issues around sex and relationships, very early on in the teenage years, is important. And because teens don't always want to talk to their parents about these issues, I think it's really important for teens to have doctors they can talk to about these issues in a safe and confidential way.
How will Jamie Lynn Spears's pregnancy impact her fans of different ages?
SF: I think every child and teen will have their own feelings about this situation, based on their community and their upbringing. For a lot of kids, it's not such a big deal because they are aware that kids are out there having sex. Her young audience members probably won't understand, but the young pre-teens and adolescents may be shocked, because it means she had sex, and she was a role model for them. The slightly older age group will probably be disappointed and think she is hypocritical.
What impact will glorified media attention have on teens' perception of teen pregnancy?
JC: If she acts excited about the pregnancy, it glosses over how hard it is for teen mothers to handle all aspects of teen pregnancy. They get thrown into adulthood before they are ready for it. If she projects the message that this is exciting and normal to have a boyfriend, fall in love and have a baby at her age, we don't want other girls to follow in her footsteps. The only way she can remain a positive role model is if she comes out to support teen contraception.
SF: She could also be a role model to other teenagers who become pregnant if she is a responsible parent.
What should other young parents take from all of this hype and understand about their own opportunities as young parents?
JC: They shouldn't allow this to affect them in a negative way. There is a big backlash that is likely to emerge condemning Jamie Lynn or Bristol Palin, but I think once teens have become parents, they moved into an adult parenting role and they need to feel positive about what they can do for their children. They need to focus on bettering themselves in order to be better parents for their children.
What are some of the most common misconceptions about teen pregnancy?
JC: Many adults think teens get pregnant to get public funds and they are lazy or taking the easy road out, and that's hardly the case with any of these kids. Teens think that they won't get pregnant the first time they have sex or it's difficult to get pregnant. Some girls also think having a baby will help cement their relationship with their boyfriend or be a source of unconditional love.
How does Children's support teens so they won't get pregnant and young parents after they have kids?
JC:We provide confidential health care to adolescents, which includes counseling about relationships and sex and how to avoid pregnancy. We also have social services available for kids who have other stresses that can lead to being pregnant or wanting to be pregnant.
Children's Hospital Boston is home to the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, where its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. More than 500 scientists, including eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, 11 members of the Institute of Medicine and 12 members of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute comprise Children's research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Children's Hospital Boston today is a 377-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care grounded in the values of excellence in patient care and sensitivity to the complex needs and diversity of children and families. Children's also is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. For more information about the hospital and its research visit: www.childrenshospital.org/newsroom.
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