High-profile teen pregnancies can be segue for ‘the talk’

Teen pregnancy has been in the national spotlight this year.

First, the movie “Juno” won an Academy Award for tackling the subject with humor.

Then, Jamie Lynn Spears, star of Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” gave birth in June at the age of 17.

And most recently, the pregnancy of Bristol Palin, the 17-year-old daughter of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, was announced.

The latest figures from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the teen birth rate, which fell by 34 percent from 1991 to 2005, rose for the first time in 2006. Birth rates for teens ages 15 to 19 increased by 3 percent during this period between 2005 and 2006.

The Advocates for Youth Web site says the United States continues to have higher rates of teen pregnancy and birth than other industrialized nations. Most teenage mothers come from socially and/or economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and adolescent motherhood often compounds this disadvantage.

Research states that young people who finish high school (or better still, obtain a college degree), wait until their 20s to marry. Those who have children after they marry are much more likely to achieve their life goals than those who do not follow this “success sequence.” A child born to an unmarried teen mother who has not finished high school is nine times more likely to be poor than a child born to an adult parent who is married and has at least graduated from high school.

If you’re like many parents, you know you should talk to your children about relationships, sex, pregnancy, contraception and family formation. But — also like lots of parents — you may not know what to say or when to start the conversation. You’re probably not ready to broach the subject tonight at dinner, but you know you have to do it sooner or later … preferably before Mr. or Ms. Right Now shows up.

The aforementioned news items can make a perfect entry for parents to begin talking with their children.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy provides 10 tips for parents to consider.

• Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes. Communicating with your children about sex, love and relationships is often more successful when you are certain in your own mind about these issues.

• Talk with your children early and often about sex, and be specific. Kids have lots of questions about sex, and they often say that the source they’d most like to go to for answers is their parents. Make sure the conversation is not a lecture, but a two-way dialog that is open, honest and respectful.

Age-appropriate conversations about relationships and intimacy should begin early in a child’s life and continue through adolescence. Resist the idea that there should be just one interaction, “the talk.” There are many books and videos available to help parents with this subject. Here are some questions that kids say they most like to discuss:

— How do I know if I’m in love?

— Will sex bring me closer to my girlfriend/boyfriend?

— How will I know when I’m ready to have sex?

— Should I wait until marriage?

— Will having sex make me popular?

— Will it make me more grown-up?

— How do I tell my boyfriend/girlfriend that I don’t want to have sex without losing him/her or hurting his/her feelings?

— How do I manage pressure to have sex?

— How does contraception work?

— Are some methods better than others? Are they safe?

— Can you get pregnant the first time?

• Supervise and monitor your children and adolescents. Establish rules, curfews and standards of expected behavior, preferably through an open process of family discussion and respectful communication.

• Know your children’s friends and their families. Friends have a strong influence on each other, so help your children and teenagers become friends with kids whose families share your values. Even if your views don’t match those of other parents, hold fast to your convictions. Welcome your children’s friends into your home and talk to them openly.

• Discourage early, frequent, and steady dating. Group activities among young people are fine and often fun, but allowing teens to begin steady, one-on-one dating long before age 16 can lead to trouble. Let your child know about your strong feelings about this throughout childhood.

• Take a strong stand against your child dating someone significantly older. The risk of matters getting out of hand increases when there’s a big age difference between your teen and their partner. Try setting a limit of no more than a two- or at most three-year age difference.

• Help your teenagers have options for the future that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood. The chances that your children will delay sex, pregnancy and parenthood are significantly increased if their futures appears bright. This means helping them set meaningful goals for the future, talking to them about what it takes to make future plans come true, and helping them reach their goals.

• Let your kids know that you value education highly. Encourage your children to take school seriously and to set high expectations about their school performance.

• Know what your kids are watching, reading and listening to. It is important to talk with your children about what the media portray and what you think about it.

Encourage your kids to think critically. Ask them what they think about the programs they watch and the music they listen to. You will probably not be able to fully control what your children see and hear, but you can certainly make your views known and control your own home environment.

• Strive for a relationship that is warm in tone, firm in discipline and rich in communication, and one that emphasizes mutual trust and respect. These first nine tips for helping your children avoid teen pregnancy work best when they occur as part of a strong, close parent-child relationship that begins at an early age.

It is never too late to improve a relationship with a child or teenager. The next article will focus on how to help your teen understand about relationships, to know that it is more than just sex.

• Tram Vuong Meadows is the Therapeutic Foster Home Program Therapist for Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i. She can be reached at tmeadows@haleopio.org, or Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i Inc., 2959 Umi St., Lihu’e, HI 96766.

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