Parent Power: What Parents Need to Know and Do to Help Prevent Teen Pregnancy

— National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Before we begin...

Whether they believe it or not, parents have a very important influence on whether their teenagers become pregnant or cause a pregnancy. Although teen culture may often seem to be little more than a blur of bare midriffs and over-the-top sexual innuendo, parents need to know that when it comes to young people's decisions about sex, their influence has not been lost to peers and popular culture. They are powerful and they can use this power in sound, helpful ways.

As this title suggests, Parent Power offers good news for parents and those who work with, care for, and write about, young people. Parent Power compiles much of what is known about parental influence and offers parents practical things they can do to help their children delay sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy. The simple and compelling message of Parent Power is that families matter. A lot.

35% of girls become pregnant at least once by age 20.1 One in five young people has sex by age 15.3

One in five young people has sex by age 15.

Why care about teen pregnancy? Compared to women who delay childbearing, teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to end up on welfare. The children of teen mothers are at significantly increased risk of low birthweight and prematurity, mental retardation, poverty, growing up without a father, welfare dependency, poor school performance, insufficient health care, inadequate parenting, and abuse and neglect.2

Insights from research

While parents clearly cannot determine their children's decisions about sex, the quality of their relationships with their children can make a real difference.4 More than two decades of robust research - supplemented by common sense, recent public opinion polls and the voices of teens themselves - provides parents with some guiding themes:

Relationships matter. Overall closeness between parents and their children, shared activities, parental presence in the home, and parental caring and concern are all associated with a reduced risk of early sex and teen pregnancy.5 Teens who are close to their parents and feel supported by them are more likely to abstain from sex, wait until they are older to begin having sex, have fewer sexual partners, and use contraception more consistently.6

More than talk. It is important for parents to discuss sex, love, and relationships directly with their children. They need to be clear and candid. Parents should realize, however, that simply talking with their teens about the risks of early sex, for example, without being more deeply involved in their lives and close to them is unlikely to delay first sex, increase contraceptive use, or decrease the risk of pregnancy. The overall quality of the relationship appears to be more "protective" than specific conversations about particular sexual issues.7

Most teens (69%) agree it would be much easier for them to postpone sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversations about these topics with their parents. (2002 survey of young people aged 12- 19.)8

Parental reluctance is a problem. Parents and other adults often report that they are uncomfortable talking about sex and pregnancy with teens - that they shy away from taking a clear position on these issues. This may be due to queasiness about "imposing one's values on another." It may be because parents rarely had adult role models who discussed these issues when they were teens. It may also reflect a culture that has become increasingly tolerant of non-marital sex, unwed pregnancy and parenthood. Still others are unwilling to take a strong stand out of concern that they might offend those teens who are already pregnant or parenting, or might inadvertently stigmatize the children of teen mothers. Whatever the reason, if parents and other adults can't say - simply and directly - that teen pregnancy and parenthood are in no one's best interest, how can any of us be surprised at the high rates of teen pregnancy and birth in this country?

Attitudes and values matter, too. Teens whose parents are clear about the value of abstinence, and/ or about the dangers of unprotected intercourse, are more likely to delay first sex and to use contraception.10 Put another way, parents who provide clear messages about the value of delaying sex have children who are less likely to have intercourse at an early age, and those parents who discuss contraception are also more likely to have children who use contraception when they become sexually active.11

Teens offer various reasons why they don't talk with their parents about sex, including concern about their parent's reaction (83%), worry that their parents will think they are having sex (80%), embarrassment (78%), a feeling that they don't know how to bring the subject up (77%), and the belief that parents won't understand (64%). (2002 survey of young people age 15-17.)

Parental supervision. Research supports what common sense suggests - supervising and monitoring teens' behavior makes a difference. Teens whose parents supervise them are more likely to be older when they first have sex, to have fewer partners, to use contraception, and to be at less risk of pregnancy. It should be noted, however, that "very strict" monitoring by parents is associated with a greater risk of teen pregnancy.12

Parents and peers. When asked who influences teens' decisions about sex the most, half of adults cited teenagers' friends as the main source. Far fewer teens agreed. Less than a third of teens (32%) said friends are most influential (2001 survey of young people aged 12-19). Parents apparently overestimate the influence of peers and underestimate their own influence.13 Teens are clear: parents matter.

"Parents are the ones we listen to the most. Even if parents don't think kids are listening, you'd be amazed at how many really are." - National Campaign Youth Leadership Team member, 16

Family structure. Family structure and where a family lives are also related to the risk of teen pregnancy. Children in single-parent families and teens with older brothers and sisters who are sexually active or have been pregnant or given birth, are more likely to begin sexual activ- ity at an early age. Young people who grow up in abusive families are more likely to be sexually active and not to use contraception consistently. And those teens living in neighborhoods beset by poverty, unemployment, and high crime rates are more likely to start having sex early, not to use contraception, and to become pregnant or cause a pregnancy (suggesting, of course, that poverty is a cause as well as a result of teen pregnancy). 18 Still, these are not the most powerful explanations for why teens initiate sex at an early age.19

More than half of teens (53%) say parents or their own morals, values, and religious beliefs influence their decisions about sex the most - far more than such other influences as friends, the media, teachers and sex educators (2002 survey of young people age 12-19.)14 Fewer than five out of ten teens recently surveyed strongly agreed that they are getting a clear message that teen pregnancy is wrong.15 (2001 survey of teens age 12-19.)

Other risky behaviors. The close parent-child relationships that help protect young people from early sex also help limit other risky behavior such as violence, substance and alcohol use, and school failure. Whether parents are concerned about drinking, drugs, violence, trouble in school, smoking, or sex (or all of the above), the best advice is the same - stay closely connected to your teenage sons and daughters.20

Parents in the dark. Many parents are not aware that their children have had sex. For example, only about a third of parents of sexually experienced 14- year-olds believe that their child has had sex.21 When sexually experienced 8th to 11th graders were surveyed, about 50% of their parents were unaware that their sons and daughters had started to have sex.22 Insights from research

Over half of young adolescents, in particular, say if they are considering having sex or if they want guidance on dealing with pressure to have sex they would first want to talk to their parents. (From a 1999 survey of young people aged 10-15.)16 Even so, close to half of all 15- to 17-year-olds surveyed (48%) - and 56% of those who have had sex - say they have never talked with their parents about how to know when you are "ready to have sex." (2002 survey of young people age 15-17.)

Dating dangers. Not surprisingly, two of the most powerful risk factors for early sex and pregnancy, are close romantic attachments and significant age differences between partners.23 Romantic relationships between young teens significantly increase the risk of too-early sex. One-on-one dating in the presence of large age differences (three years or more) is also a high-risk proposition. Consider the following information about young adolescents: 13% of same-age relationships among those aged 12-14 include sexual intercourse. If the partner is two years older, 26% of the relationships include sex. If the partner is three or more years older, 33% of the relationships include sex.24

A national consensus. Most adults share a common sense approach toward preventing early sexual activity and parenthood: School-age youth should be clearly encouraged not to have sex - both because of important consequences and because sex should be associated with meaning and serious commitment. (In fact, for most Americans, abstinence is not one of several equally attractive options for young people, it is the strongly preferred option). It is also true that even in the face of clear, direct advice to remain abstinent, some young people will not do so. Given this reality, the overwhelming majority of adults also believe that young people should be given information about the benefits and limitations of contraception and provided with appropriate health services, too.25 In short, public opinion sees a role for both abstinence and contraceptive information and services. It's not either-or, but both.

A large majority of parents (76%) and teens (64%) say they wish teens/they were getting more information about abstinence and contraception.26 (2002 survey of young people age 12-19).

Give teens credit. Discussing abstinence and contraception at the same time does not confuse teens. The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence suggests that addressing abstinence and contraception does not hasten the onset of sex, increase the frequency of sex, or increase the number of sexual partners.27 And most teens (70%) describe messages encouraging abstinence, coupled with information about contraception, as "clear and specific".28

Limits on schools. Many parents want schools to do more.29 This may be, in part, because parents are uncomfortable talking with their children; some also feel that they simply don't know enough to be fully adequate sex educators. There is good reason to turn to schools: That's where most teens are, some schools have well-trained sex education teachers, and sex-related topics can be included in broader curricula stressing health promotion. Still, expecting schools to shoulder all the responsibility in this area has a downside. No matter how good the sex education that a particular school might offer, it is unrealistic and perhaps even unwise to think that it can all be left up to schools to put the complex issues of love, sex, and relationships in the context that each family prefers. And many people feel that public schools are not the appropriate place to discuss religious teachings about these same issues, even though faith-based values often are a very important influence on the sexual decisions of teens.

In sum. Parents who (1) clearly communicate their values and expectations to their children, (2) express their concern and love for them early and often, and (3) exercise supervision - including their child's selection of friends and role models - raise children who are more likely to avoid a host of risky behaviors than parents who do not. The overall strength and closeness of parent/child relationships seems to be the best protection of all.

A note about Hispanic parents. In 2001, the National Campaign - along with the Bravo Group, a leading communications firm, and PEOPLE en Espanol magazine - launched a long-term education and awareness effort to support Hispanic parents in helping their teens avoid pregnancy. This effort was undertaken, in part, because Hispanic teen pregnancy rates have not declined as steeply as have the rates of other groups. As part of this effort, focus groups were conducted with Hispanic parents.

Not surprisingly, one of the primary conclusions from this research is that Hispanic parents want what all parents want - a positive, loving relationship with their children and a successful, healthy future for them. However, the barriers they face in reaching these goals are more complex and include language and cultural differences. Parents participating in the focus groups agreed on many points:

  • Communicating with children and being closely involved in their lives are essential to healthy and safe adolescent development and central to reducing teen pregnancy.
  • It's often hard to have open discussions with children about sex, but parents must break the silence that often surrounds this issue.
  • Parents and their children share responsibility for preventing teen pregnancy.
  • Talking with kids about sex, love, and values; supervising their activities; knowing their friends; helping them define goals for the future; and providing them with direction on how to accomplish these goals are specific ways adults can help prevent teen pregnancy.
  • Finally, no matter what the age of the child, a parent's job is never done.31

"We need to talk to our kids about sex because nobody talked to us." - San Antonio Father

Three out of five Hispanic girls in the U.S. become pregnant by age 20.32

"I would be extremely grateful if my parents talked to me about these issues. It shows that they care about the tough decisions that we have to make in our lives." - Lara, 15, Teen People magazine "trendspotter."

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