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Parent Power: What Parents Need to Know and Do to Help Prevent Teen Pregnancy (page 2)

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

What teens want adults to know

The National Campaign has asked teens from all over the country a simple question: If you could give your parents and other important adults advice about how to help you and your friends avoid pregnancy, what would it be? The following tips represent the major themes we heard from teens.

  • Show us why teen pregnancy is such a bad idea. For instance, let us hear directly from teen parents about how hard it has been for them. Hearing the real story from teen mothers and fathers can make a big difference. Help us understand why teen pregnancy can get in the way of reaching our goals.
  • Show us what good, responsible relationships look like. We're as influenced by what you do as what you say.
  • Talk to us honestly about love, sex, and relationships. Just because we're young doesn't mean that we can't fall in love or be interested in sex. These feelings are very real and powerful to us. Talk to us about all this (but no lectures, please). If you won't discuss these issues with us, please help us find another adult who will.
  • Telling us not to have sex is not enough. Explain why you feel that way (if you do) and ask us what we think. Tell us how you felt as a teen but understand that things may be different for us. Discuss emotions, not just health and safety. Listen to us and take our opinions seriously.
  • Even if we don't ask, we still have questions. How do I know when having sex is the right thing to do? Should I wait until marriage? How far is too far for me or someone my age? How do I handle pressures from my friends? Will having sex make me popular? How do I know if I'm in love? How do I say "no?" If we don't start these conversations, you should.
  • Whether we're having sex or not, we need to be prepared. We need to know how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. That means information about abstinence and contraception. We need honest and helpful information from the people we trust most. If we don't get information from you, we are going to get it somewhere else.
  • If we ask you about sex or contraception, don't assume we are already "doing it." We may just be curious, or we may just want to talk with someone we trust. And don't think giving us information about sex and birth control will encourage us to have sex. We need to know the facts so that we can make good decisions in the future-maybe next week, month, or years from now.
  • Pay attention to us before we get into trouble. Reward us for doing the right thing - even when it seems like no big deal. Don't shower us with attention only when we do something wrong. Talk with us about our friends, our school, what we're interested in and worried about - even the latest gossip. Come to our games and school things. Show us that you care what is happening in our lives.
  • Don't leave us alone so much. Sometimes we have sex because there's not much else to do. If you can't be home with us after school, make sure we have something to do that we really like, where there are other kids and adults who are comfortable with us. If we're at a party, make sure there is an adult around.
  • We really care what you think, even if we don't always act like it. Even though we may look all grown up, we still want your help and advice. But remember, your experiences are not the same as ours and the choices we face are often different. When we don't end up doing exactly what you tell us to, don't think that you've failed. And don't stop trying.
  • We hate "the talk" as much as you do. Please don't sit us down for a "sex talk." Instead, start talking with us about sex, love, and values when we're young, and keep the conversation going as we grow older. Making us feel comfortable and encouraging us to talk and ask questions is important too - just make sure you listen to the answers.
  • For us it's about abstinence and contraception. Not either/or. We get it. We know the best way to protect ourselves is not to have sex. But we also need to know about contraception. It seems to us that adults waste an awful lot of time arguing about all this.

"The only thing my mother told me about sex is not to have it. That's not really an education. - girl, 17

"My parents haven't had the sex conversation with me yet. I think they just assume I'm not gonna get into that." - girl, 17

Tips for parents

What can parents do to help their children avoid too-early pregnancy and parenthood? Here are a few practical, research-based tips for parents. Many of these tips will seem familiar because they articulate what parents already know from experience - like the importance of maintaining strong, close relationships with their children, setting clear expectations for them, and talking with them about important matters.

  • Be clear about your own sexual attitudes and values.

Communicating with your children about sex, love, and relationships is often more successful when you are certain in your own mind about these issues. To help clarify your attitudes and values, think about the following kinds of questions:

  • What do you really think about school-aged teenagers being sexually active - perhaps even becoming parents?
  • Who is [should be?] responsible for setting sexual limits in a relationship and how is that done, realistically?
  • Were you sexually active as a teenager and how do you feel about that now?
  • Were you sexually active before you were married? What do such reflections lead you to say to your own children about these issues?
  • What do you think about encouraging teenagers to abstain from sex?
  • What do you think about teenagers using contraception?
  • Talk with your children early and often about sex, and be specific.

Initiate the conversation, and make sure that it is honest, open, and respectful. If you can't think of how to start the discussion, consider using situations shown on television or in movies as conversation starters. Tell them candidly and confidently what you think and why you take these positions. If you're not sure about some issues, tell them that, too. Be sure to have a two-way conversation, not a one-way lecture. Ask them what they think and what they know so you can correct misconceptions. Ask what, if anything, worries them.

Age-appropriate conversations about relationships and intimacy should begin early in a child's life and continue through adolescence. Resist "the talk" - make it an 18-year conversation. All kids need a lot of communication, guidance, and information about these issues, even if they sometimes don't appear to be interested in what you have to say. And if you have regular conversations, you won't worry so much about making a mistake or saying something not quite right, because you'll always be able to talk again.

Don't let your lack of technical information make you shy. Kids need as much help in understanding the context and meaning of sex as they do in understanding how all the body parts work. Discuss the differences between love and sex and remember to talk about the reasons that kids find sex interesting and enticing; discussing only dangers and diseases misses many of the issues on teenagers' minds.

  • Be a parent with opinions. In addition to being an "askable parent," be a parent with a point of view. Tell your children what you think. Don't be reluctant to say such things as:
    • Because sex should be associated with commitment, I think high school-age teens are simply too young to have sex.
    • When you eventually do have sex, always use protection until you are ready to have a child.
    • Our family's values and/or religion say that sex should be an expression of love within marriage. I expect you to wait.
    • Finding yourself in a sexually charged situation is not unusual; you need to think about how you'll handle it in advance. Have a plan. Will you say "no"? Will you use contraception? How will you negotiate all this?
    • It's okay to think about sex and feel sexual desire; everybody does. But it doesn't mean you have to act on these feelings.
    • One of the many reasons I'm concerned about drinking and drug use is that they are often linked to bad decisions about sex.
    • Having a baby doesn't make you a man. Being able to wait and acting responsibly does.
    • You don't have to have sex to keep a boyfriend. If sex is the price of a close relationship, find someone else.
  • Supervise and monitor your children and adolescents.

Establish rules, curfews, and standards of expected behavior, preferably through open family discussions. If your children get out of school at 3 pm and you don't get home from work until 6 pm, who is responsible for making certain that your children are not only safe during those hours, but also engaged in useful activities? Where are they when they go out with friends? Are there adults around who are in charge? Supervising and monitoring your children's whereabouts doesn't make you a nag; it makes you a parent.

  • Know your children's friends and their families.

Clearly, friends have a strong influence on each other. Meet with the parents of your children's friends so that you can get to know them and establish common rules and expectations. It is easier to enforce a curfew that all your child's friends share rather than one that makes him or her different - but 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 get to know them.

  • Discourage early, frequent, and steady dating.

Allowing teens to begin steady, one-on-one dating much before age 16 can lead to trouble. Instead, support group activities. Make your strong feelings about this known early on - don't wait until your young teen proposes a plan that differs from your preferences in this area. Otherwise, he or she will think you just don't like the particular person or invitation.

  • Take a strong stand against your child dating someone older.

Try setting a limit of no more than a two- (or at most three-) year age difference. While older guys can seem glamorous to a young girl, the power differences between younger girls and older boys or men can lead girls into risky situations, including unwanted sex and sex with no protection. Young boys with older girls brings similar risks.

  • Help your teen-agers to 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 future 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. Explain how becoming pregnant - or causing pregnancy - can derail the best of plans.

  • Let your children know that you value education highly.

Encourage your child to take school seriously and set high expectations about school performance. School failure is often the first sign of trouble that can end in teenage parenthood. Monitor your children's grades and discuss them together. Meet with teachers and principals, guidance counselors, and coaches. Limit the number of hours your teenager gives to part-time jobs (20 hours per week should be the maximum) so that there is enough time and energy left to focus on school. Know about homework assignments and support your child in getting them done. Volunteer at the school, if possible.

  • Talk to sons as well as daughters.

The nearly 900,000 teen girls who get pregnant each year don't do it alone. Boys need to know that teen pregnancy has serious con- Tips for parents sequences for them, too. Talk with boys - not just girls - about consequences, responsibility, sex, love, and values.

  • Know what your kids are watching, reading, and listening to.

Television, radio, movies, music videos, magazines, and the Internet send many messages about sex: Sex often has no meaning, unplanned pregnancy seldom happens, and few people in the media having sex ever seem to be married or even especially committed to each other. Is this consistent with your expectations and values? If not, it is important to talk with your children about what the media portray, what you think about it, and what your children think about it. If certain programs or movies offend you, say so, and explain why. Encourage your kids to think critically: ask them what they think about the programs they watch and the music they listen to. Watch their favorite shows with them and ask whether the scenarios on TV relate to anything in their lives or their friend's lives. While you cannot fully control what your children see and hear, you can certainly make your views known and control your own home environment by turning off the TV, canceling subscriptions, and placing certain movies off limits.

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