Bristol Palin makes it look way too easy. She appears on the cover of national magazines with her famous mom and baby. She partners with organizations that encourage teens to practice sexual abstinence.
What are conspicuously absent are the pictures of crying babies who suffer from chronic health issues and their mothers who have dropped out of high school.
While I certainly wish Bristol and Tripp all the best, I’m concerned about the growing trend in teen pregnancy. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, one third of all young women become pregnant before they reach their 20th birthdays. Eighty percent of these 750,000 pregnancies are unplanned. Seventy-nine percent are to unmarried teens.
Although teen pregnancies declined between 1991 and 2005, they rose for the second straight year in 2007. Teenage birth rates in the United States are high, exceeding those found in most industrialized nations.
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Teens and their babies face increased health risks. The March of Dimes reports that young, unwed mothers often fail to receive adequate prenatal care and are apt to go into labor prematurely, suffer anemia and develop high blood pressure. Their babies suffer, too, and are likely to be too small and have underdeveloped lungs, vision problems and other physical, emotional and learning difficulties. Adolescent moms frequently engage in unhealthy practices. For instance, 17 percent of mothers ages 15 to 19 smoked cigarettes compared to 10 percent of pregnant women ages 25 to 34. Babies born to smokers suffer increased rates of prematurity, low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome.
The social consequences of teenage pregnancy are far-reaching. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reports that 60 percent of teen mothers never complete high school. Almost half apply for welfare within five years.
Their offspring are equally disadvantaged. They are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school and drop out of high school before graduation. Male children are twice as likely to serve time in prison, females are three times more likely to become teen mothers themselves.
To make matters even worse, most children from unwed teens are raised by single women. Statistics show that boys and girls from single-parent families are more apt to live in poverty and experience academic problems in school than stable two-parent households with the same income.
Which teens are most at risk of becoming pregnant or causing a pregnancy? According to a report for the California Research Bureau entitled, “Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing in California,” a few of the factors include:
• Low socio-economic status. Children of parents who have little education, low job status or low-income levels are more likely to have early sex, to not use contraception, and to become pregnant or cause a pregnancy.
• Risk-taking behavior. When teens engage in such risky behaviors as drug use, reckless driving, carrying weapons or suicidal thoughts or actions, they are less likely to take precautions regarding sex.
• History of sexual abuse. Studies indicate that approximately half of pregnant teens have been sexually abused.
• Lack of involvement in school. Girls who become pregnant tend to have lower grade point averages, more school absences, and more difficulties with schoolwork, even before they become pregnant.
• Early dating behavior. Teens who begin dating at an early age, who date more frequently, and have numerous partners are likely to have sex at a younger age and become pregnant.
• Older sexual partners. Most males who father children by teen mothers are two to three years older than their partners. Many are significantly older than that.
• Excessive sexual media exposure. Sexually active teens watch more media programming containing sexually explicit content than their sexually inactive classmates.
• Parents who engage in non-marital sexual activity. Teens view their parents as role models. If Mom and Dad are having sex outside of marriage, are cohabitating with a romantic or sexual partner, have had a child outside of marriage, or gave birth as an adolescent, their adolescents may follow suit.
Communication, values and supervision are key
Parents, you can help your teens avoid pregnancy by following these guidelines:
• Talk to children about sex, love, relationships and birth control. Consistently tailor your dialogue to youngsters’ interests and levels of maturity.
• State clear values. Let children know when they are allowed to begin dating, when they must be home and who they are allowed to see. Your rules will help instill discipline. Your kids will know you care.
• Direct children to constructive activities. Involve boys and girls in sports, drama, debate, 4-H or volunteer work. They’ll be busy with their constructive outlets while developing confidence and self-esteem.
• Don’t allow teenage girls to date older men. One year older is enough until they’re over 18.
• Monitor media and social networking. Keep close tabs on where and with whom your children are communicating. You’re the parent. You have every right to know what’s going on.
• Dads, maintain strong relationships with your daughters. Fathers who have close, supportive and interactive bonds with their girls help delay the onset of sexual activity and foster invaluable lessons about competence and self-respect.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com