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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


A Parent's Life A Parent's Life
 

Preventing Teen Pregnancy


September 12, 2013

By Henry H. Bernstein D.O.

Although the number of teens getting pregnant is going down in the United States, did you know that almost 3 out of 10 teens still become pregnant at least once before the age of 20? This means there are almost a million teen pregnancies each year.

If a teen gets pregnant, it is often difficult for everyone involved. 

  • Teens who have a baby are more likely to:
    • Not finish school
    • Be single parents
    • Be poor
    • Have pregnancy-related health problems
  • Children born to teen mothers are more likely to:
    • Have low birth weight and related health problems (for example, infant death, breathing problems, mental retardation, and learning disorders)
    • Not get enough medical care
    • Have school problems
    • Be abused or neglected
 

In addition, teen pregnancies cost society billions of dollars because teen mothers are often unmarried, poor, and in need of help from community and government agencies.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, in partnership with many other organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, strongly points out that not having sex (abstinence) is the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but it also promotes responsible behavior for teens who do choose to have sex. Check out the Web site at www.teenpregnancy.org and its sister site www.stayteen.org

Remember, even if they don't always act like it, teens do care what their parents think, and they do listen to what their parents say. Parents definitely can have an important impact on their child's sexual behavior and help them avoid teen pregnancy.

  • Talk with your child about sex, at a young age, before he or she thinks about having sex. In the United States, 33% of teens have had sex by 9th grade, and 63% by 12th grade, but 6% have had sex by age 13. It's never too early (or too late, for that matter) to talk with your child about sex. It's easiest when you start at a young age and then continue discussing it on a regular basis through adolescence. Not sure where to start? Use real-life situations to bring up the subject, such as when viewing a related situation on television or visiting someone with a new baby. Do not worry that you are putting ideas into your child's head; research shows that talking with a child about sex does not encourage him or her to have sex.
     
    Expect your child to be curious and have questions about sex; answer them honestly. Don't assume that your child is having sex just because he or she asks you questions about sex or birth control.
     
  • Share your values and attitudes with your child. Discuss your feelings about love, sex, and relationships, including how you felt as a teen. Be sure to ask your child how he or she feels. It is not enough to say to your child, "Do not have sex." Explain why you feel this way.
     
  • Explain the risks and consequences of sexual activity, emphasizing how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Your child needs to be prepared, whether he or she is having sex or not.
     
  • Always supervise your child. If you can’t be home after school, try to make arrangements for your child to check in with another adult. Have a family meeting to discuss and set curfews and rules for expected behavior. Know your child's friends and their families, and encourage your child to make friends with kids whose families share your values.
     
  • Know what your child is watching, listening to, and reading. Check out the website at www.teenpregnancy.org. It is a valuable, high quality resource for your teens. The media is filled with messages about sex, many of them irresponsible. Talk about issues raised in the media, point out ways in which your family values may differ from those expressed in a program or song, and teach your child how to look critically at various forms of media, including advertisements. All family members should limit time spent with television, videos, video games and computers to no more than one to two hours per day. Do not allow televisions or computers in your child's bedroom where you cannot monitor their use.
     
  • Help your child set goals for the future, and discuss ways to achieve these goals. A young person is more likely to delay sex and not risk pregnancy or parenthood if the future appears bright. Point out that most careers require at least a high school education and many require college or advanced degrees. Explain how getting pregnant, causing a pregnancy, or becoming a parent can interfere with these plans. Emphasize that you value education and always take an active interest in your child’s progress in school. Problems in school, at home, or with peers can cause low self-esteem, which often leads to risky behavior and teenage parenthood.

Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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