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LI KIDS: A teaching moment
by Pat Burson

With 'Juno' and Jamie Lynn Spears in the headlines, the time is ripe to have that talk about teen pregnancy

January 27, 2008

A Hollywood teen celebrity reveals she's going to have a baby. An actress portrays a pregnant high school student in a small movie - a movie that quickly takes off at the box office. TV and magazines pick up the scent: Is a trend developing?

And - voila! - the cultural conversation is launched. Teen pregnancy is back in the news.
After more than a decade of decline in the country's teen pregnancy rate - and with fears of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases occupying parents' panicky thoughts about their kids and sex - it might have begun to seem that pregnancy was no longer the chief reason to have that little talk with your child.

But that is changing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the U.S. teen birthrate rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006. Whether that figure indicates a shift in teens' attitudes, complacent parents relying too heavily on schools, a sex-crazed culture or all of the above is a complicated question. But consider the findings in a new survey conducted by Seventeen magazine and the Candie's Foundation: of 500 girls 13 to 18, 67 percent have friends who are or became pregnant as teenagers and nearly half think it might be possible they'll become pregnant in the next five years.

That little talk? How about now?

Parent coaches, sex educators, therapists and medical professionals say the discussion should be not only about sex but also about the baby that could result. Of course, many parents are already on the job. Some, however, are too uncomfortable to broach the subject, or too deep in denial to believe that their kids might be sexually active. Others fear that by talking it, they're giving their kids tacit permission to have sex.

The opposite is true, experts say.

"If you're conflicted and you're sending mixed messages, they won't know what their own values are," says Heather Simonson, a licensed social worker and director of training and education for Planned Parenthood of Nassau County.

Parents need to be prepared to have a very different conversation than their parents might have had with them.

"Our perceptions of sexuality have changed dramatically - our ideas about intimacy, what constitutes a relationship, what constitutes sex," says Logan Levkoff, a sex educator in Manhattan who specializes in parent-child communication and author of "Third Base Ain't What It Used to Be: What Kids Are Learning About Sex Today and How to Teach Them to Become Sexually Healthy Adults."

"If we don't do it as parents, we default to all the far less reputable sources to do it - TV, movies, their peers, the Internet - and there's no guarantee it's going to be accurate information."

Want your kids to listen? Lay off the lectures, experts say. Instead, use what's happening in the culture - with Jamie Lynn Spears, the hit movie "Juno," or something happening in your kids' school, for example - to create teachable moments.

"Use real-life situations," says Simonson. "Ask them what they think so you can find out what they already know about the topic."

Do your homework. Find reliable resources to educate yourself about sex and sexuality, including books, your pediatrician or family doctor and local agencies that specialize in sex education and teen pregnancy prevention.

Then, keep the conversation going - while you and your kids are having dinner, riding in the car or watching TV. And listen to what they say, correcting - when they finish talking - any myths or untruths you hear, she adds.

Depending on your child's age, find age-appropriate ways to talk to your kids, starting when they're young. You might talk to a younger child about their bodies and the differences between boys and girls. With preteens, 'tweens and older teens, the focus might be on making wise choices, avoiding risk-taking behavior and taking responsibility.

And give equal time to sons and daughters. "In our society, we still wink at the guys doing it," says Melanie Percy, a pediatric nurse practitioner specializing in adolescence and an assistant professor of nursing at New York University. "With girls, they fear they're more vulnerable so they have to talk to them about it. It's very unusual to hear a boy who's been taught he has a responsibility and he has to control his emotions as much as a girl."
Just what are some parents telling their sons about sex? "They've told me every once in a while to wrap it up and don't get her pregnant," says one 16-year-old male student at a Suffolk County high school.

The conversation can't stop there, says Gina Foster, a licensed clinical social worker in the Inwood office of Peninsula Counseling Center. "Do they even know what 'wrap it up' means? [It means: use a condom.] Or is somebody's daughter going to be an experiment gone awry?"
All kids need to hear the same messages from their parents, Foster says. "If you realize that you have a 12-year-old and 13-year-old of different sexes and you're treating them differently, that's a wake-up call."

Don't pretend to have all the answers - but be willing to look for them. "It's OK to be uncomfortable, and it's OK not to know the answers when your kids do ask questions," Simonson says.

"If you're thrown off by a question from your kids, a blanket response will be, 'That's a really great question. I don't know. I'll get back to you,' or 'I don't know how to respond to that question, so let me give it some thought and get back to you.'" Then, follow through.
Be approachable. If your children believe they can talk to you about anything, they will. A parental freak-out "will turn a young person off in a New York minute," Foster says. "You have to be willing to hear the unpleasant."

Says Brentwood High School student Maria Mejia, 18, "If they are uncomfortable to speak to me about it, I would be uncomfortable to speak with them about it."

The media may glamorize or idealize pregnancy, but parents should paint a realistic picture for their kids of what is involved with having a child. That includes nausea, weight gain, body changes, stretch marks and varicose veins, says Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, who specializes in adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx.

Medical conditions also accompany adolescent pregnancies, she says, such as hypertension, prematurity and anemia. "These are the realities of the situation," Alderman says.

"In most cases, if someone has a baby at the age of 16, and if they don't have money or family support, it's going to be a tough ride.... It's not that it's impossible, but it's going to make it really, really hard."

Young women's perspectives

We asked a group of teen girls in SNAP To The Beat, a cultural dance program at Brentwood High School, about their experiences with talking to their parents about sex and teen pregnancy - and how they'd like their parents to handle that conversation. SNAP To The Beat is sponsored by SNAP Long Island (formerly the Suffolk Network on Adolescent Pregnancy) and funded by the New York State Department of Health's Adolescent Health Unit and the Huntington Arts Council to provide adolescent pregnancy prevention and youth-development services, including parent education, in middle and high schools in Suffolk and the Town of Hempstead.

The teens (Christina Tejada, 16; Amy Gutierrez, 16; Maria Mejia, 18; and Claudia Bosque, 17) have this advice for parents:

"I think it's hard for teens to talk to their parents," says Claudia, who prefers to seek advice from her older brothers and sisters. "Friends may not think about you and your future, but your family will."

"I see parents talk more to girls than they do boys," Christina says. "I think they should talk to guys - not more, but equally."

"Be specific about kids using protection, like condoms and stuff," Amy says. "But don't lecture because it makes us kids feel more uncomfortable, and kids will be more rebellious if they think it's a lecture. ...It's kind of weird to have your parents talking to you about that. At the same time, it's life."

"Don't overreact," when your kids ask you questions or try to talk to you about sex, Maria says.

"Don't yell at them or threaten to ground them. Be understanding. Be there for them to help them."

- PAT BURSON

Are you ready to talk to your kids about sex?

1. Start early. Tailor your talks to your child's age.
2. Encourage your child to always come to you with his or her questions, thoughts and concerns - no matter what they are.
3. Listen patiently to what the child has to say. Use your responses to clarify your values and dispel any myths or misinformation you hear.
4. Don't overreact to what your child says. If you do, she or he is likely to shut down and stop talking.
5. Use images and messages your kids see and hear at school, in movies, music and the community and on TV and the Internet as conversation-starters and "teachable moments."
6. Be honest. If you don't know the answer to your child's question, don't make it up. Look it up.
7. Be a good role model. Children pay more attention to what you do than to what you say.
8. Involve your child in sports, music lessons, chess club or other activities that boost their self-esteem and give them a chance to be successful.
9. Be attentive. If you give your child attention, he or she may not go looking for it from someone else.
10. Stress the future. A child with goals, dreams and aspirations is less likely to jeopardize them.
11. Try to remember what it was like when you were your child's age. It may help you relate better and be more understanding.
12. Keep talking. Whether you're together in the car, around the dinner table or out shopping - use every opportunity to communicate.
- PAT BURSON

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