In last week’s blog post highlighting Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, we described what the FPA is doing to support Maine educators and students. As the month of May comes to a close, we want to give you – trusted adults, teachers, parents and concerned community members – ideas about how you can help prevent teen pregnancy.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Me?! What can I do?”
Well, there are two words that can start you on your way – listen and talk.
Whether they believe it or not, parents and other trusted adults play a critical role in the sexual health of teens, especially when it comes to helping teens make healthy choices.
Douglas Kirby PhD, a leading researcher in the field of adolescent health, identified factors that affect teen sexual behavior and teen pregnancy. I’d like to focus on protective factors — those things that help teens behave in ways that promote healthy outcomes. Understanding the factors related to teen sexual behavior is very important in efforts to change that behavior and it also helps us identify those teens most at risk for having sex, contracting STDs and experiencing an unplanned pregnancy.
When adults openly address sexual health with the teens in their lives, those teens are more likely to develop healthy attitudes and feelings about sexuality. This helps teens protect themselves and make healthy decisions such as delaying sexual activity or using protection when they do become sexually active. By communicating their expectations for teens around dating, school and community involvement and sexual behavior, adults help young people make healthy decisions.
As a sexuality educator for over 20 years, I have had a front row seat in teens’ reality—what they are talking about, what they are doing, and what they say they need most from adults. One of the questions I ask a classroom of teens is “Who would you most like to talk with about your sexual health?” Almost always, the response is — parents or some other trusted adult.
You may think I’m just trying to make you feel good, but the research supports my experience. Teens want parents and other adults to talk with them about these topics. When I ask the follow-up questions, “Do you talk to your parents or other trusted adults? If no, why not?” One response I often hear is, “If I bring it up, they will think that I am doing it.” I can tell you, such a response from adults is one of the quickest ways to shut down any further communication on this topic!
So, what is the answer?
Teens say they want to have open, honest communication with adults.
Just as we taught them to look both ways before crossing the street, how to tie their shoes and their multiplication tables – we have to help them navigate the decisions they will be making about sex and relationships.
One way to do this is to promote connectedness. Dr. Kirby reported that the more connected a teen is to family, school and community –the less likely s/he is to engage in risky sexual behaviors. Don’t worry—not every conversation we have with the teens in our lives needs to be centered on sex. I’m sure the teens will be relieved to hear this as well!
Simply initiating conversations with teens about their interests and aspirations for the future, providing them with opportunities to volunteer in their community, talking around the dinner table about their likes and dislikes – all of these things can build those protective factors that lead to healthier sexual behaviors and healthier decisions overall. Most importantly, be a thoughtful adult who listens and is part of a teen’s network of caring adults who will openly and honestly provide information and give them the support they need. The more you listen to their every-day interests and needs, the more likely teens will be to approach you when they are faced with more serious concerns.
Staying connected with teens isn’t always easy, so I’ll close with this online resource that has lots of ideas for how you – as a parent, teacher or concerned adult – can foster connectedness for the teens in your life. Helping teens make healthy choices is not just about that one talk, it’s about having many, many conversations.
~ Vicki Preston, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coordinator
Want to learn more about factors that impact teen sexual behavior? Read Emerging Answers by Dr. Kirby.