A report released in April 2012 by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that the birth rate for American teenagers has dropped 44 percent from 1991 through 2010. In fact, babies born to teens between the ages of 15 to 19 decreased by 9 percent in the past year. These figures are encouraging and span across all racial and ethnic groups, and nearly all states.
Experts suggest that the drop in numbers is related to teens having less sex and using more contraception.
But what do teens say? Could shows like MTV’s “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” really be making a difference? The count is out for that one-- some teens say "Most definitely" while others say the shows glamorize being a pregnant teen.
Overall, most ‘fess up to looking down on their peers who fall pregnant. According to some, there appears to be a certain ‘type’ who will get pregnant; those on welfare, conflict at home, no dad, “stupid,” as well as those who succumb to the pressure of unprotected sex. Not sure what this says about Bristol Palin, but nonetheless, teens do seem to be somewhat informed on this matter.
But addressing teen pregnancy with solely behavioral modification (abstinence only or using more contraception) is fear-based. It’s like planting a tree without roots.
The underlying causes of teen pregnancy do indeed include poverty and access to adequate health care, but other factors that put teens at risk are also at play.
Depression, abuse, low self esteem, poor body image and a profound misunderstanding of the value of women perpetuated by society and the media all work in conjunction to put girls at risk.
Adolescent girls get caught up doing in things that they shouldn't be doing. Engaging in sexual behavior is just one way in which a girl can feel better about her poor self image and feel “loved”.
If a girl is (unconsciously) motivated by those reasons, no amount of ‘behavioral modification’ is going to fix it. The result? They stay in emotionally abusive relationships and are pressured to have unprotected sex.
Teen pregnancy must be addressed at the level of the deeper psychological issues that keep them trapped. But even that is a complex weave of many threads which may amount to the need of a whole system change.
Change in how we educate our teens.
According to The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the main reason American teens drop out of school is that “classes weren’t interesting.” There was a lack of connection to what it had to offer. This goes hand in hand with what we know about the behavior of some teen girls. Some girls who actively choose not to use contraceptives do so because starting a family would give their lives meaning compared to their frustrating or boring school experience.
Does curriculum need to encompass a wider range of learning skills and abilities? Vocational training (mostly eradicated in schools) could be a way in which teens find themselves again.
And what of parenting? Since parents are the first relationships that the child has, it lays the foundation for all that comes after. How can we expect our daughters to have healthy relationships and personalities if they don’t have the right environment to grow? Openness, acceptance and empathy is the water for the plant. Parenting is intentional.
Society at large is slowly opening its eyes. Hope comes in the form of Miss Representation. Miss Representation.org is a San Francisco based campaign that seeks to empower girls to challenge both limiting labels and society’s predominant cultural values. Working at a grass roots level this organization aims to help girls transcend the gender norms and shatter the concept that a girls value resides solely in beauty and sexuality. Young women need to know that assertiveness and listening to one’s own voice IS the new sexy.
It’s strange to think that such changes could be instrumental in teen pregnancy. But ultimately we don’t want our teens to fear getting pregnant, but to choose not to.
And here’s some food for thought: Although reducing teen pregnancy is currently in sharp focus, something is still amiss. Sex education curriculum is skewed instead of balanced. Teens fear getting pregnant and later find that they fear not getting pregnant- and that fear is real; statistics in both populations are changing, although pregnancy rates is dropping in teens, infertility rates are increasing in the adults.
So, we fail the younger generation in every way when we teach that abstinence and contraception represent good reproductive “choices”. This is not helpful for their future, nor is it good fertility planning. The impact of STDs, PCOS (both of which can occur in teen years), age, lifestyle, nutrition, stress, drugs, eating disorders, and smoking on fertility are all missing from the story.
A balanced sex education curriculum which includes self esteem building, as well as fertility planning actually means that when a teen decides at last to become a parent, it really is their choice in every sense. Let's give our daughters the key.
How would you change things?
Fenella Das Gupta is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist ( #47275) working in Northern California, specializing in fertility counseling. She works with individuals and couples as they make their way through the fertility maze.