I just found out my daughter is pregnant!

This week, we are continuing our series on facing tough parenting challenges. What happens when you find out that your teenage daughter is pregnant?

Positive pregnancy test
Pregnant by Janine is licensed by CC BY 2.0.

Many emotional reactions would be totally normal and very justified: shock, disappointment, anger. Keep in mind, though, that the person who is probably most shocked (and maybe even disappointed and angry) is your daughter. (And if you are thinking that “she knew what she was doing and what the risks were,” that may not be the case. Research on the teen brain gives her at least a small reason to feel shocked.)

Calm down. Count to ten…slowly…before saying anything that you may regret. If she came out and told you directly, and you need to respond, try “Thank you for telling me. That must have been hard for you.” If she told you in writing, or you found out some other way when she is not around, use that breathing room to your advantage. If she told you directly and you have already reacted in a way that you now regret, it is never too late for an apology and to ask for a “do-over.” My guess is that both of you will have a lot to work through in the coming weeks and months, and there will likely be a lot to forgive on both sides.

Facing an unplanned pregnancy, particularly when someone is young and unmarried, is (for most of us at least) terrifying. Your daughter needs you now more than ever. And while everything in you might be aching to point out how irresponsible and stupid her decisions were, she’s been saying that to herself ever since she read that positive pregnancy test. There will be time for reflection later — for the “what have we learned from this” discussion and the “what does this make you want to do differently” discussion. Right now, getting to have those discussions will depend on your response and support during the crisis stage. Try some of these approaches:

  • Ask who else knows. Give her space to share what has happened up to this point of telling you.
  • Ask about the father. Who is he? Does he know? If he does, what was his reaction? Do his parents know? Gather as much information as you can. Try not criminalize the father, as this could cause a deep rift between you and your daughter.
  • Ask what her thoughts about the future are. What are her plans now that she has discovered that she is pregnant? Try not to interject your own thoughts about what she should do.
  • Ask what she needs or wants most right now: information, help with researching her options, a doctor’s appointment.
  • Love her. If parental love is truly unconditional, it should overflow even now, regardless of her actions. Loving her right now is not “rewarding bad behavior.” And by love her, I mean show it. Take her out for ice cream, just to say “You’re still my daughter and I love you.”
  • If (when) you need to vent, pick a safe friend who can keep a confidence and talk over your feelings. Avoid speaking to people who have a close relationship with your daughter unless your daughter is okay with it. While you have every right to need to discuss what you are going through, it is best to avoid overly exposing your daughter.

As you process your new reality, your daughter may find it beneficial to talk to a professional. Avenue Women’s Center is a local organization with experience in non-judgmental counseling for pregnant teens (and they offer services for parents, too). It is also important that your daughter see a doctor. After all, she is a growing child herself! The doctor will give your daughter a full examination and give much needed instruction about nutrition and prenatal care.

Your daughter’s life as well as your own is about to change. In several months, you may hold a grandchild in your arms. While your family may no longer look the way you imagined, start imagining your new family. Where do you want to be in a year, or five? How can you support your daughter in order to get there?

Is Oral Sex Really the New Good Night Kiss?

I recently read a book titled, “Oral Sex is the New Goodnight Kiss.”  I recommend it only for those who aren’t squeamish.  Teens, often teens from “good” homes, are trading sexual favors for money, or a designer bag, or even the “promise” of a relationship. Parents often have no clue (isn’t that often the case?).  The casualness with which teens are engaging in oral sex reveals they have no clue either!  They embrace the idea that oral sex isn’t really sex, and that somehow it doesn’t count because you can’t get pregnant.  And yet, research shows that oral isn’t merely a substitute for intercourse, since teens often loose their virginity close to the time they engage in oral sex, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control.

Here at Amplify, we don’t let teens get away with thinking that oral sex is no big deal.  The truth is, it has social and emotional consequences, just like intercourse.  And then there are the STDs you can get.  We’ve written here before about the STDs students are getting from oral sex. Let’s be sure, when we talk about sex with our teens, that we are including cautionary words about ALL forms of sexual activity, not just intercourse.

I’m Free to Do What I WANT! You can’t stop me.

It’s true.  If a teen wants to do something foolish or dangerous, we can’t physically tie them down.  But we don’t have to participate.  Teens need to believe that you take lying and dishonesty, and breaking moral boundaries (whatever those are in your family), VERY seriously.  One father I know would not allow his 15-year-old daughter to stay overnight with her boyfriend, have sex openly, and still be a fully included part of the family.  He, with the support of his wife, and with great sorrow, said she had a choice.  He couldn’t stop her from going to live with her boyfriend as she threatened (why his mother unaccountably allowed this is a mystery to me).  But if she did, she couldn’t come home when she felt like it and enjoy all the benefits of full harmony, support, and participation in family life.  He wouldn’t support or condone her choice.  Because he loved her.  
This young lady was free to foolishly rebel, but not free to enjoy the day-to-day closeness of her loving family.  It was the approaching holidays and missing her family that woke her up to the consequences of her “free” choice.   She came home, broke it off with her boyfriend, and made a complete change in her life.  Four years down the road, the family has complete trust in this once wayward, rebellious daughter.
This “tough love” approach won’t always bring results like this, but the alternative to putting down our foot can be chaos in the home, damage to other siblings, and a child who learns that boundaries can be crossed at will.  For more on the tough love option, read the article (CLICK HERE) “What Tough Love Is, and What It Isn’t.”

Fathers’ Attitudes and Teen Sex

Until recently, most studies focused on how mothers affect teens’ decisions about sex.  But now, a researcher at New York University confirms what we might suspect…that dads make a difference too.   An October 22 article in the Washington Post reported on the results of a study with this conclusion:   “A new review of studies suggests that fathers’ attitudes toward teen sex and their relationships with their teens can substantially influence their teens’ sexual behavior, separately from the influence of mothers. The review demonstrated that fathers’ attitudes toward teen sexual behavior were linked to the age at which teens first had sex. According to studies included in the review, those teens whose dads approved of adolescent sexual activity tended to begin sexual activity earlier than those teens whose dads did not approve. An additional finding was that teens that were closer to their fathers tended to start having sex later.”

For my female readers, consider forwarding this on to the men you know who can be encouraged with the news that they CAN make a difference for the better in the lives of their children.

Defining Sex, and What is Safe

I think it’s time for a reminder.  Sex is NOT just about losing one’s virginity.  A Fox News article out today had this confusing (to me) title:  “Teens Who Don’t Have Sex Still at Risk for HPV Infection.”  Since HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, what did they mean?  The problem was that the article didn’t clearly define what was meant by “sex.”  Generally, our society defines sex the same way teens do…as intercourse.  However, as we clarify to teens in our classroom discussions, thinking of sex in terms of “sexual activity” is a more valuable way to think about sex, since other kinds of sexual activity bear risks as well.  The article went on to clarify that a recent study indicated that HPV is being “transmitted through genital-to-genital, or hand-to-genital contact” as well as the more common modes of transmission: vaginal or anal intercourse.  The article didn’t cover the transmission of several STDs orally, including HPV, but that is happening as well.  SO…here’s our definition of sexual activity (all behaviors that carry risk):

Intercourse, Oral Sex, Anal Sex, AND Touching of Private areas (whether genital to genital, or hands to genitals).

Abstinence is choosing to avoid all of those behaviors.

(To learn why condoms are not a safe solution, see this 2011 Amplify Youth Development newsletter article.)

Home Alone…and Having Sex

When I get teens talking about situations to avoid, one of the ideas they come up with is “Don’t be home alone.”  Indeed, this is a WISE idea.   One study of urban teens showed that “Among the respondents who had had intercourse, 91% said that the last time had been in a home setting.”  More often it was at the boy’s house.   So teens on a Saturday night date making out in the back seat of the car may NOT be the most common impetus to sex.  Instead, it’s an overabundance of unsupervised time…after school…during the summer…when parents are at work.   “The likelihood of intercourse, the number of partners for intercourse, and substance use increased as the amount of unsupervised time increased.”

This is not surprising, of course.  But what the researchers pondered about this bears thinking about.  It might not JUST be a lack of opportunity that keeps some kids from having sex.  It could be that parents whose children have less unsupervised time consequently have more time relating to their parents and siblings.  They may be pursuing clubs, sports or other activities that give them a sense of purpose and self-esteem…and keep them occupied.  Two teens, with hormones, and too many hours with nothing fun to do might just be bored.  And that’s a recipe for a pregnancy or an STD.   If the summer is stretching on, help your teen keep out of trouble by helping him or her come up with some plans to do something fun and productive.

College Visits and Risky Behaviors

Sometimes I feel like I’m rehashing things many parents already know.  But a study has just come out revealing an  opportunity I hadn’t thought of for teens to engage in risky behaviors:  college visits teens make as they are choosing a college to attend.  An article discussing the study, written by SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), revealed that “…51 percent of teens who reported drinking during the overnight visit said they had done so for the first time.  Fifty-two percent of respondents who reported engaging in some type of sexual activity during their visit indicated that they participated in behaviors in which they had not previously engaged.” If I were a parent, and my child said, “A couple of my friends and I are going to visit ____ College next weekend,” I think I might counter, “I’ll be happy to go with you to any of the colleges on our short list…let’s plan a visit to one of those colleges together.”  The article has other suggestions for parents and teens considering college visits, so that they leave campus having had a good, safe experience.

Supervision and Communication Critical to Reducing Teen Sex

After again perusing the literature about teen sexual activity, I’ve culled out a few bits of helpful information in list form.  These facts may help you as a parent, as you guide your teen:

  • Most teen sexual activity happens in the boy’s home, the girl’s home, or a friend’s home.
  • Teens who date earlier, have sex earlier, and have more partners.  They also are more likely to contract STDs and get pregnant.
  • A teen who dates someone 2 years or more older is much more likely to have sex, and get pregnant.
  • More teens lose their virginity in December and June than other months. (Lack of supervision? Prom?)

And finally, to give you some ideas for positive “action items,”

  • Teens whose parents monitored them more closely were less likely to become sexually active.
  • Teens who had more family activities (including family dinners) per week were more likely to abstain from sex.
  • Teens whose parents communicated the risks of sexual activity and expressed the expectation that their teen would wait, were less likely to have sex.

For more helpful facts about parental influence on teens’ sexual choices, click HERE

Sleep-deprived Teens Engage in Risky Behaviors

Now that school is back in swing, and your teen can’t stay buried under the covers until noon like he might have during the holiday break, is he getting enough sleep?  A study of 12,000 teens by the Center for Disease Control found that 7o% of young people are not getting the sleep they need to face the challenges and temptations that come their way .  Lack of sleep negatively affects the prefrontal cortex, which in teens is still developing; this is the part of the brain that helps in making good judgments.  So teens who are sleep-deprived are not just at risk of performing more poorly in school, they are also more likely to engage in sexual activity and use cigarettes, alcohol or drugs.  They were also more likely to report being depressed or suicidal.  The takeaway is that they MUST get more sleep; it’s not just important to their performance in school, but in life.  The ABC report on this study also gives some great suggestions on helping your kids get a good night’s sleep, bettering their chances of having a better life.

Growing up too fast…physically

Have you been wondering what’s going on with girls…why they are growing up so fast?  It turns out that what most people have been observing with some unease is no myth:  the early onset of puberty for girls is indeed accelerating.  A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics reported that more girls are now reaching puberty (indicated by breast development, not menstruation) as early as 7 years old.  About 23% of black girls, 15% of hispanic girls, and 10% of white girls begin puberty by age 7.  Early puberty appears to be connected with obesity, as well as with a diet high in meat and junk food.

Why is this a problem?  According to lead research, Dr. Frank Biro, “girls who develop earlier may be more likely to get breast cancer and engage in risky behavior like sex than girls who go through puberty later. They also are more prone to depression.”  He adds that “For the 11-year old that looks like she’s 15 or 16, adults are going to interact with her like she’s 15 or 16, but so are her peers.”  But, he points out, “It doesn’t mean that they’re psychologically or socially more mature.”

As the school year begins, and there is less opportunity for exercise, we might want to add family walks, or sports, to our list of things to do to keep our kids healthy.  The busyness of the school year makes it hard to prepare healthy snacks and meals, but a little more forethought as we scan the shelves at the grocery store might be in order.  This study just gives us one more reason why Americans need to improve our families’ eating and exercise habits.