Each year in the United States more than 750,000 teenagers become pregnant. Approximately 82% of these pregnancies are unintended. An estimated nine million teens and young adults acquire a sexually transmitted infection (STI) each year. Over thirty concerned parents and educators met Thursday evening at CLEAN offices in Winchester to learn more about how to keep communication lines open with teenagers when talking about difficult subjects like sex and to hear ways to help young people make healthy decisions regarding sexual activity that prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs.
Sex educator and Lord Fairfax Community College adjunct professor Shellie M. Seelove explained to the gathering that it is very important to take the initiative in talking to teens about sex early so that the foundation for positive decision making is in place long before a child is presented with the choice to engage in sexual activity or not.
“I suggest that parents be direct with their teens by telling them â€˜Sexuality is an important part of human life and I’m going to make an effort to talk with you about it’” Seelove said. “The response may be negative but you need to be persistent and push through it. It’s OK for things to be a little uncomfortable sometimes.”
The audience, mostly parents of teenagers, offered a nervous laugh at Seelove’s suggestion revealing just how uncomfortable many people are in talk about sexuality, especially between members of different generations. But Seelove told parents that if they aren’t talking to their teens about sex then their teens are getting their information from other sources, often other teens. The consequence of not discussing sexuality with teens, Seelove said, is that the child receives incorrect information that can be, at the least, detrimental but in other cases disastrous.
“As a clinician I talk to adolescent girls who describe being repeatedly raped by their boyfriends. When I ask why the girl allowed the behavior to continue I often hear â€˜I wanted to be a good girlfriend and good girlfriends don’t say â€˜no’ to their boyfriends” Seelove said. “Parents would not have given this message to a child. The mis-information probably came from other teens.”
In the Winchester area, teen pregnancy rates peaked in 2007 with a rate of 62 per 1,000 females. While recent statistics are beginning to show improvement, local pregnancy rates continue to be higher than the state and national rates. In addition, statistical analysis dispels the public perception that teen pregnancy is limited to specific races or ethnicities.
Pregnancy rates for Clarke County teens were not presented at the town hall meeting.
Teen pregnancy prevention research indicates that young people who are inspired and motivated during childhood, and have opportunities to build self-esteem, establish healthy life skills, and set meaningful goals are significantly more likely to delay pregnancy and pursue their dreams through higher education. With this behavior model in mind, concerned citizens and community leaders in Winchester formed a task force, ultimately christened L8R Baby, which determined that young adults in our area lack adequate access to comprehensive reproductive health and life skills education and have limited access to free or low cost contraceptive choices, including long acting contraceptive methods.
L8R Baby’s mission is to prevent teen pregnancy by empowering young people through education, advocacy, and health care as they transition from adolescence to adulthood. L8R Baby says that it is working to create a community where all young people have the resources and support needed to successfully prevent teen pregnancy. Seelove says that regular and frequent discussions between parents and teens is the key to keeping channels of communication open and offered approaches for parents to consider.
For example, Seelove recommended that parents use a “sex positive” approach when talking to teens because messages from the media tell teens that sex is always positive yet messages from educators and parents can often comes across with very negative connotations causing kids to reject the message. Seelove advised that parents resist the urge to send their message in negative terms.
“I’m not suggesting â€˜60’s free love here” Seelove said. “But I am suggesting a balance when parents talk to teens. And it is important to tell them about the consequences of sexual activity too.”
Seelove went on to describe the importance of autonomy for teens but also their continued need for adult guidance. “Even though teens are physically mature there is still a child inside the adult body who often needs parental help and advice” Seelove said.
Seelove said that it is important for families to have “un-programmed” time available between parents and teens so that spontaneous conversations can be initiated by either the parent or child. Seelove also advised parents to try and remember to remain an advocate for their child rather than an adversary.
“Pick your battles wisely” Seelove said. “Try to avoid power struggles and remember that you are on the same team.”
An important component for engaging with teens on sexuality is parental education. Seelove suggests that parents use the Internet, newspapers and other sources of current events as topics for initiating discussions with their children. Taking a class, reading and sharing books on sexuality and online resources are excellent sources for accomplishing this Seelove said. She recommended several websites that both parents and teens can use including “Go Ask Alice”, a question and answer site on sexual topics administered by Columbia University, Scarleteen.com, which offers articles, referrals and interactive services related to sexuality, The National Campaign and L8RBaby.com.
Participants in the town hall discussion voiced strong support for reducing the “taboo” nature of discussing teen sex in local communities. Many of those present said that it is important to reach out not only to your own child, but other teens in the community as well whos parents may not be there to support their child.
“We have to be concerned with all children at risk and find ways to get the message to them” said Maria DeLalla, president of L8r Baby. “Please don’t leave here tonight just feeling more comfortable about talking to your own kids. We have to reach out to the larger majority because we have such a high rate of teen pregnancies in this area.”
Statistics bear out DeLalla’s concern. In 2007, Virginia’s teen pregnancy rate was 27.2 per 1000 females ages 10-19. Winchester ranked 7th out of 136 localities. In 2008, Winchester’s rate was 46.8 per 1000 females vs. 26.3 for the Commonwealth.
L8R Baby is working in partnership with several local organizations and private citizens to provide teens with essential resources for making healthy choices and help empower positive goals for their future. L8R Baby plans for 2010-2011 include:
– Educational programs for parents and youth on reproductive health, tips for effective communication with parents, pregnancy prevention, and healthy relationships.
– Educational programs for identified at-risk youth on reproductive health, tips for effective communication with parents, pregnancy prevention, and healthy relationships at Timbrook House, a Winchester Police Department effort to provide a structured environment for at-risk youth to focus more effectively on developing positive life skills.
– Volunteer activities supporting an education and exercise program for pre-teen girls, Girls on the Run of Winchester, an international positive youth development program which combines an interactive curriculum and running to inspire self-respect and healthy lifestyles in pre-teen girls.
– A referral link to the Teen/Youth Clinic at the Winchester-Frederick Health Department, offering youth-friendly services including education and counseling regarding abstinence, contraceptive methods, and STIs.
Thursday’s town hall meeting was held at the CLEAN (Community and Law Enforcement Against Narcotics) facilities in Winchester. CLEAN assists in the development and implementation of community-wide programs directed at reducing the demand for and availability of alcohol tobacco and other drugs, and other adolescent problem behaviors of violence, delinquency, teen pregnancy, school dropout, and supporting healthy activities and programs for families and children. Tara Nelson, an educator with CLEAN, told the meeting participants that adults owe it to teens to be direct about the risks and facts with teen sex.
“We’ve got to be honest with kids even as uncomfortable as it can be sometimes” Nelson said. “As parents, your kids believe you the most. If you’ve told them nothing then they’re going to listen to what their friends tell them.”
Jessica Edwards, an OB/GYN physician in Winchester who attended the meeting, echoed the message presented by Seelove throughout the evening. “Even if you don’t think that your child is having sex you still need to be talking to them about sex.”
Several people in the audience voiced dismay with curriculum inadequacies in local school systems for addressing sexual education. One person said “Schools are really limited by input from parents. For school administrators it’s often about avoiding complaints from small, but vocal, minorities in the community. There are so many different value sets out there that it’s hard to teach in a way that pleases everyone, so instead, many schools choose to teach nothing instead.”
L8R Baby, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization, is funded through donations and fund raisers. The group is currently competing for a Pepsi Refresh health category grant of $25,000. People interested in supporting L8R Baby may access http://www.refresheverything.com and “vote” for L8R Baby. (Note: L8R Baby asks that supporters not vote for any other project categories becaues other projects are in competition with L8R Baby for the grant.)
Dr. John Werner, Clarke County High School Principal, has recently joined the CLEAN board of directors and was in the audience at Thursday’s meeting. Warner said that he’d like to encourage similar town hall meetings at Clarke County High School to help the community become more aware of issues facing teens.
“The message tonight was that kids are going to get information about drugs, sex and other things from somewhere” Warner said. “Knowledge is power. There’s a silent majority out there that wants to be more aware about these kinds of issues.”
L8R Baby accepts tax deductible donations. For more information visit http://www.18rbaby.com or donations can be mailed to L8R Baby, 413 Fairmont Avenue, Winchester, VA 22601.