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Sep 10, 2008

Preventing Teen Pregnancy: How to Talk to Your Teen

It may seem as though stories about teen pregnancy--both fictional and real--are everywhere. First, there was the news about a Massachusetts high school where 17 girls under the age of 18 had become pregnant on purpose. Then, it was news that Bristol Palin, the teenage daughter of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, was expecting a baby with her boyfriend. There's also the box-office hit and critically acclaimed movie Juno in which a 16-year-old girl is with child.

So it may surprise you to learn that pregnancy rates for teens between the ages of 15 and 19 have been declining consistently since 1991. Between 1991 and 2006, teen pregnancy rates have declined 34 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

A survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that, since 1991, the number of teenagers in grades 9 through 12 who admit they are or have been sexually active has declined to just under 34 percent from 37.5 percent. The same survey found that condom use had gone up to 62.8 percent from 46.2 percent.

Cause for the Decline

The steady decline of teen births over the past 18 years may be attributed in part to increased education and sexual awareness. The HIV/AIDS epidemic reached its peak between 1991 and 1993; at that time, it was estimated that as many as 7 million men and 5 million women were infected with HIV. Consequently, the use of condoms was promoted to combat the spread of the virus. With increased AIDS awareness came increased sexual education.

Sex ed has also increased in schools. According to a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, two of every three public schools have a mandated sexual education program. However, the type of sexual education made available--comprehensive vs. abstinence-only--remains a highly debated topic.

What You Can Do

Despite these decreases, the United States still has the highest teen birth rate of all developed countries at 41.9 births per 1,000, and American trends and pop culture may seem highly sexualized. This culture makes educating children and teenagers crucial.

Although talking about sex with your children can be awkward, here are some tips to ease you through it.

Honesty is the best policy. Being honest about your personal beliefs about sex--whatever they may be-- is important. Creating an atmosphere of trust between you and your teen may allow your child to be more likely to listen to your advice.
Early, often, and explicit. Contrary to popular belief, talking with your son or daughter at an early age can be better than waiting "until they're older." With the media using sex and sexuality as a marketing tool and the information that is passed from student to student during school, your teen may be exposed to sexual images, language, or ideas earlier than you anticipate. By reaching out to them early and often, you can pass on your values. When you do talk to your teen about sex, make sure you are clear and direct.
More than the birds and the bees. Most public schools require sex education as part of their curriculum. However, when you talk about sex try to convey risks, responsibility, relationships, and values. While schools offer the bare essentials, you can provide age-appropriate information that goes beyond anatomy.
It's never too late. If you happen to find that your teen is almost 18 and you've never spoken to him about sex, don't fret. Studies show that kids who feel they can talk with their parents about sex are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior.
One universal fact. Regardless of your beliefs on sex, one fact remains true: Abstinence is the only method to definitively prevent STDs and pregnancy. Make sure they know that.

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