Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Teen pregnancy rate at record low; how parents can help the downward trend continue

Posted May 17, 2016 9:00 p.m. EDT

Pregnancy, labor

A new federal report had some great news for today's teens and their families: The teen birth rate, now at just below 25 births per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19, is at a record low.

The biggest declines come for nonwhite and younger teens when today's numbers are compared with the most recent peak, which happened in 2007. The teen birth rate has dropped 50 percent among Hispanics; 48 percent among Asian or Pacific Islanders; and 44 percent among blacks. For white teens, the rate has fallen by 36 percent - less than the average among all teens of 42 percent, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics.

In North Carolina, the teen birth rate was nearly 26 births per 1,000 teen girls - a number that's dropped 63 percent since 1991, a decade when the rates were at the highest.

What's behind the falling numbers? An analysis from the Pew Research Center suggests several things - the poor economy, less sex, better use of contraception and more information about pregnancy prevention.

In other words, said Robin Pittman, a senior health educator for the Raleigh-based Poe Center for Health Education, "knowledge is power."

"It’s still a problem, but this is the absolutely lowest it's been," said Pittman, who works with kids and families on a variety of health topics, including teen pregnancy. "We are very happy about that."

I checked in with Pittman to see what parents can do to help our teens continue this trend. She shared six strategies to keep in mind has you talk about sex and teen pregnancy with your kids.

Knowledge really is power: In the 1990s, when abstinence-only programs were prevalent, the teen pregnancy rate was at an all-time high, Pittman notes. "Kids did not understand 'why can't I have sex?' she said. "They didn't know the negatives. That's why we feel the rate was so high." Give kids the facts about sex. Make sure you, as their parent, are their go-to person when they have a question.

Answer their questions, regardless of their age: A one-time talk about "the birds and the bees" isn't enough. Pittman said parents need to have an ongoing conversation with kids about their bodies. That begins with babies and toddlers when parents should use the correct words for various body parts, Pittman said. If they ask questions about, for instance, a tampon in first grade, answer it, using age-appropriate terminology. The questions usually aren't coming because kids are up to no good, Pittman said. They're most likely asking because they've heard something about it from a friend, television or social media and are truly curious.

"If you don't give them that answer, they are going to get it from someplace else and they are probably going to get the wrong answer," Pittman said.

Set expectations and make your family values known: Explain your values and expectations to your kids. Make it clear that you expect your kids to live up to those expectations. Be sure to set limits, including mandatory dating limits. Decide what age your child needs to be before he or she can start dating or, even, holding hands. Make sure that everybody - mom and dad - are on the same page. "Every family is different," Pittman said. "There are no set guidelines."

Take advantage of teachable moments and use them: If you're in the car and hear a song on the radio that uses the word "sexy," seize the opportunity. Talk to your kids about what the word means, what the song means, even whether the relationship featured in the song is healthy, for instance. The kids might laugh, Pittman said, but they're listening.

Be positive and get comfortable about the topic: Don't judge your kids and their questions, Pittman said. "You don't want them to feel bad about who they are or what they ask," she said. Prepare yourself ahead of time for the inevitable questions. If your child catches you off guard, you don't have to answer immediately. Promise to discuss it later that day, then talk about it with your spouse or significant other, do some research and follow through on your promise to return to the conversation.

"With any topic, kids have to be equipped with as much information and as much knowledge so they can see the dangers and risks," Pittman said. "If they don’t know that, that's how teen pregnancy can go up."

One fact that might convince many teens to wait: Not everybody is doing it. One study found that 53 percent of U.S. high schoolers have not had sex.

Help them see the world beyond their school hallways and friends: Help kids fuel their own passions and interests - whether it's sports, music, art, theater or community service, for instance. Starting with tweens, talk to them about their goals five or 10 years from now. Make sure they're busy, working toward those goals. Help them think about their purpose in life. "Kids that feel like they have a sense of purpose or a promising future are typically not in situations that can lead to unintended pregnancy," Pittman said.

Find resources: Books such as "It's So Amazing," "The Ultimate Girls Body Book “ and "The Ultimate Boys Body Book" can help parents broach the topics with their kids and give kids good resources to refer to going forward. The Poe Center also has some upcoming programs for moms and their daughters, which cover puberty and other topics. Registration is open for Girl Talk 1 and Girl Talk 2. A Guy Talk program will launch in the fall.

Whatever you do, keep the conversation going, Pittman said.

"We want to constantly keep talking to our kids," she said. "We don’t want to stop talking to them."