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Why and How to Talk to Your Teens About Sex and Pregnancy

The sexual pressure on today's kids (from peers, pop culture, and their own raging hormones) can be intense. And while there's no way to monitor tweens and teens 24/7, you can (hopefully) teach them to do the right thing.
Pregnant teen
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Frederik Broden

You can't miss it: American attitudes on adolescent pregnancy have taken a big U-turn since the time of shotgun weddings, homes for unwed mothers, and scarlet A's. Nowadays a teen parent might land on a hit reality show like MTV's 16 and Pregnant or its spinoff, Teen Mom, and show up on multiple magazine covers. Or she might, like Bristol Palin, score a role on Dancing with the Stars. And all that openness isn't reserved for the world of entertainment. It's also evident down the block. "My 16-year-old has a peer who's pregnant and the mother's friends are planning a huge shower with gifts, decorations, party games, etc.," says Susan, a Kansas City, Kansas, woman who doesn't want her real name used because she worries that her opinion might offend some people. There have been other modern twists as well—in Gloucester, Massachusetts, 17 high school girls allegedly made a pact to each have a baby. That same year the town's teen pregnancy rate quadrupled.

But acceptance that verges on glamorizing the baby bump can't change the fact that teen pregnancy is still a major problem, for families and for the nation. Every hour, 87 teen couples conceive and 50 adolescent girls give birth. That's more than 730,000 pregnancies annually, which means the U.S. has the highest rate of any industrialized country, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Although the birth rate among adolescents dropped 2 percent in 2008 (the most recent statistic), it's still higher than it was five years ago. One-third of girls conceive before age 20, and 1 in 6 deliver a baby. Most surprising, about 20 percent of young people's pregnancies actually are intended, says Bill Albert, chief program officer of The National Campaign.

Experts are baffled, given that effective birth control options are readily available and have been for years. They suggest a constellation of possible explanations. For starters, there are many parents who think their kids aren't the ones at risk. About 70 percent of Americans believe most teen parents come from impoverished, single-parent homes. But in truth, two-thirds of pregnant teens live with two parents; 7 in 10 live above the poverty line. "Anybody who says 'Teen pregnancy doesn't happen here' is mistaken," says Sarah Brown, CEO of The National Campaign. "It's everywhere."

Troubling, too, in this age of information overload, is that kids aren't getting complete and accurate facts about how to manage their emotions and physical drives. Though two-thirds of twelfth-graders say they've had sex, only about half report having talked with parents about the decision to do so. Just 43 percent had been given basic details like how to use contraception and, significantly, how to broach the topic with a potential partner, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. So they end up not using birth control, using it incorrectly, or relying on a less effective method for preventing pregnancy. Net result: The contraceptive failure rate is 25 percent higher for teen girls than for adult women.