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Teens & Contraception: Secrecy vs Privacy

Teens & Contraception: Secrecy vs Privacy

Do parents have the right to know about their teen's intimate life? Should kids be allowed to keep secrets that could jeopardize their well-being? And when does parental responsibility trump a teen's right to privacy? In considering these questions, I think it's important to distinguish between secrecy and privacy. It seems to me that secrecy implies keeping from others information that they are in some way entitled to; whereas, privacy pertains to information that one is entitled to keep to him or herself. So are teens entitled to privacy when it comes to procuring contraceptives?

According to federal law, teens do have the right to obtain and use birth control products without a parent's permission. The constitutional right to privacy protects adolescents' access to and use of contraception, and Title X and Medicaid explicitly prohibit parental consent requirements for teens seeking contraception. Of course, a boy (or girl) can walk into any drug store and buy a package of condoms with no problem. But a girl needs a doctor's prescription to procure birth control pills or any other female contraceptive product. Even though she can legally do so without informing her parents, do her parents still have a responsibility to make sure she makes the right decisions about her sex life? Or would that be an invasion of her privacy?     

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In my experience counseling families and young people, I've learned first hand that many teenagers do not want to talk about their sex life with their parents, while many parents believe that their children should tell them everything. So what's the answer? I believe the key is to have age-appropriate conversations with your children about sex before they reach adolescence, making sure that they are aware of not only safe sex options but emotional readiness for intimacy. When a preteen or teen asks, "Why shouldn't I have sex with someone I love or feel close to?" parents should be prepared with answers that reflect their own values but are also realistic and sensitive.

It is likely that upon discovering contraceptives in a teen's backpack, the parent of a thirteen-year-old will be more upset than the parent of a seventeen or eighteen-year-old. In the case of the younger teen, a frank discussion and appropriate guidance would certainly be advisable. In the case of the older son or daughter, it would depend on the parent's level of trust in that young person. If you've had "the talk" with your teen and trust that s/he is mature enough and emotionally ready for intimacy, perhaps you'll feel comfortable in affording him (or her) the privacy every couple wants. Depending on the nature of your relationship with your child, you may want to assure even an older teen that you are there if s/he needs to talk about personal matters.

With access to contraception currently such a political hot topic, it's important to be aware of the facts, which can influence the degree to which we afford our teens the privacy they are legally entitled to. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, "Research shows that requiring minors to tell a parent before they can access contraception delays or prevents them from seeking reproductive health services, but does not reduce their sexual activity. When teenagers do not seek reproductive health services, they forego not only contraceptive services, but also testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, routine gynecological exams, and other vital health care. Consequently, the nation's medical and public health organizations consistently oppose forced parental involvement in minors' efforts to seek contraception. These groups include: the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Women's Association, and the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine."

As parents, even if we trust that our kids are mature enough to engage in a sexual relationship and allow them their privacy, we should never keep our own views about sexuality-and the facts about contraception-a secret.  

Ana Nogales is a clinical psychologist and well-known media personality, columnist, speaker, and advocate for victims of domestic violence.

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