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How to Get a Teenager Pregnant: Combine Emotional Distress, Poverty and Conservative Religious Beliefs

Poverty, emotional problems and abstinence education = teen pregnancy.

As progressive as we like to think our nation is, the reality is that the United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates compared to other industrialized nations. And, unfortunately, recent statistics show that this isn’t getting any better, while the teen pregnancy rate went down in the 1990s and early 2000s, between 2003 and 2007, progress stalled and, among certain groups, may even have reversed.

It’s not that teenagers suddenly discovered the joy of sex. Sexual activity among teens remained stable. What changed was the use of contraception. While there’s no way to know for sure why fewer teens are protecting themselves against pregnancy, a look at teen pregnancy rates by state offers us at least one clue. States with the most conservatively religious residents (for example, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee) had significantly higher teen pregnancy rates. Apparently, “abstinence until marriage” sex education training translates into abstinence from contraception, not abstinence from sex.

Which Teen Gets Pregnant?

A look at who gets pregnant may shed some light on how to reduce teen pregnancy and perhaps, if necessary, sidestep the volatile issue of sex education. Poverty, for example, is a huge risk factor as is being in the foster care system. In fact, one survey of child welfare systems in three states found that nearly half of girls in the foster system reported a pregnancy by age 19.

And, among these at-risk girls, those already experiencing psychological problems were especially vulnerable. Two large long-term U.S. surveys followed thousands of teen girls and women, keeping track of how often they felt blue, had trouble concentrating, and exhibited other symptoms associated with depression. Those with the highest number of depressive symptoms were more likely to get pregnant, especially if they were in difficult financial situations. In fact, only the combination of poverty and existing distress was a good predictor of teen pregnancy.

Preventing Teen Pregnancy: Getting Back on Track

So what does all this mean? Certainly it’s hard to argue against the data supporting accurate sex education, including the use of birth control if the teenager were sexually active. However, given the fact that religious beliefs are about as difficult to change as one’s gender or race, there may be other ways to get the prevention ball rolling.

For example, a program designed to reduce criminal behavior among at-risk girls in the child welfare system yielded an unexpected, but wonderful, bonus – a reduction in pregnancy rates. These girls, who would previously have spent their adolescence in group homes, were place with foster parents who had received special training in dealing with at-risk youth. The program specifically targeted changing the girl's environment by giving her lots of supervision, support for responsible behavior, and consistent, non-harsh consequences for negative behavior. The parents also received ongoing consultation, support and crisis intervention services from program supervisors.

It’s not surprising to me that one of the best ways to prevent teen pregnancy is for teens to have long-term goals, good self-esteem, and a caring and consistent home environment. Personally, I take a realistic view; having once been a hot-blooded teenager myself, I’ve never bought the argument that “just say no” is going to beat out the hormones and passion of teen love. But I’m at least reassured that even the most conservative among us can – and should – play a role in preventing teen pregnancy. Perhaps we can channel some of the energy spent in the sex education debate into mentoring those troubled teens who need us most.

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.
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