Let’s face the facts – our kids are having sex! We no longer have the luxury of pretending that it doesn’t affect our children, our neighborhoods or our bottom lines. We can accept it and work on making it responsible, safe and appropriately timed sex, or we can continue to watch as Delaware statistics spiral out of control for teen pregnancy, STD’s, consequent high school dropouts and huge tax implications.
Adolescents comprise 13% of Delaware’s population and are the foundation of our next generation of citizenry. This significant demographic has given Delaware the distinction of having the 6th highest teen pregnancy rate in the country, the 4th highest teen abortion rate, the highest incidence of early sex and teen multiple partner sex, one of the highest STD rates, and one of the highest early alcohol usages. Adolescents who start drinking early are more likely to take other risks. These are the kids who also tend to smoke, use other drugs, and have sex early. And lest you think none of this pertains to YOUR child, nearly 60% of our high school kids reported having sex against a national average of 48% – we have a teen health crises on our hands, like it or not!
It’s probably nothing that we can’t rationalize with them about, though, right? Wrong! While our kids may try to act like adults, research proves that teens, and not just Delaware teens, just can’t make decisions, weigh consequences, assess risks, prioritize or problem solve like an adult. Their brains aren’t ready yet. So when it comes to making lifestyle choices, they may take the path of least resistance. It doesn’t help any that the chemical make up of a teen is pressing them to seek and test new and stimulating situations. Put the undeveloped brain and the hormonal impetus together and you have a recipe for succumbing to peer pressure and reckless behavior. Teens are also highly vulnerable to the impact of friends, media, and social influences. In our high tech society, these influences are at their fingertips.
So let’s just accept it and let them work through this phase, right? Wrong, again, because the effects of their decisions have long term implications for their quality of life, their children’s lives and Delaware’s economy! Sexual risk taking seems to have a direct association with academic performance. According to the YRB survey, poorly performing students were more likely to be students who had early sex and multiple partners. These risk behaviors lead to STD’s and pregnancy. The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) reports that 70 percent of teen mothers drop out of high school and only 30 percent of teen mothers complete high school by age 30. The children of these teens are nine times more likely to live in poverty.
The children of teen mothers also are more likely to be born prematurely and at a low birthrate, which impacts a host of child related illnesses affecting their quality of life. Many rely on Medicaid. They are at higher risk of incarceration and the daughters of pregnant teens are more likely to get pregnant themselves and live in poverty – and so the cycle continues.
So, what can we do? First and foremost, we must acknowledge that teen sexual and related high risk behaviors exist and are at epidemic proportions. This realization will help to focus us on the fact that we must take action as individuals, as parents, as educators and as policy makers.
Second, we must work as a collaborative community on systemic and policy change starting with the family, education system and state resources.
It may seem cliché, but there is strong evidence that family plays a huge role in the direction of a teen’s sexual risk behavior. This effect cuts across race and socio-economic populations. In short, parents who guide, communicate and help their children to feel part of a stable and caring unit show measurable positive effects on preventing risk behaviors. Parents need to positively parent their child.
Schools have extended the support system via school based wellness centers with their extended counseling, testing and educational services. Health Centers statewide provide additional information and services contributing to the community approach.
Currently, Delaware mandates that public schools teach sexuality education and STI/HIV education and require that abstinence be stressed when taught as part of sex education. However, this is done inconsistently and often via a variety of untested methods. As recommended by DPH’s Teen Pregnancy Advisory Board, it needs to be part of state policy to “support and expand the implementation of evidence-based sexuality education and access programs throughout the state- provide direction, guide resources, encourage consistency, provide due diligence and help coordinate efforts.”
Sex Education is usually taught for one semester or less in health class, which is only available in one grade throughout school. A one shot approach isn’t enough. We must use multiple approaches to increase access to education for both youth and adults through the use of trained peer educators to spread consistent and accurate information throughout both rural and urban areas.
Finally, for those teens who continue to participate in high risk behaviors and ultimately become pregnant, we must not abandon our commitment to their education. On the contrary, they need support more than ever to ensure high school graduation and college preparation and motivation while simultaneously supporting their very specific social, emotional, parenting and childcare needs.
For 42 years, The Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc. (DAPI), has provided a standards-based educational opportunity for pregnant and parenting teens with unique outreach, mentoring and supportive services promoting empowerment and self-sufficiency. In that time, thousands of girls ages 12-19 have finished school and become productive, tax paying citizens as well as devoted parents. Their babies have been healthy. Many have gone on to college and career success that exceeded all expectations. Critical issues in our state – infant mortality, the burden on taxpayers for public assistance, children having children without high school educations nor any hope of college, mothers and their children falling into the cycle of welfare for generations – have all been problems that DAPI addresses and effects positive change upon!
Teen sexual behaviors are an issue that effect all of society, not just the teen. But if we can educate our teens and society as a whole, support them with strong home and school infrastructure and encourage communication and community collaboration, we can ensure a healthy and successful economic future for our children and for Delaware.