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Help teens avoid early pregnancies
Health advice
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In a House oversight hearing on abstinence-only programs on April 23, James Wagoner expressed frustration by saying that this "decade of denial" has left the United States with some of the worst sexual health outcomes in the developed world.
One in four U.S. teen girls now has an STD and our national STD rates are exceeded only by those of Romania and the Russian Federation. Our teen birth rate is nine times that of the Netherlands, five times that of France, and nearly three times that of Canada.
Teen pregnancy costs the federal government more than $9 billion a year and the U.S. has spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-based programs in the last 10 years.
While everyone recognizes that abstinence is the only 100-percent effective method for avoiding unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, health professionals realize that not every teen will heed advice that they should delay sex.
Although many teens say they are concerned about pregnancy, they firmly believe that "it won't happen to them" and have many misconceptions. Statistics, however, show that it can does happen to one million girls every year. And the number one reason teens of both sexes give for not using protection is that they weren't planning to have sex and that it "just happened."
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy believes that preventing teen pregnancy must be viewed not only as a reproductive health issue, but also as one that works to improve all socio-economic measures.  
It is clear there is much parents and adults can do to reduce the risk of kids becoming pregnant before they are physically and emotionally mature. The fact is, children receive all sorts of messages about sex from the outside world, so the more information they can get from a trusted source, like their parents, the better off they will be.
Several years ago I discovered this list on the Web site. My suggestion is that parents and grandparents cut it out and  read it often. I've condensed it but it's still powerful information.
Tips For Parents To Help Their Children Avoid Teen Pregnancy
1. Be clear about your own sexual values and attitudes.  Communicating with your children about sex, love and relationships is often more successful when you are certain in your own mind about these issues. To help clarify your attitudes and values, think about the following kinds of questions:
* What do you really think about teenagers being sexually active-perhaps even becoming parents? What do you think about encouraging teenagers to abstain from sex?
* Who is responsible for setting sexual limits in a relationship and how is that done, realistically?
2. Talk with your children early and often about sex, and be specific. Kids have lots of questions about sex, and they often say that the source they'd most like to go to for answers is their parents. Start the conversation, and make sure that it is honest, open, and respectful. Ask them what they think and what they know so you can correct misconceptions. Ask what, if anything, worries them.
Age-appropriate conversations about relationships and intimacy should begin early in a child's life and continue through adolescence.
Here are the kinds of questions kids say they want to discuss:
* How do I know if I'm in love? Will sex bring me closer to my girlfriend/boyfriend?
* How will I know when I'm ready to have sex? Should I wait until marriage?
* Will having sex make me popular? Will it make me more grown-up and open up more adult activities to me?
* How do I tell my boyfriend that I don't want to have sex without losing him or hurting his feelings?
* How does contraception work? Are some methods better than others?

By the way, research shows that talking with your children about sex does not encourage them to become sexually active. And remember, too, that your own behavior should match your words.
3. Supervise your children and adolescents.  Establish rules, curfews, and standards of expected behavior, preferably through family discussion and respectful communication. Decide who is responsible for making certain that children are safe during unsupervised  hours? Are they  engaged in useful activities? Where are they when they go out with friends? Are there adults around who are in charge?
4. Know your children's friends and their families. Friends have a strong influence on each other, so help your children and teenagers become friends with kids whose families share your values.
5. Discourage early, frequent and steady dating. Group activities among young people are fine and often fun, but allowing teens to begin steady, one-on-one dating much before age 16 can lead to trouble. Let your child know about your strong feelings about this throughout childhood, don't wait until your young teen proposes to start dating.
6. Take a strong stand against your daughter dating a boy significantly older than she is. And don't allow your son to develop an intense relationship with a girl much younger than he is. Set a limit of no more than a 2-3 year age difference. The power differences between younger girls and older boys or men can lead girls into risky situations.
7. Help your teens have options for the future that are more attractive than early pregnancy and parenthood. The chances your children will delay sex, pregnancy and parenthood increase if their futures appears bright. This means helping them set meaningful goals, talking about what it takes to make plans come true, and helping them reach their goals. Explain how becoming pregnant or causing pregnancy can derail plans. For example, childcare expenses can make it almost impossible to afford college.
8. Let your kids know that you value education highly. Encourage your children to take school seriously and set high expectations about their performance. School failure is often the first sign of trouble. Be attentive to your children's progress in school and intervene early if things aren't going well.
9. Know what your kids are watching, reading and listening to. All media are full of wrong messages. When it is not consistent with your expectations and values talk with your children about what the media portray and what you think about it. If certain programs or movies offend you, say so, and explain why. Encourage your kids to think critically. Ask them what they think about TV programs and music.
10. These first nine tips work best when they occur as part of strong, close relationships with your children built from an early age. Strive for a relationship that is warm in tone, firm in discipline and rich in communication, and one that emphasizes mutual trust and respect. There is no single way to create such relationships, but the following habits of the heart help:
* Express love and affection clearly and often. Hug your children, and tell them how much they mean to you. Praise accomplishments, but remember that expressions of affection should be offered freely, not just for achievement.
* Listen carefully to what your children say and pay thoughtful attention to what they do.

Ratcliffe works with the Coastal Health District.
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