Preventing Teenage Pregnancy

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The issue receives a great deal of media attention these days, and feelings about it run strong among parents, community leaders, and public officials. Nevertheless, the problem of teenage pregnancy--children having children--remains a serious concern in our society.

One out of every four girls in the U.S. becomes pregnant by the end of the 19th year.footnote 1 Girls in the U.S. under age 15 are over five times more likely to give birth than girls of comparable age in any other developed country in the world.

A pregnancy prevention program led by Steven Schinke and Lewayne Gilchrist of the UW School of Social Work has shown that specialized training developed by the researchers can make a lasting impact on adolescents' behavior relating to sex and pregnancy.

The pregnancy prevention strategies developed by Schinke and Gilchrist were tested initially over the period of 1978 to 1980 with funds from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Their approach is based on the idea that the risk of unprotected sexual activity--and subsequent unplanned and unwanted pregnancies--is mostly due to a lack of appropriate interpersonal communication skills in teenagers, and not to any underlying psychological, intellectual, or social deficits. These youngsters lack the communication, negotiating, and sexual decision-making skills, for which childhood does not really prepare them. What skills they do have can be easily overwhelmed by emotions that accompany puberty and the process of growing up.

Furthermore, children may not get the kind of assistance from their parents that can help them through these difficult times. "Excellent communication between parents and children on the topic of sexual behavior is a necessary ingredient of good, lasting sex education and realistic preparation for adolescence," notes Gilchrist. "However, abundant data show that American parents have considerable difficulty in talking about sex with their own children." The researchers focused on training activities that informed and involved the family, but that could be implemented in school and youth agency settings.

The researchers tested training methods that help adolescents develop the ability to deal with high-risk choices and situations. The overall program provided teens with information, training, and practice in applying the information and skills in simulated high-risk situations. The key features of the model, says Gilchrist, are getting teens to fit abstract information and principles to their own lives, and having them rehearse specific responses in advance of needing those responses in real-life situations.

Tests of the model in Washington State high schools reduced the incidence of unprotected sexual activity among youths, and encouraged abstinence from sexual intercourse. And the training made a lasting impact on youths' problem-solving, communication, decision-making, and social situation-analysis skills.

Schinke and Gilchrist's pregnancy prevention model subsequently was adopted by 22 school districts in California. Training materials have been disseminated to schools and youth agencies in a majority of states, and to several Latin American countries.

  1. "Adolescent Parenthood," Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, in The Handbook of Parentling, Volume 3: Status and Social Conditions of Parenting, M. H. Bornstein, ed., Hillsdale, Erlbaum, 1995.

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