If your daughter is pregnant and planning to have the baby, many changes await your family. And though it's certainly not what most parents expect, it happens every day: nearly 250,000 teenage girls in the United States give birth every year.
If your teen is about to become a mother (or your son has fathered a child), it can be overwhelming for all of you. How can you support your child through the challenges that lie ahead?
What You May Be Feeling
If you have just learned that your teen is having a baby, you're probably experiencing a wide range of emotions, from shock and disappointment to grief and worry about the future.
Some parents feel a sense of guilt, thinking that if only they'd done more to protect their child this wouldn't have happened. And although some parents are embarrassed by their teen's pregnancy and worried about how family, friends, and neighbors will react, others are happy about the news of a soon-to-be grandchild — especially if the teen is older and in a mature relationship.
Whatever feelings you're experiencing, this is likely to be a difficult time for your family. The important thing is that your teen needs you now more than ever. Being able to communicate with each other — especially when emotions are running high — is essential. Teens who carry a baby to term have special health concerns, and your daughter will have a healthier pregnancy — emotionally and physically — if she knows she doesn't have to go it alone.
So what can you do as the parent of a teen having a baby? Recognize your feelings and work through them so that you can accept and support her. Does that mean you don't have the right to feel disappointed and even angry? No. Such reactions are common. You might have a strong flood of emotions to deal with, especially at first. But the reality of the upcoming baby means that you'll have to get beyond your initial feelings for the sake of your daughter and her child.
If you need help coping with your feelings about the situation, talk to someone you trust or seek professional counseling. A neutral third party can be a great resource at a time like this.
What Your Teen May Be Feeling
Just a short time ago your teen's biggest concerns might have been hanging out with her friends and wondering what clothes to wear. Now she's dealing with morning sickness and scheduling prenatal visits. Her world has been turned upside down.
Most unmarried teens don't plan on becoming pregnant, and they're often terrified when it happens. Many, particularly younger teens, keep the news of their pregnancies secret because they fear the anger and disappointment of their parents. Some might even deny to themselves that they are pregnant — which makes it even more important for parents to step in and find medical care for their teen as early in the pregnancy as possible. Younger teens' pregnancies, in particular, are considered high risk because their bodies haven't finished growing and are not yet fully mature.
Teen boys who are going to become fathers also need the involvement of their parents. Although some boys may welcome the chance to be involved with their children, others feel frightened and guilty and may need to be encouraged to face their responsibilities (the father is legally responsible for child support in every state).
That doesn't mean, however, that you should pressure your teen son or daughter into an unwanted marriage. Offer advice, but remember that forcing your opinions on your teen or using threats is likely to backfire in the long run. There's no "one size fits all" solution here. Open communication between you and your teen will help as you consider the future.
Special Concerns of Pregnant Teens
Even though most teen girls are biologically able to produce healthy babies, whether they do often depends on whether they receive adequate medical care — especially in those critical early months of pregnancy.
Teens who receive proper medical care and take care of themselves are more likely to have healthy babies. Those who don't receive medical care are at greater risk for:
- fetal death
- high blood pressure
- labor and delivery complications (such as premature labor and stillbirth)
- low birth-weight infant
The earlier your teen gets prenatal care, the better her chances for a healthy pregnancy, so bring her to the doctor as soon as possible after finding out she's pregnant. If you need help finding medical care, check with social service groups in the community or at your child's school.
Your teen's health care provider can tell her what to expect during her pregnancy, how to take care of herself and her growing baby, and how to prepare for life as a parent.
Some topics that will be addressed include:
At her first prenatal visit, your teen will probably be given a full physical exam, including blood and urine tests. She'll be screened for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and for exposure to certain diseases, such as measles, mumps, and rubella.
Her health care provider also will discuss:
- how often prenatal visits should be scheduled
- what she may be feeling physically and emotionally
- what changes she can expect in her body
- how to deal with some of the uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy, like nausea and vomiting
Knowing what to expect can help alleviate some of the fears your daughter may have about being pregnant. Her health care provider will probably prescribe a daily prenatal vitamin to make sure she gets enough folic acid, iron, and calcium. Folic acid is especially important during the early weeks of pregnancy, when it plays a role in the healthy development of the neural tube (the structure that develops into the brain and spinal cord).
Your teen's health care provider will talk about the lifestyle changes she'll have to make for the health of her baby, including:
- not smoking (smoking while pregnant increases the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome)
- not drinking (alcohol causes mental and physical birth defects)
- not using drugs (drugs are associated with pregnancy complications and fetal death)
- not taking in more than 200 mg per day of caffeine (the amount in a 12-ounce cup of coffee)
- eating right
- getting enough rest
- avoiding risky sexual behaviors (such as having unsafe sex)
If your daughter smokes or uses alcohol or other drugs, her health care provider can offer ways to help her quit.
Fast food, soft drinks, sweets — teen diets are notoriously unbalanced. Eating well greatly increases your teen's chances of having a healthy baby, so encourage her to maintain a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads (use the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate as a guide).
Important nutrients include:
- proteins (lean meat, fish, poultry, egg whites, beans, peanut butter, tofu)
- calcium (milk and other dairy products)
- iron (lean red meats, spinach, iron-fortified cereals)
- folic acid (green leafy vegetables, beans, peas, fortified cereals)
Drinking plenty of water is essential, too.
Pregnancy is not the time for your daughter to go on a diet. When pregnant, some teens might be tempted to counter normal pregnancy weight gain by cutting calories or exercising excessively — both of which can seriously harm their babies.
If you suspect that your teen has an unhealthy preoccupation with her weight, talk to her health care provider.
If your teen was physically fit before getting pregnant and is not experiencing any pregnancy complications, her health care provider will probably encourage her to continue exercising.
Most women benefit from getting some exercise during pregnancy, although they might have to modify their activity. Low-impact exercises, such as walking and swimming, are best. Have your daughter discuss her exercise plans with her health care provider early on.
Most teens enter parenthood unprepared for the stress a new baby brings, and many experience frustration, resentment, and even anger toward their newborns — which may explain why teen parents are at higher risk for abusing and neglecting their babies.
You may want to talk with your teen's doctor to discuss ways you can help her manage her stress levels so that she can better cope with changes in her life. She also may want to spend some time with other parents of newborns to get a better sense of what caring for a baby involves.
Your daughter's health care provider will probably recommend that she take classes on pregnancy, giving birth, and parenting. These classes (some of which are held just for teens) can help prepare her for the practical side of parenthood by teaching skills such as feeding, diapering, child safety, and other basic baby care techniques.
Preparing for New Responsibilities
Many practical issues must be considered. Will your teen keep the baby or consider adoption? If she keeps it, will she raise the baby herself? Will she continue to go to school? Will the father be involved in the baby's life? Who will be financially responsible for the baby?
The answers to these questions often depend on the support your daughter receives. Some teens raise their child alone, some have the involvement of the baby's father, and some rely on their families for support.
As a parent, you need to think about your own level of involvement and commitment and discuss it with your teen. How much support — financial and otherwise — are you willing and able to offer? Will your daughter and her child live with you? Will you help pay for food, clothing, doctor visits, and necessary items like a car seat and stroller? Can you assist with childcare while your she's at school and/or work? A social worker or counselor can help you and your teen sort through some of these issues.
If at all possible, it's best for girls who are pregnant to finish school so they can get better jobs and create a better life for themselves and their babies. This is no easy task — 60% to 70% of all pregnant teens drop out of school. And going back after quitting is especially hard, so try to offer your daughter the support she needs to stay in school — both she and the baby will benefit. Check for school and community programs that offer special services for teen mothers, such as childcare, transportation, or tutoring.
Help your teen understand that as rewarding as having a child is, it isn't always fun — caring for a baby is a huge responsibility and a lifelong commitment. Prepare her for the reality that she won't have as much time for the things she used to do — that her life is about change and the baby will take priority.
As a parent, you can have a great impact on your teen's life and on her baby's. You may still wish that she had made different choices. But by supporting your daughter, making sure she gets good prenatal care, and listening as she shares her fears and anxieties, both of you may find that you're better parents in the long run.