Even with a steadily declining adolescent birth rate, two in five young women will become pregnant before age twenty, and four out of five of those pregnancies will be unintended, including about half of those among married teenage girls. Whatever their circumstances, though, the news that they are pregnant usually comes as a shock, and often not a welcome one.
The unforeseen development typically throws young lives into turmoil, at least for a time, forcing the girl to make perhaps the most agonizing decision of her life. Does she carry the baby to term, as 50 percent of pregnant teenagers elect to do? Or does she terminate the pregnancy?
It is hoped she knows she can count on her mother and father for guidance and support as she confronts these choices. Youngsters who fear meeting with rejection or abuse at home may try to keep the pregnancy a secret as long as possible. As a result, they often don’t receive adequate prenatal care and counseling during the crucial early months of fetal development.
One-third of girls aged fifteen to nineteen, and one-half of girls under fifteen receive no prenatal care at all during their first trimester. The lack of medical attention can lead to problems later on. If they go forward with the pregnancy, the pregnancy could be complicated with an increased risk for mother and baby. And if they choose to abort, the earlier the procedure is performed the safer it will be.
However, anxiety over Mom and Dad’s reaction isn’t the only reason a girl may hide the fact that she is pregnant. “Young women can be in terrible denial,” explains Dr. Claire Brindis, “simply refusing to accept the reality of their condition.” Psychologists call this dissociation. Since today’s baggy fashions make it easier for a girl to go for months, or perhaps through her entire pregnancy, without anyone noticing her expanding abdomen, don’t go by appearances alone. If you suspect that your daughter might be pregnant but is trying to hide it, act on your intuition—but tactfully, perhaps with words like these: “Honey, you’ve been complaining of feeling tired and nauseous the last week or so, and you’re going to the bathroom a lot. Are you all right? You remind me of what I felt like when I was pregnant.”
Parents’ Common Reactions
A tearful “I’m pregnant!” isn’t easy for any mother or father to hear. Worry, disappointment, anger—all are understandable responses. Most likely this isn’t what you had in mind for your daughter. Meanwhile, a similar scene is probably being played out at the home of the boy involved (if the boy even tells his parents).
Give yourself and your spouse permission to be upset for a day or two. Talk things over together. If you blurt out an incredulous “What on earth were you thinking?!” or “How could you be so irresponsible?!” so be it; you’re human. But then shut the door on anger and lock it away. Hurling blame at your teenager isn’t going to change anything; it’s time to sit down as a family and calmly discuss what to do next.
“A parent’s most important role is to listen to the young woman or the young couple as they sort through their options,” says Denver pediatrician Dr. Roberta Beach. “We know that in the long run teenagers usually feel satisfied with whatever choice they made, as long as they feel that the decision was theirs and that their family supported them.”
First Things First: Verify the Diagnosis
A skipped period and a positive result on a home pregnancy test are usually what prompt a young woman to believe she’s pregnant. The home test, while generally accurate, isn’t as reliable as the laboratory test the doctors do to confirm a pregnancy. So the first step is to make an appointment with your daughter’s pediatrician or gynecologist.
Next Step: Reaching a Decision
The doctor’s office just called: The pregnancy test came back positive. Now where do we go from here? There are three options: abort, give birth and raise the baby or give birth and place the child up for adoption. Parents certainly have a right to voice their opinions; if circumstances allow, the young man and his family should be invited to take part in the decision-making process too. But legally, the ultimate verdict belongs to the expectant mother.
For some young women, the decision about what to do is never in doubt. Perhaps they are personally opposed to abortion. Or they know deep in their hearts that they are not ready to have a child this early in life and therefore wish to have an abortion.
Most girls, though, agonize over this difficult decision, which is further complicated by the fact that abortion is one of the most politically and emotionally charged issues of our times.
Depending on where she lives, she may face the harrowing prospect of having to travel dozens or even hundreds of miles just to find an abortion provider and once there she may need to wind her way through a gauntlet of taunts and threats by antiabortion demonstrators.
If you and your daughter feel that you might benefit from hearing an objective viewpoint, arrange a consultation with the pediatrician. In a nonjudgmental fashion, he or she can help you to evaluate the pros and cons of each option. Once the young woman has made up her mind, most pediatricians can refer her to health-care practitioners who provide abortion services, or to an obstetrician or adolescent clinic to begin prenatal care.