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PREP Teens for Healthy Relationships

Photo of young teen couple laying on the grass.First dance.  First date. First crush. First kiss. 

Exploring romantic relationships (or just daydreaming about them) is part of growing up.

Here at the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, we know that when young people feel comfortable communicating with a partner and negotiating things like condom use, they may be less likely to get pregnant or get someone pregnant.

We also know that relationships can be an emotional rollercoaster ride for any youth. The ride can be even bumpier for young people who haven’t had healthy relationship role models at home or in the community. Even teens with healthy role models may not have the life experience to recognize controlling or abusive behavior or to feel confident about the option for relationships to not involve sexual relations.

With 57 percent of teens saying they know of a peer who has been physically, sexually or verbally abusive to their dating partner, having the skills necessary to engage in healthy relationships is more important than ever for young people.  That’s why we’re working with our grantee partners every day to “PREP Teens for Healthy Relationships.”

Through the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), we fund over 100 programs in states and Tribal communities across the country that teach young people more than just how to avoid pregnancy. They teach youth the skills needed to build and navigate healthy relationships.  When youth learn effective ways to communicate, set boundaries and resolve conflict, they are less likely to be engaged in abusive relationships and behavior that result in adolescent pregnancy.

Here are three ways FYSB and our grantees are preparing teens for healthy relationships:

  1. Teaching teen dads to parent. One innovative program called FatherWorks at The Village for Families and Children in Hartford, CT, helps young dads build and maintain open, healthy communication with the mothers of their children. They’ve found that young dads are more likely to avoid having another child –and be active in their child’s life -- if they are involved in a healthy co-parenting relationship, whether the youth are still together as a couple or not. FatherWorks starts by helping young men understand what it is like for an adolescent girl to be pregnant in high school, dealing with stigma, and dropping out. Creating that empathy can be the gateway to better communication.
  2. Helping teens prioritize their own goals and values. In Georgia, the Relationship Smarts PLUS curriculum is teaching young people how relationships can support or interfere with their goals and values--and how identifying their own goals can help them take a healthy perspective on relationships. During one lesson, facilitators share a list of values with youth and hold a silent “value auction” to identify three or four values teens find most important. The teens bid on each value in a live auction (using play money, of course). Afterward, the group talks about discrepancies between what a value sells for (which is influenced by peers) and what youth choose silently. Youth have the chance to think about what is important to them, and the importance of finding romantic partners who share their values. In Ohio, the Ohio Health Research and Innovation Institute is using a home visiting model to work with young mothers to delay back-to-back pregnancies.  Rapid repeat pregnancy increases the chance that babies are born premature or low in weight.  Through in-person visits and phone calls, trained nurses help the moms explore what is important to them and set goals for the future. The moms are also provided with birth control and encouraged to think about how childbearing could affect their ability to achieve their aspirations.  
  3. Working to prevent unhealthy relationships. Beyond promoting healthy relationships, we as educators, counselors and parents need to understand that young people don’t always have a choice about whether or when to engage in sexual activity. And they often don’t have control over reproductive decisions. In one study, about a quarter of abused adolescent females said their male partners were trying to get them pregnant when they didn’t want to be, often through intimidation or tampering with birth control.

In those extreme cases, typical interventions – teaching young people to communicate and negotiate their sexual relationships – are not enough. To effectively address abuse in relationships among youth, FYSB’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program partnered with our Family Violence Prevention and Services Program to develop the Toolkit to Incorporate Adolescent Relationship Abuse Prevention into Existing Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Programming. The toolkit walks educators through ways to try to prevent dating abuse when possible, as well as provide strategies for serving young people who are experiencing abuse.

We certainly can’t take all the mystery and uncertainty out of dating, romance and sexuality for our nation’s teens. But we can aim to keep them safer, healthier and more prepared for the challenges of adulthood.

If you are a parent , educator or youth service worker, we encourage you to take some time this May and throughout the year to explore the role of healthy relationships and unhealthy ones in pregnancy prevention. Together, we can PREP Teens for the Future.

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