Let’s talk about sex and babies

Brooke and Luca

Brooke and Luca

A Lenten Appeal grant last year led to an extensive research project looking at the issue of teenage pregnancy in Northern Tasmania. UnitingCare Tasmania and the Northern Early Years Group released the findings last month. Tasmania has the third highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Australia and the research sought to understand the causes and also find out, from young parents, the type of support they required.

In this special report Nigel Tapp looks at the findings and talks to a young mum about life as a teenage parent.

UnitingCare Tasmania has called on the Tasmanian Government to urgently review its model of sex education in schools in the light of a detailed research report which indicates that most young people are uninformed when it comes to the effective use of contraception.

The Teenage Pregnancy Research Report-Northern Tasmania was launched last month by Interim Children’s Commissioner Elizabeth Daly.

The report found that less than 30 per cent of teenagers surveyed felt they knew how to avoid pregnancy.

More than 80 per cent of young mums said they relied solely on the contraceptive pill but many did not understand how it worked and thought it would still be effective even if they forgot to take it for several days.

Most young women surveyed said they alone were responsible for making the decision on the use of contraception and considered it difficult or inappropriate to discuss the matter with their partner.

Just under half of those surveyed said they would not feel comfortable insisting their partner use contraception.

The report was funded by a grant from the Uniting Church’s Lenten Appeal and commissioned by the Northern Tasmanian Early Years Group. Launceston consultancy 3P Consulting undertook the research.

Tasmania has the third highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Australia with 21.5 births per 1000 within the age cohort, behind only Queensland and the Northern Territory.

UnitingCare Tasmania chief executive Lindy O’Neill said the state could not expect to improve its rate of teenage pregnancies until young people were better educated about contraception.

“Recent surveys show that more than a quarter of year 10 students and one in every two year 12 students have had sex – and there is nothing to suggest those rates will reduce any time soon,” she said.

“But the rates of effective use of contraception are inadequate.”

Ms O’Neill said countries with low teenage pregnancy rates had a comprehensive social and policy response to sexual health and contraception programs for young people.

“The underlying principle informing (these) policy responses is that sexual activity is understood to be developmentally normal during adolescence,” the report concluded.

“Therefore it should be considered ‘normal’ to provide a program response based on knowledge and access to contraception.”

Ms O’Neill said formal sex education programs in schools need to take account of the preferred approach of young people to access information, such as websites and supported conversations among peers.

She urged the state government to explore innovative approaches to educate and inform young people about the pill; including developing and trialling phone apps with regular follow-up information texts for young women recently prescribed the pill.

The report also found that very few teenage pregnancies were planned and there was no evidence of any link between the federal government’s Baby Bonus and pregnancy among teenage mums.

Among other findings of the report were:

  • The more volatile the relationship between a female teenager and her mother, the more likely the teenager will participate in risk taking behaviours including sex.
  • Young people named their peers and the internet as their primary sources of information and advice on relationships and contraception.
  • Instability of accommodation is the most pressing issue for young women once they became pregnant, meaning a coordinated approach to ensuring stable accommodation needs to be established across service providers.
  • Most young women are uncomfortable and embarrassed about attending antenatal appointments and admit entering labour with limited knowledge of what to expect. This means they are less informed on key areas of care and nutrition as well as having little sense of control during the birth.
  • Young women are more likely to attend appropriate care and support appointments if they had the consistent support of a trusted adult. Agencies will trial a lead-worker model to act as a support person to guide and advocate on behalf of a pregnant teenager who does not have a trusted adult.
  • A significant number of young women are living alone with their baby, increasing the need for parenting and social support programs such as the Pregnant and Young Parent Support service, a program of UnitingCare Tasmania.
  • Young parents feel unfairly judged by many in the community, indicating a need for public image campaigns at a community level and ensuring a family friendly approach regardless of the age of the parents.

Ms O’Neill said UnitingCare was indebted to the donors who supported the research project.

“Anecdotally, we have learnt much over the two decades of supporting young mums and parents about the particular challenges they face seeking to raise a child at a very vulnerable stage of their life,” she said.

“Importantly, what this project gives us is data to back up what we believed and detailed information from participants about how they feel about the challenges they face on a daily basis.

“Ask any of our workers and they will tell you these young parents love and are extremely dedicated to their children.

“We understand that many of the recommendations flowing from this report will come at a cost to government, both state and federal.

“But, as with all such programs, the cost of not providing appropriate support is much higher.”

The chair of the Northern Tasmanian Early Years Group, Di Nailon, said the report provided evidence and insights for policymakers and practitioners to use in their decision-making about adolescent and infant services now and into the future.


Support offers a bright future for young mum

Brooke Kirkland was not at all surprised to hear that most teenage mums surveyed in Northern Tasmania listed the need for stable and affordable accommodation for them and their child as the most pressing need.

The 21-year-old considers herself fortunate to be part of a joint initiative involving the Karinya Young Women’s Service and UnitingCare Tasmania which has enabled Ms Kirkland and her 14-month-old daughter, Luca (pictured left), find permanent, stable and affordable accommodation near the city of Launceston.

Karinya’s Mums and Bubs Program and UnitingCare Tasmania Pregnant and Young Parent Support service are also helping Ms Kirkland with qualified advice and people willing to help her learn to be the best possible parent she can.

The joint program was launched in September last year and has been possible thanks to funding from the Clarendon Children’s Home.
It has brought together two organisations with extensive experience in supporting young women. It works on the philosophy that providing young mothers with secure housing is an important first step in achieving positive life outcomes.

Karinya manages several Housing Tasmania units for young mothers and UnitingCare Tasmania provides mentoring to the residents through its PYPS program.

Ms Kirkland said the support she had received from both organisations over the last year had made her more confident in her ability to be a good mother and to also look for opportunities to provide an even better life for Luca and herself.

She is considering a career in nursing or the health and fitness industry.

The supportive, nurturing environment Ms Kirkland has found is sadly, not experienced by every teenage mum but both Karinya and UnitingCare Tasmania hope it will become a common model within the wider community.

“They have really helped me with my feeling of self-worth, confidence and self-belief,” Ms Kirkland said.

“It has helped me begin to really focus on the sorts of things I want to achieve.”

Ms Kirkland said it was impossible to clearly articulate what a difference having permanent accommodation had made to her life.

“There are a lot of things to work out at the time (of becoming pregnant) and I was terrified I would not be able to raise Luca in an environment which was not only suitable for a child but also affordable for me,” she said.

“That is why this place is just so perfect for me.

“It has just made everything so much easier and a lot less stressful. We are comfortable and safe here.”

Like the young mums surveyed as part of the research study, Ms Kirkland said she felt the stares of disapproval whenever she ventured into Launceston while she was pregnant or when Luca was younger.

“I hated going into town by myself and when I was pregnant I really used to let it get to me.

“People, particularly older ones, would make their disapproval obvious, making sure I could see them shaking their heads.”

For now Ms Kirkland is taking her life one step at a time but you get the feeling that this is one determined young woman.

A young woman who will make life work out just fine for her and her child.

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One Response to “Let’s talk about sex and babies”

  1. While the support of young single mums and adolescent health are important aims, some assertions and conclusions in this article are misleading and will not serve to solve the problems as described.

    Teenage pregnancy is not linked to lack of knowledge about contraception and how to use it. Teenagers have knowledge and access to contraceptives as no generation has had before. Teenage pregnancy is caused by teenage sexual activity. Teenage sexual activity is heavily promoted by our media, the pornography industry, our wider culture and the majority of well meaning sex educators as ‘developmentally normal’. ‘Teenage-sex-as-normal’ sells clothing, music,cosmetics and much more.

    Teenagers may well be physically mature however teens are not mini adults in every area that counts when it comes to making mature contraceptive decisions, such as emotional and psychological maturity and brain development and function. The latter has a direct bearing on impulse control, judging, reasoning, weighing up consequences, decision making, self evaluation and planning. To quote the brilliant Dr Miriam Grossman in her book ‘You’re Teaching my Child What?’: “There is substantial evidence that adolescents engage in dangerous activities DESPITE knowing and understanding the risks involved.” Their brains are only just beginning to develop the ability to apply the brakes to emotional responses.

    This links in to the second problem with assuming better knowledge of contraception will reduce teen pregnancies. Teenage pregnancy is more often a response to unmet emotional needs in the individual’s life. At Open Doors we see this phenomenon played out every day in the stories of our clients. Sexual activity can be used to fill an emotional void left by family dysfunction, loss of biological father from the family home or other loss. Pregnancy is often unconsciously sought as a way of filling the gap. Emotional need trumps contraceptive knowledge where ever belonging and connectedness are unconsciously at work.

    Sending a message that sex is ‘developmentally normal’ for adolescents is medically unhealthy, especially for girls. One example out of many – the adolescent cervix is immature and at much greater risk of damage and vulnerability to disease.

    The overriding health message for all adolescents should be “delay”.
    Information/education about contraception is not an answer to teen pregnancy just as information/education about alcohol is not an answer to binge drinking.

    Over-arching any sex education curriculum must be a set of strongly upheld social messages that reassure kids that sexual activity is for adulthood, that the adults around them expect them to wait, that there are many smart reasons to wait, that just because certain activities are ‘common’ doesn’t render them healthy.

    Adolescents who are sexually active need support to become more self aware about their choices and behaviours. Many young people report regret that they began so early.

    Parents need support to parent. Good communication between parent and child about sex related information, attitudes, values and expectations is influential in teens delaying sex.

    Christians need to be wary of buying into the wider society’s attitudes and solutions to sex related issues. The ‘safe sex’ model does not prize or protect young people. It protects the lifestyles of the adults who devised it as a response to the HIV/Aids epidemic in the 1980s.

    If we prize our teenagers we will encourage them to know their worth, value their health and well being and to wait.