Teenagers & Pregnancy.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve begun to deal with a number of teenage pregnancies in a variety of ministry settings. Some in youth group, others the teenage daughter of friends, others completely outside of church. So it got me thinking about how we can prepare ourselves as youth workers. Typically, whether it’s a long-time member of your ministry, a recent member of your group or a pregnant teenager that joins your ministry looking for support and friendship – there’s usually some form of chaos and crisis initiated within your group. There’s also a lot of impact on supporting communities, school groups and parents – not to mention the teenage parent(s) themselves. So, I’ve been gathering a few ideas to help us re-frame our own thinking, so we’re equipped to deal with one of these most challenging youth ministry situations. Mostly – these are ideas to consider, rather than step-by-step solutions, because every situation is unique. Then coming up in the next couple of weeks, I’ve invited some parents and teenagers who’ve been through the experience to share how we can best help and support them. State of Faith A teenage pregnancy doesn’t reflect the state of a teenager’s spirituality. Faithful, Jesus-following teenagers can still make choices that result in this decision. Kids that come to youth group every week may not have any faith commitment at all, and it’s often a revelation and reminder to parents, pastors, leaders and other students alike, that simply being part of a youth ministry isn’t always a measure of student’s behavior, beliefs or values. Throughout adolescence, it’s not uncommon for choices around faith and sexuality to be completely compartmentalized for teenagers and, depending on their cognitive awareness, they may not see any disconnect at all. Tip: We might see a correlation between a teenager’s faith journey and their choices and behavior. Realistically, often the choices that lead to teenage pregnancy are made without much forethought. In turn, we need to be realistic in our expectations of students being able to process their decisions. Tip: In addition to the emotional and brain chaos of adolescence, pregnancy brings about another round of hormonal changes. Feelings and views that seem concrete in one moment can be equally as fluid the next. We have to remember to be patient and prepared to be revisiting conversations over and over as a teenager processes all the aspects of the situation. As pregnancy progresses, feelings and attitudes may change – a student may change their mind on whether or not they want to keep the baby, how they feel about the father, the support they are shown, whether or not they feel guilt or happiness. How do I talk about this with my students? There’s no one answer. But honesty and transparency is important for your relationship with other parents and students. Gossip can be harmful to any student in this situation, so work together with them to create a plan. This can include communication with the school, the church community and youth group. Remember this is an opportunity to work with parents and others to support them in terms of protecting but also ensuring minimal gossip. Often, the truth is the best approach simply because it eliminates speculation, which can be most harmful to a teenager’s sense of identity. Include your lead pastor in the process as this can often cause ripples in the broader church community. Tip: Try and avoid making a “poster-child prodigal story” out of the situation. Those who were teenage parents earlier in life speak of the stigma associated with it as they grew up in church. The impact of the “came back to the Lord” stigma can be just as much pressure as the “black sheep” stigma. Be careful not to write a storyline for a teenager that isn’t truly theirs, even if it seems like a great ministry story! Tip: Maintain a broad view of your student and your ministry. Whilst there may be specific times of focus (when it becomes public, when the baby is born), both your ministry and the life of the student remain broader than “the pregnancy”. Your teenager is even more likely to remain just as interested in her favorite movies and activities, not to mention future-oriented choices like education, relationships and friends. Parents & Families. One of your biggest fears if this happens in your ministry, may be asking the question “is this my fault?”. This question is asked universally – from parents, friends, youth pastors and leaders. The response of parents and families to a teenage pregnancy can be extremely polarized. Tip: Remember that the process of dealing with a teenage pregnancy lasts for months. Being invited into the process is usually a privilege, but occasionally a necessity. Either way, utmost respect and concern for parents and other family members is a priority. Be conscientious of the fear, anger, anxiety, frustration and shifting views they may have of their teenager. Often a teenage pregnancy is the catalyst for emerging feelings of betrayal, deceit and awareness that a parent’s view of their teenager may be different from reality. Often there are very real feelings of embarrassment, humiliation and hurt that need to be worked through. Tip: Christian parents can often feel left out in the cold, shamed and hurt by their teenager but also the broader church community. Look out for these parents. Likewise, should an non-Christian pregnant teenager find themselves in your ministry – consider how you’ll offer support and encouragement without judgment to parents, regardless of their faith. Tip: Consider how you can offer support and encouragement to brothers & sisters, other family members and the “parents-in-law”. Siblings can feel angry, overshadowed and embarrassed. The parents of teenage dads can also feel ostracized depending on the relationship between families. Sometimes, the most valuable thing you can offer is the time to listen to those that feel unheard. Caring for Teenage Mom & Dad. There are multiple options for how these situations can play themselves out. Depending on the family relationships, you may be called on as a support person or may not be included in the family conversations at all. However, at all times – a teenage parent is still a teenager, dealing with all the usual stuff and some. So, continue to love on them. Tip: Remember that there is always a father involved to one degree or another – whether that’s in a long-term serious relationship, a one-off encounter or in more ghastly cases, an abusive situation. Where possible, consider what support or help he may need. Tip: Remember to love teenagers and care for their parents and families, but also be mindful that your advice and input may not always be welcome. Seek out input and wisdom from folks in your church or youth ministry network, as many of us have faced these situations! Be mindful that marrying your teenagers off may not be a great idea, that keeping or adopting out the baby is a reasonable choice and there are different agencies and services available to support either option. Tip: It may be that abortion is something that your teenager or family is considering, for a number of reasons. So it’s reasonable to think through how you might answer this, if the student brings it up. Tip: Most babies are born with fanfare and celebration, especially in church communities. The feelings that often accompany a teenage birth are fear, grief for hopes changed, anxiety, anger coupled with excitement and joy. Teenage parents are entitled to just as much joy and enthusiasm around their birth. Dealing with grief often means accepting that the future once hoped for has changed, but isn’t hopeless. Also, remember that this baby is prized in God’s family, and needs to be greeted with enthusiasm, regardless of how he’s come into the world. Humblest beginnings and all that. Caring for Other Teenagers. Sometimes a teenage pregnancy can bring up a realm of issues in the wider group. Be prepared for other kids to suddenly start talking or changing their behavior around the teenage mom. Often, other kids involved in sexual activity might freak out and you’ll have the opportunity to offer encouragement or some counseling, especially if there is a long-term relationship involved. For others, it might bring to the surface previous hurts, wounds and even abortion issues. Again, be prepared and realize that there are plenty of great professional counselors out there – get your teenagers in touch with them. Tip: There’s no right or wrong in terms of whether or not a teenage mom should stay part of youth group. For some parents, they’ll feel concerned. Others will see it as an opportunity to care for her and teach (by way of example) their own teenagers. Often, the mom herself will be the one to figure out where she’s feel comfortable – but as always, good communication with plenty of honesty about what’s awkward and uncomfortable is going to be best in the long run. Tip: Where one teenage mom finds welcome, others will too. Local ante-natal clinics and support services will gladly direct teenage moms and their families to places where they can be cared for. It’s not just pregnancy either. Soon you may have to think through retreats, lock-ins and youth events. Do whatever you can to try and make it work for them. Also – consider how you can connect other teenage moms in your wider community together, with some older moms who can help encourage, support and coach. Often for whatever reason, teenage moms from outside the church community may not have the same accessibility to moms, grandmas etc to offer advice and help. Tip: As above, wherever you have opportunity for teenage moms to gather, think about how you can create safe environments for teenage dads to spend time with their kids with other people around them to support, coach and encourage. Often teenage dads can be neglected in the ongoing support we try and provide, so be proactive. Teenage dads who are mentored by other great dads have a much better shot at parenting. So that’s just the beginning… A long list of things to think about and bear in mind. We’re crazy not to be prepared for this in our ministries, even when we hope that our beliefs and values influence the choices of our young people. In addition to that, I want the church and my youth group to be the first place a teenage mom and her family know they can find support, encouragement, acceptance and warmth. This is a recent article on who’s more likely get pregnant… which might shift a few assumptions! Your thoughts? Ideas? Stories? Like I said – this is what I’ve been thinking about and seeing, but what have you learned? What are you wrestling with?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.