Bristol Palin's Muddled Message
A New York psychologist on why America’s most famous teen mom shouldn’t be the only one talking to your kids about sex.
Parents, have you had the conversation yet? If not, your teenage daughters are taking their cues from Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears. Your teenage daughters are seeing other teenage girls become mothers. America’s famous teen moms are out there loud and clear. What’s their message? “[My baby] brings so much joy… I don’t regret it at all,” Bristol, 18 years old, told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren on Monday night.
The message comes through all forms of media—from glossy photo spreads to prime-time interviews, with bright lights, perfect makeup, and doting grandparents cooing over quiet, sleeping babies.
“Everyone should be abstinent but it’s not realistic at all… [sex] is more and more accepted among kids my age,” Sarah Palin’s daughter said.
And then, the message ends. Any talk of alternatives, such as appropriate birth control? No. Any talk of the realities of what life is like caring for a newborn while school, socializing, sleep, and college dreams are put on hold, or maybe gone for good? Not really.
“Of course, I wished it would have happened in, like, 10 years so I could have a job and an education and be, like, prepared and have my own house and stuff,” she said. Well, quite frankly, it could have happened 10 years from now, if only the conversation about personal responsibility and consequences was carried through for young mothers such as Bristol.
But, let’s give Bristol her due credit here. She can’t advocate for contraception while her mother is an icon of the Religious Right. And her message was honest: She now questions the (failed) abstinence approach. She says she wished that she had waited but she can’t go further than that—at least not on national television.
Bristol’s message boils down to: Try to abstain—even though it’s “not realistic”—and if that doesn’t work, try not to have regrets. If that’s where you want to leave your daughters, you can stop reading here.
Still with me? What’s the message from Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s 17-year-old sister? “I was in complete and total shock—and so was he!” It almost sounds like Jamie Lynn and her boyfriend did not know where babies came from!
Based on their actions and their subsequent public rationales, Bristol and Jamie Lynn do not appear to have had the full conversation concerning sex and pregnancy and the lifetime of changes and commitments that come as a result.
In my work, I have treated teenage girls who struggle with the issue of when to have sex and with whom. And, I’ve also treated some teenage girls who don’t struggle at all: They simply have sex. Their reasons are varied, from liking the way it feels, to wanting acceptance among peers, to wanting status, to wanting to be loved and needed, to wanting to please a certain boy.
The idea of having a baby does not enter into their minds. “He’ll pull out” or “I use the rhythm method” or “I don’t get my period regularly, so I can’t get pregnant.” (Not to mention that rates of sexually transmitted diseases are similar for kids committing to abstinence-programs or “purity pledges” as for kids who don’t commit to any abstinence program.)
Although the Jonas Brothers are pledged to purity, some of their fans tell us that as long as they don’t engage in intercourse, it doesn’t count and they won’t get pregnant. STDs aren’t even on their radar screen. These girls are in need of the conversation and they need it before they see me. They lack information or have misinformation. They don’t care to think beyond the idea of “if I get pregnant” to what the reality of their lives will be with a baby on board.
Typically, the teens I talk to haven’t discussed sex with their parents. Hence, friends, the media, and the Internet are their sources of information. While teenagers can recite back basic biological facts to varying degrees of certainty, they have no idea what their options are, what resources may or may not be available to them, and what their parents would do in the event of a pregnancy. And, forget about the thinking through how they would manage, once pregnant or infected with an STD.
Bristol—who knows she is fortunate to have a loving and supportive extended family around her—hopes that “people learn from my story and, like, I don’t know, prevent teen pregnancy, I guess.”
She has a point. This is what we should all learn: Start the conversation now, and then, continue it. Don’t ask your daughters whether they are having sex. They’re not likely to tell you and you’re more likely to alienate or scare them. Instead, ask them what they know about sex, and whether they know where kids can get help if they are thinking about having sex. Tell them what you think about premarital and teenage sex, but don’t threaten, just give your opinion.
Better yet, follow Bristol’s advice and use her as an example. Ask your daughters what they think if a friend, or a teenage relative, were to become pregnant. Or what message they get from Bristol and Jamie Lynn.
Keep the discussion going so that your daughters have a complete understanding of the risks, the realities, the options, and what it is that you will support. And then, give your daughters permission to see their physicians on their own… without you in the room.
Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D, ABPP, is associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University, and director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders.