Interfamily communication – or a lack of it – has been linked to early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy rates because family communication relates to how youth make sexual decisions. DARE to be You, a Colorado State University Cooperative Extension program, is implementing a unique program in two Colorado communities to improve family communication about sexual decisions to reduce early sexual activity and therefore reduce teenage pregnancy rates.
The project, a collaboration with the university’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, will focus on families with 12- to 14-year-olds in Denver and Montezuma counties. The program, which received a $900,000, four-year grant in October from Health and Human Services, will build communication and problem-solving skills in teens and their family members along with providing training to community members, such as health care providers, who interact with teenagers.
"There is an ongoing debate about who – parents or peers – and what influences teens’ sexual decision-making," said David McPee, professor in Colorado State’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies who is serving as the project evaluator and co-principal investigator. "In our focal groups, teens told us that they think that parents should begin talking to their children about sexual decisions by the time the children reach 12 years of age, and that, to be effective, a preventative program should include parents, peers and other supportive adults."
School surveys found that, within a Montezuma County community, almost 13 percent of middle-school children – generally 12- to 14-year-olds – had had sexual intercourse in the month prior to the survey. In Denver County, the Colorado Department of Health reported 31 live births to 10- to 14-year-old girls last year.
"Research shows that parents think they are talking to their kids about sex, but the kids don’t see it that way. We found that about 80 percent of the parents in these areas say they’re talking to their teens about sex," said Jan Miller-Heyl, director of DARE to be You and the principal investigator on the grant. "But only about half of the high-school-aged teens in these areas say that their parents have talked to them. We also found that the majority of teen parents we talked to reported that their parents had not talked to them until after they became sexually active. Teens who were not parents reported that most of their parents did talk to them about their sexual decisions."
The three-year project will begin in January and focus on reducing teen pregnancy rates among African American families in Denver County and Anglo, Hispanic and Native American families in Montezuma County.
Youth who are 12 to 14 years old are in a key transitional period for sexual decision making, said Miller-Heyl, because they reach young adult stages of cognitive and physical development and because of the influence of their relationships with peers and family. Family relationships help define values and attitudes but, by middle school, many families have either lost or not developed a strong communication relationship, opening the door further to peer influence.
Through a family-focused program, the study will work to improve family relationships and parental supervision, two factors that have been linked to teen pregnancy rates, while helping young teens develop the self-esteem and social skills they need to abstain from sex and make better sexual decisions as they mature. The program will help teens understand the impact of sexual activity on mental, physical and social health and help families explore their own moral framework for making such decisions. The program is federally funded and does not promote religious beliefs. The program also will mobilize community volunteers to support pregnancy prevention messages.
"Not all pregnancy prevention and abstinence programs are successful," said MacPhee. "This program will focus on reaching youth two ways: through their family and through teams of community volunteers linked to youth organizations and agencies. It helps build relationships in families that are more healthy and open and helps families and kids find ways to talk about these things. Sexual development is an inherent part of adolescence, so it is important that programs normalize biological changes, increased interest in sex, dating and intimacy."
"Adolescence is also a period of time when cognitive changes and behavioral skills can be out of synchrony," added Miller-Heyl. "Transmitting information is not enough. We keep lectures to a minimum and instead provide opportunities for teens to practice behaviors and experience managing different situations and solving problems.
Montezuma County is a rural, isolated county in the southwest corner of Colorado with a population of 23,830, including three small towns and the Ute community of Towaoc. The nearest city, Albuquerque, is 250 miles away. Although it is a small community, it is a microcosm of many of the social and educational issues that are common in the nation to children and families.
The grant funds four years at $225,000 per year and is an Adolescent Family Life grant given by the Office of Population Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services. The grant will pay 70 percent of the cost of the project in the first year. DARE to be You is part of the Colorado State Cooperative Extension youth development and 4-H program.