By Brittany Chambers, MPH, CHES
Despite the decline of adolescent pregnancy rates in Alameda County, it remains an issue among youth of color and those from disadvantaged communities.
As a former adolescent mother who attended high school in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), transitioning to and navigating though parenthood can have significant challenges.
For example, when most people think about adolescent pregnancy, negative issues come to mind: dropping out of high school, depending on government assistance, single-motherhood, promiscuity.
However, research shows that adolescent pregnancy alone is not the cause of these factors. Why, then, do the majority of prevention efforts rely on a “victim blaming” approach to address the issue?
A plethora of literature (here and here, for example) demonstrates that these strategies are ineffective and produce and perpetuate stigma that is harmful to these mothers, their children and their communities.
Stigma is defined as a process in which groups of people determined to have undesirable characteristics – in this case, adolescent parenthood – are marginalized from those who hold more desirable characteristics, such as delaying pregnancy until adulthood.
Studies exploring stigma among pregnant and parenting adolescents (for example, here and here) find that they experience stigma in multiple sectors in society. They experience it at school, in medical offices and clinics, in receiving social services, in the media and sometimes in the negative glares and even verbal assaults they receive in public.
In response to shame and guilt, these parents frequently engage in unhealthy coping strategies, including avoiding spaces where they feel stigmatized.
Think about this for a moment: A pregnant teen, to avoid judgment, guilt and shame, stops attending school. She skips her medical appointment. She doesn’t show up for her appointment with social services. She avoids mainstream and social media.
She starts to isolate herself from friends and peers.
Is it any wonder this young woman experiences a range of negative consequences in her present and future life? Is it possible this stigmatization could be the cause of the negative consequences associated with adolescent pregnancy and parenthood?
It is important that Oakland Unified and other school districts acknowledge this distinctive intersection of adolescence and parenthood.
By law (Title 9 of the Education Amendments of 1972), adolescent parents are allowed to continue school while pregnant and return after their child is born. However, many pregnant and parenting youth find it challenging to stay in traditional high school settings during and after pregnancy, due in part to experienced stigma from peers and school personnel.
School settings can implement a number of strategies to destigmatize adolescent pregnancy and parenthood – creating a safe space for pregnant and parenting youth, providing them with a support advocate, developing a moral focus of inclusivity of all students, offering them academic recognition, and using more positive terms to describe and interact with pregnant and parenting youth.
These can make the school community something that pregnant and parenting adolescents want to join, not avoid.
I believe this improves the school environment for all students – less stigma and more academic success reflects well on everyone in the school community.
For more information, visit my ETR blog post, etr.my/1I7u7ci.
Brittany D. Chambers, MPH, CHES is a doctoral student in Community Health Education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She was a 2014 Kirby Summer Intern with ETR in Oakland. Contact her at [email protected].