Dear Dr. Wes & Jenny: I've been wanting to start birth control, but I know that my parents won't approve. I talked to my doctor about how I could get it without them knowing, but doing it without the insurance coverage is too expensive. Should I go ahead and try to convince them that it's a good thing for me to go on birth control?
-- 16-year-old girl
Jenny: First of all, if I were you I, would be abstinent for a while until you do your research, talk to your parents and get birth control. Realize that there are other options than just having sex. You can do other things with your partner and enjoy each other without sleeping together. For a lot of teens, sex is based on Murphy's law -- if anything bad can happen, it will. You may think you know everything about the odds of getting pregnant, about sexually transmitted diseases, about what birth control actually does and about your partner. Yet there are always things that you don't know. Therefore, you want to get the facts before heading into a decision that could affect you for the rest of your life.
After you do your research (Wes will get you started below) set your parents down for a one-on-one discussion. You will be well-informed, and if you approach them like an adult, odds are they will treat you like an adult. Make them understand that you are serious about this issue, and show them that you understand the risks by relaying some information you have found. Tell them you want them to trust you and that you want to respect them. Tell your parents you wanted to tell them what you were doing and that you really need their help. Explain to them your understanding of birth control and how you can receive these services, that you want to be safe, and that you are going to get tested and make your partner be tested.
If you are set on having sex, always use a condom, but never rely on it as your only protection. They fail 10 percent of the time. That's one baby every 10 times you have sex.
Wes: I'm glad that you are concerned about this issue. Most parents who have considered it take one of two positions: 1) Encouragement of abstinence at all costs with any acceptance of birth control seen as condoning sexual intercourse; or 2) Recognition that teens are frequently sexually active and teen pregnancy is a serious and unacceptable consequence, leading the parent to encourage birth control without condoning sexual activity.
You may think you know which category your parent falls into, but many teens are surprised at how their folks respond. The reality is that about 80 percent of teens have had sexual intercourse by the time they reach age 20. Most begin in their mid- to late-teens, and about 20 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys have had intercourse by age 15. From my experience, I suspect these statistics are actually a bit low. The State of Kansas has adopted theory No. 2, and the law allows anyone to receive birth control services without parental consent or knowledge. County health departments offer low-cost services without billing insurance.
Since it's not really a voting matter, laws and statistics can't tell you whether it is a good idea to have sex at your age. Like Jenny, my preference is for the birth-control decision to be made with parental involvement. This often works, but I have also seen a fair number of teens who opted not to tell their parents.
There is also a lot more to sex than avoiding pregnancy. Psychologically, I have not met many teenagers who were prepared for the emotionality of a healthy and meaningful sexual relationship. Even fewer are able to recognize that fact. Further, sexually transmitted diseases, including HPV and herpes, are quite rampant in your age group, with infection rates estimated at 20 percent. That means that in a group of five of your sexually active friends, one of them already has HPV or herpes.
So get your partner tested. Guys don't have many symptoms, and some are hard to detect. However, it appears you have made your decision about sex, and thus you most certainly need to pursue responsible birth control. Whatever you choose, choose wisely.
Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Jenny Kane is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org.