Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My friend is 14 and pregnant. She is asking me to help her decide whether to keep the baby. I don't want to tell her the wrong decision she will have to live with. What should I do? - A concerned friend
Dr. Wes: I know how you feel. I've dealt with teen pregnancy many times in my career. These are among the most difficult and troubling cases I've encountered, and there is literally no good answer. In fact, after having four pregnant teens on my caseload at the same time in 1997, I became a crusader on this issue, encouraging teens and their families to work together to prevent early pregnancy. Nothing creates as much havoc on a young person's road to adulthood. In fact, I see at least one or two clients per week who were affected by teen pregnancy - either their own or in their family.
The difference, however, is that I am a therapist and you are not. I'm supposed to struggle alongside families and teenagers to address hard problems. You are only responsible for being a caring and supportive friend. I think it's unfair that you've been asked to share the burden of this decision. The best advice you can give your friend is for her and her family to connect with a therapist who can help lay out all the options and assist them with making a decision.
You see, when we make a decision for ourselves, we make a decision for everyone. Early pregnancy doesn't just change a young girl's life; it impacts the father, her family and the community. Most importantly, it affects a tiny and defenseless person who has not been afforded any input into the matter. The research is clear - babies of teen mothers do not fair well over the long haul. They are more likely to live in poverty, to be involved with the law and to have significant mental health issues. Often the father becomes distant and unsupportive, and your friend will get little support from the state. Her best hope is to have a great deal of family support, and as anyone who's done it will tell you, the dynamic of a parent parenting a parent is itself a great reason to head to the therapist.
In addition to keeping the baby, I've seen teen pregnancies end in abortion and adoption, and there is no single option designed to fit every person. But there's one thing I can guarantee: Every option creates a significant potential for regret. Those who keep the baby will regret losing their teen years and young adulthood to the intense care a baby requires. This doesn't mean they won't love their child. They'll just wish they'd waited until they were ready to take on the full responsibility of parenting. Those who give up the child will wonder if they should have kept it - longing for the day the child might return to them. Those who choose abortion may always wonder if they made a wise or ethical decision. A few people may reach a sense of peace in their choices, but at 14, I believe your friend will have an incredibly difficult time becoming one of them.
The toughest thing about being a teen mom is realizing that once you're pregnant, the world no longer revolves around you. Each teen in this situation must accept and deal with her own regrets and do everything in her power to be sure the baby doesn't have to share in them.
Julia: Life would be a lot easier if there was a book called "I'm Pregnant : Now What?" to help in situations like this. However, choices associated with teen pregnancies are very subjective and, as Wes said, none of them are regret-free. In the end, it's your friend's call to make.
Even knowing your friend's religious affiliation, whether or not the father is going to come through, her family's opinion or yours would not bring either of us one step closer to giving your friend a definite best choice. Harsh as it is to say, she is on her own there.
I know you feel that if there were ever a moment to pull through for a friend, it would be now. But having a friend make such a big decision is definitely not the way to go. By asking what she should do in a literally life-changing situation, your friend is making no progress in her eventual decision; she is rightfully scared of her situation and avoiding it by giving you some of the responsibility.
Just try to be as supportive as possible. Let her talk to you about what she feels could help her as she tries to figure out what she is going to do. Being a friend does not mean you need to share responsibility for her pregnancy, only that you should try to help her take on that responsibility. Understand what she is going through; pregnancy will test her strength as well as the loyalty of her friends.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. 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. All correspondence is strictly confidential.