It’s a tough one this week, the question of the week. Last week I got into contact with a British youth worker who was wondering how to approach the situation of a teen in her youth group being pregnant. I figured it was a good topic to write a bit about, since unfortunately it’s something we can all encounter. What do you need do when a teen in our youth group is pregnant?
There are a few practical things to consider and then there’s the more emotional and pastoral stuff. Let’s start with a few practical guidelines you’ll need to remember when dealing with a teenage pregnancy in your youth group:
Know the law
It’s important first of all, to know your legal obligations. Unfortunately, not all teen pregnancies are caused by voluntary sexual relations between teens. That means your knowledge of the pregnancy can have legal ramifications. Are you obliged to report it if the pregnancy turns out to be caused by rape, incest, or from sex with an adult? Know the law so you can do the right thing and be honest about this with the teen(s) involved.
Don’t promise confidentiality
While confidentiality between youth workers and teens is crucial, a pregnancy is not something you should promise to keep a secret. Sure, you can give the teen a week or so before telling her parents because she may need some time to think about how to do this, but don’t ever promise to keep it confidential. You can’t and you shouldn’t, this is something the parents should know and be involved in.
If you know you’re in over your head, seek help. There are people who deal with this on a professional basis and who can give you information, help, and support. Don’t feel like you have to do it all yourself, if it’s too much or too big for you, it’s in everyone’s interest that you seek help and/or let someone else handle it.
Then there’s the emotional and pastoral side of the story. When a teen tells you she’s pregnant, it can be quite a shock. How do you react to this news? What should you say or do? Here’s my advice:
Try and let the teen tell her or his story first. It’s important to get a good picture of the circumstances in which the pregnancy happens. Listen carefully for any indicators that there may be more to the story, that the teen is lying or covering up. While it’s not your job to decide if there’s been a crime or anything, it’s important to get a feel for what’s going on, so you can take appropriate action.
While there should be no mistake about the sin of having sex before being married, condemnation really isn’t the way to go. Remind yourself that that is one very scared girl (or boy, if it’s about his girlfriend) in front of you. They don’t need your judgment, they need your love and your compassion. Chances are they know already they messed up, they don’t need you to tell them. They need your help. Later on, you can and should address the spiritual issues.
Don’t take over responsibility
Especially with younger teens, you may be tempted to go into problem solving mode and basically take over from them. But you can’t take over responsibility and you shouldn’t. You can advise, offer counseling, help with practical stuff etc, but the teen should take responsibility herself. If you feel that that’s not the case, focus on trying to change that first of all.
This is different in the case that the pregnancy is the result of a crime, in which case you should try and get professional help (for instance from a trauma psychologist or psychiatrist) as soon as possible, all with the parents permission of course.
Involve the parents as soon as possible
Like I said in the beginning, it’s okay to give the teen some time to gather courage to tell the parents, but not more than a week. A teen pregnancy is not something you should keep a secret from parents and don’t forget that they’re responsible for their child, not you. If the teen is scared to talk with her parents, offer to be present to help out, but let her do the talking herself (or him, if the father of the baby has to tell his parents).
Inform the youth group
Ask permission from the teen involved and the parents to inform the youth group. Take some time to do this the right way. Even peers can judge quickly and harshly and the teens involved are going to need all the support they can get. Be honest about the facts whenever possible (again, if the pregnancy wasn’t due to voluntary sex, you may need to rethink your strategy…but even then it may be best to be as honest as you can) and use the occasion to talk about sex with your teens. That doesn’t mean you should set the pregnant teen as a bad example, but you don’t have to act like it’s completely normal either. Just give the teens room to ask any and all questions they may have. Then ask them to support their friend however they can. Stay on top of any rumors, gossip or bath mouthing that may occur because of the pregnancy and deal with this swiftly. It’s important to protect both the teens involved and their families from this.
Monitor the process
In my opinion, monitoring the rest of the process is a crucial task for a youth worker. Sometimes youth workers may feel that once the parents know, they can sort of lean back and let it go, seeing as they have transferred the responsibility for the problem back to the parents. But I don’t think that’s the case. We all know that in perfect families, we can let go. But when was the last time you encountered a perfect family?
You’ll need to monitor the process to make sure the situation is being dealt with the right way. What is especially important is that the wishes of the teen are being taken into account. It’s heartbreaking to know that teens are still being forced to give up their baby for adoption by their parents. And even in Christian families, teens are sometimes pressured into having an abortion.
Keep in contact with the teen, offer counseling and pastoral help to both the teenage parents involved and their parents if necessary and make sure you know for a fact that the right decisions are being made. Don’t ‘let go’ until you’re absolutely certain everything is okay.
Have you ever dealt with a teenage pregnancy in your youth group? Do you have any other advice to add?