Teen Parents: Strategies for Library Interventions
November 29, 2018
Claire Bartlett, Mount Prospect Public Library; Rachael Bild, Oak Park Public Library; and Elizabeth Lynch, Addison Public Library
Birth rates among teens have been falling for decades and there were fewer births to teens in 2016 than ever previously recorded, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Still, research shows that adverse outcomes for adolescent parents and their children can be felt across multiple generations in health, socioeconomic status, and social-emotional development. Although the number of pregnant and parenting teens is small, interventions can have large impacts on both parent and child, potentially breaking a cycle of harm. By partnering with schools and community organizations, four Illinois libraries are embracing this opportunity and building central roles for libraries in teen pregnancy prevention and support for young parents.
“When people found out I was pregnant, they was like, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna be so hard, you’re gonna be struggling, you’re gonna be poor.’ ... Then when I had my baby, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m still in school, graduated. I’m looking for a college now.’ ... I feel like it’s because of the support system I have.” —Nia, New Moms participant
FINDING PARTNERS AND RESOURCES
Most likely, groups serving teen parents already exist in your community. Arlington Heights Memorial Library (AHML) and Mount Prospect Public Library (MPPL) connected with teens through the nonprofit St. Mary’s and the Hopeful Beginnings program that serves pregnant and parenting high schoolers. Students at Vanguard Alternative High School meet for a class five days a week, while students district-wide meet one evening a month. Oak Park Public Library (OPPL) connected with teen parents through New Moms, an organization that supports young moms and their children in order to break the cycle of poverty. The New Moms group meets weekly and librarians visit monthly or quarterly. They also arrange occasional field trips to the library. For Addison Public Library (APL), it was Teen Parent Connection, a nonprofit serving DuPage County. The library provides two program rooms, planned activities, and dinner for two weekly meetings a month. In all three cases, agencies were eager to work with libraries because they provided a break from planning, skilled staff, space, and necessities like materials and food. Even if a group doesn’t exist already, partnering with other agencies is recommended. Social services, the county health department, and school districts provide essential services to pregnant and parenting teens and may welcome an opportunity to collaborate.
There has been significant research showing that both teen parents and their children are especially vulnerable to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). They are more likely than their peers to experience trauma, neglect, poverty, and abuse. The impact of ACEs can be life-long and has been linked to numerous problems in adulthood including drug use, higher dropout rates, poverty, depression, and disease. Librarians serving teen parents will likely encounter issues like these that go beyond their expertise and require intervention by outside organizations.
The large body of research connecting teen pregnancy to negative outcomes for both the parent and child provides a wealth of resources for librarians. Not only is there excellent information from national and local health organizations, many, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider teen parents a priority. There are excellent guides, training, and partners to help librarians connect and provide support.
Librarians interested in interventions can look to models like People Safe Places (PSPs) or Bright Futures. Part of a framework created by the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (ICAAP) to enhance the wellness of children and their adolescent parents, PSPs are trauma-informed environments that encourage wellbeing. Staff and volunteers in PSPs are trained to articulate alternatives to destructive disciplinary practices in non-judgmental and non-threatening ways. Libraries can also seek alignment with Bright Futures, a national health promotion and disease prevention initiative developed by the Health Resources and Service Administration with the American Academy of Pediatrics. Bright Futures uses culturally competent approaches to health promotion for families, communities, health providers, and at the system and policy levels. Bright Futures provides resources on mental health, physical activity, and safe use of social media, among other topics.
SUCCESSFUL PROGRAMS AND APPROACHES
As with other teen programs, food and incentives go a long way to bring in participants. Teens that come to the APL young parent group receive “baby bucks” from the partner agency. They can use the “baby bucks” to purchase clothes, formula, diapers, and other essentials for the baby. MPPL and AHML frequently bring books to giveaway for the teens and their children. Evening programs feature dinner and donated items from the community such as diapers and gifts during the holidays.
Still, participants say that the biggest draw is the relationships they build with other teen parents and the chance to spend time on themselves. Teen mothers are at higher risk of postpartum depression and other mental health challenges. Like their peers, teen parents have not fully developed strategies for coping with stress and anxiety. But they are more likely than their peers to find negative outlets like drugs and alcohol, and more likely to use harsh parenting techniques. To address this need, group activities should support teens as people, not just as parents. Both APL and OPPL provide babysitters in a separate space to give parents who want it some time away from their child. Spa day was one of the most popular activities for the group run by MPPL and AHML. Teens made lip gloss and shared the ways they find to relax and enjoy themselves.
Teens taking on adult responsibilities may want traditionally adult library services. When surveyed, participants told OPPL they wanted librarians to help with landlords, resumes, and finances. These are often difficult areas for experienced adults to navigate, but are especially difficult for inexperienced adolescents. OPPL plans visits around these “adult” topics and uses the feedback to inform library programs and services. An upcoming career fair will focus specifically on jobs for young parents.
By participating in young parent groups, libraries can encourage early literacy practices for teens to use with their children. MPPL and AHML structure monthly programs around an early literacy theme and tie the theme to services relevant to teens. A program that featured singing as an early literacy practice also highlighted access to Hoopla. A program about talking began with the game Superfight. The playing program ended with parents making a toy for their child. Activities are fun for teens and simultaneously teach parents about best practices for helping their children learn and get ready for school.
Libraries have also found success with services aimed at pregnancy prevention. Created in partnership with teens, The Ask answers their anonymous questions about sex, drugs, and mental health. Answers come from a panel of health professionals chosen for their ability to mix humor, advice, and accurate health information. The Ask not only provides information, but also puts a face to local organizations and resources. Knowing a person that works at the health department, the YWCA, social services, or the local Title X clinic removes a significant barrier that keeps many teens from reaching out at all. Addison’s local Title X clinic reported that teen use of their health services doubled since the program began. Some of the organizations also provide free condoms, making protection more accessible. Both APL and OPPL now host monthly events.
Commitment to transformation is already a core library value and it is also fundamental to serving teen parents. Too often, young parents echo Nia, quoted at the top of the article. They feel judged and dismissed by society. They think no one believes they can succeed. Although the many barriers and challenges laid out in the research can seem overwhelming and cannot be ignored, librarians will have their greatest impact by focusing on aspirations. Research also shows positive outcomes stem from strong relationships, from celebrating and empowering teen parents. Because libraries are already committed to lifelong learning and are experts in early literacy, they are uniquely positioned to lead their communities in services to young parents and their children.
RESOURCES AND ARTICLES
People Safe Places
Teen Parent Connection
Title X Family Planning Clinics
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Adverse Childhood Experiences
Health and Human Services: Office of Adolescent Health
Teenage Births: Outcomes for Young Parents and Their Children