New parents who also happen to be teenagers face an array of challenges that set their parenting experiences apart. According to Kelly Land, Transitional Program Manager at the Redmond-based nonprofit Friends of Youth, "taking on familial responsibility means [that they are] missing out on some aspects of their teen years. While developmentally teens are still exploring their own identities, as parents they have to be available to their children."
Education for teenage moms
Several Puget Sound organizations offer programs that teach teens about parenthood. Land's program, for example, focuses on teens who were homeless when they became pregnant. Moms from this population are often dealing with multiple issues in addition to parenting, including physical and emotional abuse, poverty, drug use and homelessness. "Sometimes that responsibility [of parenting] saves their lives," Land says.
Heather Halseth of Puyallup, who gave birth to a daughter when she was 16 and her boyfriend Jay was 18, agrees. "Having Kayla gave Jay and me a desire to better ourselves, to not live like our parents lived," she says.
Education is a key component of teens being able to develop parenting skills and gaining access to family-wage jobs, experts agree. Without a high school diploma or GED, teen parents are less likely to become self-supporting. A good education also means that teens are more likely to read parenting books and also to read with their children.
Barriers to finishing high school include child-care availability, access to transportation and school hours that begin before babies wake up. Feelings of not fitting in can also cause teens to drop out. In addition, teen parents don't always understand the positive impact that education will have on future earnings. "I carry articles with statistics about income differences to motivate my clients to stay in school," says Carla Granat, Teen Parent Counselor at Seattle-based Amara Parenting and Adoption.
A variety of programs focus on helping teen parents continue their education. Tacoma's Oakland High School is home to a suite of teen-parent support services, including an Early Head Start program, a teen-parenting class in school and on-site child care. Early Head Start serves low-income families with children from ages birth to 3 and strongly encourages parents to finish school.
Four of the City of Seattle's family-support centers provide teen-parenting programs. Sherice Arnold, parent support specialist at the Rainier Beach Family Support Center, provides case management for teen parents and facilitates a teen-parent support group. She also teaches a parenting class at alternative school South Lake High School, which provides on-site child care.
Not all high schools have teen-parenting courses or on-site child care, and "waiting for a child-care subsidy authorization can cause educational interruptions," according to Amara's Granat.
Teen parents can best access services when they are school-based, since typical teen developmental issues -- combined with lack of resources -- create barriers. According to Granat, "transportation, the ability to attend with their children and follow-through because of their age can all be challenges."
Parenting support for teenage moms
Making home visits to teen moms is also a valuable strategy for delivering parenting support. Healthy Start, provided by a consortium of nonprofits, sends family support specialists to participants' homes to educate, support and connect moms with community resources and connects teen parents with each other through fun group activities. Healthy Start uses a curriculum based in brain research to educate parents about child development and parenting strategies. The Best Beginnings program of Public Health: Seattle and King County provides home visits from nurses.
Housing is another major issue. Most teen moms live with their parents or the parents of their children's fathers out of necessity, whether that environment is supportive or not. "They get in arguments with their parents and get kicked out," says Arnold of the Rainier Beach Family Support Center.
That experience was echoed by Halseth. "My dad came home drunk, screaming and kicked us out in the middle of the night. We stayed with Jay's mom for a short time, but she wanted to tell me how to raise my daughter, and she wouldn't let us childproof the house. We were young and we didn't know healthy boundaries or have the skills to negotiate the situation."
Transitional housing programs with supportive services on site are a critical part of the safety net for teen parent families. Friends of Youth operates transitional living facilities in Seattle, Bothell and Redmond. However, those options are scarce. "Trying to find transitional housing resources when they are needed is a challenge," Arnold says. "As far as I know, there are no emergency shelter beds in King County for teen moms with babies," Land adds.
While the challenges are significant, Granat stresses that teen parenting is not all negative. "They have a certain level of energy that helps," she notes. "Not knowing all the ramifications of having a child also provides them some resiliency."
Halseth agrees. "Having Kayla was the best thing for me. My life is blessed because I have this child."
Colleen Laing is a public policy consultant and freelance business writer living in Seattle with her husband and preschool-age daughter.