Teen Parents: You Got This
By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Specialist
This fall, I interviewed Theresa Collosso, a Teen Parent Social Worker with the Adolescent Parenting Program in Orange County. I wanted to find out more about what challenges teen parents face and what support is out there. Here’s what I found out:
1. Thanks for being willing to chat with me! Can you tell me a little bit about the Adolescent Parenting Program?
Our program is primarily a support program for teens in Orange County who are pregnant or parenting and still in school. To qualify for this program, you must:
Be 19 years or younger
Live in Orange County
Currently be enrolled in school
Be pregnant or parenting
We support teens not just with parenting (learning about child development, teaching parenting skills, and making sure mom or dad feels confident in parenting), but we support them as students as well. We encourage our students to achieve their educational goals like graduating or passing the GED test. We also work under social services, so we’re able to provide some case management and connect our teens to community resources. This could look like helping to get a daycare voucher or applying for Medicaid or food stamps. We can help answer their questions, assist with applications, and connect them to services. We also partner with a lot of programs like the Compass Center and the Diaper Bank of North Carolina to provide supplies, like diapers, books, and other pregnancy or child-related items.
A really amazing resource that our office can offer our pregnant or parenting teens who graduate high school or get their GED is a $5,600 scholarship from an anonymous community donor to pursue further education. We’ve found that for many students who decide to continue their education at community colleges, this scholarship will pretty much pay for an Associate’s degree. That’s potentially a life changer, and we’re so lucky to have the support of our community to offer this.
2. What are some of the challenges that teen parents face?
One of the biggest challenges that a lot of my teens face is that the level of support can vary so much. A lot of my clients are working as single parents, so their partner is not in the picture anymore. They’re trying to find that balance of still being able to feel like a teen and start dating again, but also the responsibility of raising a child, working, and going to school.
I haven’t had a lot of teen dads but they were the ones that struggled the most with staying in school. They often felt like they needed to be bringing in more of an income, and it seemed that they felt more pressure to provide for their family. I see that stress with young women as well. In most cases, our teens live with multiple generations in one household and are expected to contribute to the family’s income. So it can be difficult to complete high school with a new baby and other family things going on.
Another barrier students experience is that you’re raising a child and you have all of these adult responsibilities now, but legally you’re not an adult yet. There are so many things that they still need a parent/guardian to sign off on. Many students don’t have access to a car or don’t have a license to drive yet, so they’re dependent on older adults to get to appointments and such. Chapel Hill and Carrboro have an awesome bus transit system but on the other side of the county, public transportation is just nonexistent.
We had one client say: Now I have a car and a job and everything. Before, when I didn’t have a car, it was very difficult for me and my [child] to get around. We had to take the bus, and it’s hard when it’s raining and it’s very cold. I remember me and [my child] would have to walk a long way to the daycare [they were] at…That was one of the things that was hard: not having transportation when you have a child.
To help with this, our program can provide transportation to appointments.
3. How are your clients able to overcome some of the challenges? How have you seen them thrive?
My favorite part of the year is summertime because every single year we have students who cross that stage to graduate. For some it took a lot longer than they thought, but so many have met that goal and pushed past it. If you’re 16 and you still have two years of school to go with a baby on the way, it can seem like an impossible goal to graduate, but they can do it.
A lot of their success depends on how much support they have. Initially when our teens come to us, that support might just be their family. Once they get connected with our program, we become a long-term source of stable support and we also connect them to other community services for additional support.
There are definitely some students for whom it takes months to break through some barriers. Having a history of trauma can be difficult, and they’re testing us as well, to see if they can really trust us. For many, once we’ve demonstrated that we’re really an advocate for them, it seems that having one person always at their back is all it takes to ultimately help them through.
We had one teen say: More than just [the APP social workers] being there as support, they are not judging you for having a child in high school. They are not putting you down or your dreams down, because most people would tell you that you had a child at a young age then your life is basically over. They help you and push you to want better and do better, because it is possible.
We’ve also seen students thrive when they’re connected to other peers going through the same thing. We organize group events, like lunch meetings at schools or events in the park, to help them connect with other young folks who are also students or are in college to see that they can do this, too.
4. What sexuality topics have become important for your new parents?
Every year (minus this year due to covid), we provide a training in ‘Be Proud, Be Responsible, Be Protective.’ It’s a curriculum very similar to the one being offered by Compass Center in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools. Its primary focus is talking about HIV, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and about protection like wearing condoms and using birth control methods. We really try to make sure that our teens are aware that not one birth control method works for everybody; you have to figure out what’s right for you and your body.
For our program in particular, our students are already raising children so we talk about how challenging it is raising multiple children when you’re still in high school. Because there’s so much on your plate as a student, a goal of the program is to encourage delaying a subsequent pregnancy until after graduation. So we make sure to talk about contraceptive methods and explore their concerns and questions.
Additionally, we talk with our teens about child development from prenatal to age 5, teaching about different developmental stages their child will go through so they know what to expect. We provide activities to bring into the home to encourage using playtime for learning and point out that you don’t need the newest, fanciest toy on the market to encourage play and learning for their babies. We also touch on certain parenting skills, like language development, encouraging them to talk and sing to their baby to encourage their development. We allow new parents to ask questions about anything that would help them grow as moms and dads, too--things like how to establish a bedtime routine or handle a fussy baby.
5. What advice do you think your clients would give other teens?
I think many of my teens would say:
Don’t give up. What you’re going through is not impossible. You’re not alone. There are many people out there who can support you.
I think my teen parents have shown me just how resilient youth can be and are. They would definitely offer a message of hope.