By Lauren DelGandio, Amanda Falciglia, and Rachel Schindler
The Miami-Dade County Health Department recently reported a ten-year high in cases of sexually transmitted diseases with increasing numbers of adolescents being infected. According to Care Source, the community has the highest rate of AIDS cases in the nation. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the county also has the highest number of teen births of any in Florida with nearby Broward County not far behind.
These alarming statistics point to the need to urgently address root causes of risky sexual behaviors that are continuing a cycle of poverty and despair impacting young people in South Florida and throughout much of the nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 21.2% of Miami-Dade’s children under the age of 18 are living in poverty.
While educators and policy-makers have a central role to play providing resources, encouraging community-wide collaboration, and increasing public awareness, the most important, immediate actions are in the hands of parents and young people themselves.
Reducing the spread of STDs, HIV/AIDS, abortions, and the rate of teen pregnancies requires a community-wide response uniting schools, neighborhoods, faith-based organizations, healthcare professionals, and government in promoting education that helps young people recognize the consequences of risky sexual behavior and build healthy relationships in which they’re able to withstand negative peer pressures, embrace personal responsibility, and boost self-esteem.
Adolescence is a time of rapid psychological, physical and social change. During adolescence, young people naturally begin to develop sexual attraction along with a desire to be intimately close to others. For many, sexual activity is often viewed as a new avenue to satisfy previously unmet needs for close personal relationships. Without proper skills and understanding during this often confusing period in a young person’s life, they become particularly vulnerable to risky sexual behavior.
Teenagers who lack skills to express intense feelings are more likely to seek outside situations to alleviate those emotions, often resulting in more impulsive sexual choices and decisions. Similarly, young people who experience a lack of connection and loneliness are more likely to become sexually active. Current research suggests when teens feel more connected to their peers, parents, school and community, they are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors.
Studies have also shown a link between high self-esteem and safer sexual behavior in adolescents. When adolescents have a strong sense of self-esteem around decision-making, they are more likely to avoid risky behaviors that can have a lifelong impact.
As schools recess for summer and many young people find themselves with much more free time and independence, the daily connection between children and their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other responsible adults becomes even more critical.
Families that set aside time daily to talk, listen and stay connected with each other – without distractions– are much more likely to prevent the activities that can forever impact children’s lives. Building, sustaining, and modeling strong family relationships, helping young people strengthen self-esteem and personal responsibility, and encouraging healthy peer relationships can go a long way to protecting teens from the consequences of risky decisions around sex.
Exercises such as the PAIRS Daily Temperature Reading, Talking Tips, and Emptying the Emotional Jug are excellent starters to help families develop the habit of staying connected with each other, encouraging parents and youngsters to confide, and helping children express strong feelings that can otherwise feel confusing, overwhelming, and interfere with making good decisions. These skills are practical, easy to learn and can help strengthen any relationship between people with good will and mutual concern.
Evidence-based relationship skills classes such as PAIRS Essentials are affordable and available in many communities as well as online. As families and young people prepare for summer schedules, making time to learn proven skills and strategies to strengthen relationships and connect with children should be at the top of every parent’s list.
Lauren DelGandio, mother of three youngsters, teaches PAIRS relationship skills classes and trains new instructors as part of PAIRS Foundation’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, “PAIRS Relationship Skills for Strong South Florida Families.” Amanda Falciglia directs research activities. Rachel Schindler is a member of the research team and office manager.