Moving Upstream: How To Engage Teens in Preventing ACEs

Guest post by Randi S. Rubenstein

  • “I learned taking care of a child isn't all unicorns and glitter.” – Female (15) 

  • “I learned that you have other ways to educate your kids instead of just hitting them.” – Male (17)

  • “Parenting is extremely important because it is what makes great adults.” - Female (15)

  • “I recommend ETP's course because everyone should learn about the demands and rewards of parenting before having a child.” – Male (16)

  • “I learned…even if I want a child right now, if I just wait and finish school my child will have a better life.” Female (17)

These insightful comments were made by high school students after recently attending the program “Healthy Foundations for Future Families.”  Developed by the nonprofit organization Educate Tomorrow’s Parents (ETP), this program provides adolescents with information and life skills so they can make thoughtful choices before they conceive their first child.  I am the founder of this nonprofit, and we are trail-blazing an upstream approach to ultimately create healthy beginnings for children and prevent child abuse and neglect.

Why teach teens about parenting?

Too many children experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which profoundly affect their well-being throughout their lives.  Adverse experiences can include: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, a family member’s substance abuse, a family member’s serious mental illness, and a parent being incarcerated.  

In North Carolina alone:

  • More than 10,500 North Carolina children are living in foster care because their parents are unable to safely care for them.

  • Reports of maltreatment are made to Social Services regarding 120,000 North Carolina children each year.

  • Among surveyed adults, more than one third have reported having experienced multiple (i.e., 2 or more) ACEs as a child.

Research has determined that the greater number of ACEs a child experiences, the greater likelihood they will suffer a cascade of problems during the course of their lives – including mental health problems, social difficulties (e.g., unemployment, homelessness), and physical health struggles.  

If we want to prevent a child from experiencing adverse childhood experiences, intervening  before our next generation of children is conceived may be a good idea. By empowering today’s teens to make healthier choices for tomorrow’s families, we can take an upstream approach to prevent child maltreatment.

A new, upstream approach to preventing ACEs

ETP created the “Healthy Foundations for Future Families” program to fill a critical gap in preventing ACEs.  Provided earlier than most parenting programs, ETP reaches teens in high schools and youth programs before they form families, and before they become involved in the risk factors that can ultimately de-stabilize a future family.  Reaching a broader audience of male and female teens that usually enroll in elective family and consumer science high school classes, ETP’s program is able to be implemented in public high school health education classes, alternative schools, and youth programs.  

During ETP’s program, teens thoughtfully consider the responsibilities of parenting, as they learn about real-life challenges and ways to build their parenting capabilities.  Topics such as relationships, preconception health, Shaken Baby Syndrome, budgeting, and child safety are presented in teen-friendly language. The centerpiece of the program, ETP’s student workbook My Life-Plan for Parenting, allows teens to document their ideas and plans.


Since 2005, ETP has instructed over 8,000 teens and demonstrated that the program is feasible and impactful.  As one female student reported: “I learned the things I do now will affect me and my child in the future.”  Over 95% of ETP students report that the program has motivated them to postpone parenting until adulthood and they will be better prepared to care for their children when they become parents.  The program has also been well-received by teachers and parents alike because it encourages teen goal-setting, responsibility, and appreciation of strong families.

To create a larger social impact, ETP would like to share what we’ve learned so that more people join us upstream in preventing ACEs.

How You Can Help Teens Plan for a Healthy Family

Based on years of implementing ETP’s program, three techniques have emerged as the most powerful for helping teens plan ahead for a healthy and stable family.  For all of these techniques, the “secret sauce” is to talk with teens, not at them.  Ask questions, listen closely, respond respectfully.  Be their ally. Let them know these discussions are about helping them define and achieve their own dreams. 

Invite teens to envision their “Dream Family”

Every good plan begins with goals.  Ironically, some “family planning” programs focus on how not to have a family.  You can take a more straightforward approach by inviting teens to consider their desires for family in concert with other life goals.  Of course, we would like for them to wait to start their families! And you may think your teen hasn’t even thought about it. But it’s been a revelation to us that most teens have surprisingly clear hopes for their future children, even and especially young men.  In our experience, as teens clarify their plans, they tell us they are more highly motivated (not less) to continue their education and career preparations. When you invite teens to consider their young adult years as a time to prepare for a future family, rather than narrowly focusing on pregnancy prevention, teens feel their dreams and goals are being fully supported.  

Help teens anticipate the long-term consequences of their choices

By delving into topics relevant to teens’ daily lives, they gain vital understanding of how their current behaviors can affect their future family.  Along with their new freedoms and relationships, there are many distractions and temptations. With respect and curiosity, you can ask teens about the personal qualities they would seek out for healthy relationships and for responsible and caring co-parenting partners.  You can also ask teens to think about the effects of unintended pregnancies and teen parenting on everyone involved, especially the children. Common adolescent health risks (e.g., alcohol, drugs, tobacco, poor nutrition, promiscuity) can be considered for their potential impact on a future pregnancy, family dynamics, and the lifetime well-being of their future children.  You can also help teens with their refusal skills. The ultimate goal is to help teens assess how their choices today are either bringing them closer or pulling them away from their dreams.

Assist teens in planning how they will care for a future family

Having a realistic understanding of the needs of a child is fundamental to healthy parenting and preventing many circumstances that lead to child maltreatment.  You can help teens learn about “adulting,” child development, and parenting responsibilities. Together you can draft a budget for how much it will cost for them to live on their own – with and without children.  You can talk about options and costs for daycare; give them opportunities to observe children and notice the ages and stages of their behavior; and help them to consider a variety of positive parenting techniques.  These activities help teens start building protective factors and capacities to meet future responsibilities.  Teens often tell us that gaining this insight into parenting activities increases their motivation to wait and be fully prepared before accepting the enormous responsibility of caring for a child.

In Conclusion …`

I hope we’ve inspired you to initiate meaningful discussions with teens about their plans for a healthy future family.  You are likely to hear a teen’s heartfelt wishes for love and connection, and their new-found desire to set higher goals.  Conversations like these can powerfully inspire teens to plan a bright future. Together we can engage teens in early prevention of ACEs, build the capacity to create safe and stable families, and enjoy a lasting legacy for generations to come.

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About Educate Tomorrow’s Parents (ETP) 

ETP’s mission is to improve the well-being of children in our communities by educating young adults (ages 13-21) about parenting before they conceive the next generation of children.  ETP offers workbooks, discussion guides, onsite programs for teens, and training for educators and parents. Their student workbook My Life-Plan for Parenting is available on their website ( ).  You can also schedule group training and obtain instruction kits from them.  ETP has earned GreatNonprofits’ Top-Rated Nonprofit award every year since 2012.   ETP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Raleigh, NC. For more information, visit the ETP website at



About Randi Rubenstein 

Ms. Randi Rubenstein has an MS degree in Public Health from UCLA, and 30 years’ experience with health organizations.  Inspired by her experiences as a foster mother, she founded Educate Tomorrow’s Parents (ETP) in 2005. In 2011 she received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition for the U.S. House of Representatives for community service. Ms. Rubenstein has helped over 8,000 teens create a personal life-plan for future parenting.