Teenage parenthood is a social problem in Western culture. This is due, in part, to concerns about the ability of adolescents to meet their own needs for identity exploration and development while also meeting the developmental needs of an infant for stability and commitment. Further, teenage parenthood presents a long-term economic stress to society, as teenage mothers are often unmarried, rarely able to support themselves, and at risk for dropping out of high school, thereby reducing future employment options. The inability of teenage parents to financially support themselves results in a significant burden to the welfare system. Yet, despite numerous programs designed to prevent teenage pregnancy, the United States remains the industrial nation with the highest rate of teenage births.
The availability of birth control, legal abortion, and adoption suggests that adolescent parenting is not wholly due to ignorance or accident. Although teenagers may not fully comprehend the implications and expectations of parenthood, there are, at least for some, positive aspects of becoming a parent within their social context. In order to understand the reasons that teenagers become parents and their special needs as parents, this entry addresses the psychosocial factors that influence teenage pregnancy and parenthood and the risk and protective factors associated with their outcomes.
Becoming a Teen Parent
Historically, teenage pregnancies have been viewed as accidental, a function of limited resources, early sexual activity, and poor access to family planning. However, the number of young women and men who continue to become teenage parents, including those who have multiple children within a period of a few years, suggests that other factors contribute to this phenomenon.
Many studies have identified risk factors for becoming a teenage parent with the goal of using this information to prevent teenage pregnancy and parenting. Relative to older first-time parents, adolescent parents are more likely to live in poverty and have unsuccessful educational experiences, while a disproportionate number evidence psychiatric concerns or a history of abuse. They are also more likely to have had teenage parents, and to become sexually active at a younger age, than are older first time parents. Many of these factors are interrelated. For example, adolescents who experience early abuse are more likely to experience psychiatric disorders, while youth who have experienced abuse or psychiatric problems are more likely to engage in early sexual behavior.
While the risk factors for adolescent pregnancy are clear, there is less understanding of why adolescents, after becoming pregnant, decide to parent their children. In some instances, adolescent women may have limited knowledge of their alternatives. Other explanations also help account for the continued expansion of this group, however. Some teenage women who become parents perceive themselves as having limited options in the workforce as a function of having unsatisfying educational experiences and as a result of living in communities with high rates of unemployment and poor job satisfaction. Motherhood provides a role definition for these teens. In instances where teenage parents had teenage parents, they may be modeling their parents’ early sexual activity and lifestyle. Studies in which teenage mothers have been interviewed find them identifying positive aspects to early parenting, including strong feelings of connection to their families and the fathers of the children and positive attention from others. Even when support from the family of origin and the father of the baby are not forthcoming, adolescent girls may embrace motherhood because of feelings of connection toward their children. From a societal viewpoint, this accelerated role transition to parenthood is problematic because of concerns about the mother’s ability to adequately parent her child, and the need for external resources to sustain the mother and child. However, these young mothers already experience high levels of stress and may find additional fulfillment in their role as parents.
There are significant racial differences in the prevalence of teenage parenting. Both African Americans and Latino ethnic groups have a higher proportion of teenage mothers than do Caucasians. This is largely accounted for by the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos with risk factors for teenage pregnancy, including low income and limited educational success. There are a disproportionate number of multigenerational, ethnic minority families with teenage parents, making early sexual activity and parenting the norm for some communities, which contributes to the perpetuation of this cycle.
Outcomes for Teen Parents
One of the major issues addressed in the literature is the extent to which teenage parents experience greater stress and have more long-term, psychosocial problems than do others. These findings depend on who the “others” are to whom teen parents are compared. In comparison to older first-time mothers, adolescent mothers report more psychological distress, including higher levels of depression, substance abuse, and domestic violence as well as more problems in parenting. However, teenagers who become parents differ from older first-time parents on a number of psychosocial dimensions prior to becoming parents.
Teenage parents are more likely to be poor, be less educated, come from less stable homes, and themselves have younger parents than do those who first parent as adults. Thus, differences in the distress exhibited by teenage parents and older parents in part reflect socioeconomic and demographic differences that existed prior to parenthood.
Because youth who become pregnant tend to come from poor socioeconomic environments, having a child may only minimally increase their already high level of stress while also providing them with an adult purpose in a social context in which they see limited options for themselves. Studies that compare adolescent parents to adolescents who are not parents but who come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds find fewer differences between these groups in terms of overall stress, although both groups tend to have high stress levels and a disproportionate percentage experience stress-related psychopathology. This suggests that the emotional distress found among teenage parents is largely, but not fully, due to the socioeconomic circumstances under which they live rather than their parenting responsibilities alone.
The demands of parenthood may interfere with normative adolescent development, including the development of a strong sense of self and an understanding of one’s needs regarding a partner, schooling, and employment. Studies on the later psychosocial functioning of adolescent parents as well as the development of their children have yielded mixed results. Studies on small numbers of adolescents report positive or negative outcomes depending on the sample chosen. Larger studies tend to find a mix of outcomes, with some youthful parents successfully transitioning into adulthood and others continuing to have problems over a period of years.
One of the older longitudinal studies that included teen parents was conducted by Emmy Warner and Ruth Smith. They followed the entire birth cohort in Kauai in 1955, including 28 infants born to teenage mothers, for the next 30 years. While differing in ethnicity from adolescents in studies on the mainland, these teenage mothers shared many characteristics with those of other studies; most were from single parent homes, one third had been born to adolescent mothers, and a majority had problems in school as well as parents who also had limited education. However, over the course of time these young women became more self-sufficient. They obtained additional education when schooling was available at accessible times, and they gained employment as their children entered school.
Given the heterogeneity in outcomes, understanding the risk and protective factors for teenage parent outcomes is critical for effectively serving this population. Key among these factors is support from one’s family of origin and the mother’s relationship with the father of the child.
Family of Origin Support
A key protective factor for teenage mothers is the presence of social support. Family support is particularly important for teenage mothers who are unmarried and may not have stable relationships with the fathers of their children. Teenage parents need continued support from their families to develop self-confidence and self-sufficiency as adults. They also need immediate instrumental support, including housing, financial assistance, child care, instruction on parenting, and help in completing their education and obtaining employment.
Support from extended family can be a strong protective factor for both the adolescent parent and the child. In many instances, both maternal and paternal grandparents play significant caretaking roles in the lives of their grandchildren. In some instances they provide the primary parenting to their grandchildren while continuing also to parent their adolescents. Support from extended family can provide respite for adolescent parents, allowing them to complete school and meet other developmental needs, while also modeling parenting behavior, teaching the adolescent to become more self-sufficient. Extended family members can influence child development directly and indirectly through their impact on the teenage mother and father.
However, the complex nature of new family relationships can also create stress. Criticism of the adolescent parent can interfere with his or her ability to learn to take responsibility for the child. Further, grandparents may experience stress in caring for an infant while also helping their adolescent gain necessary parenting skills. There are many instances in which this transition does not occur, and the grandparent remains the infant’s primary caregiver. This pattern has been associated with increased rates of subsequent pregnancies for mothers in their teens. It is necessary to understand the family system of the adolescent in order to help the adolescent develop a plan that works for all.
Research on adolescent parents has focused primarily on adolescent mothers. Thus, research on partner support focuses on adolescent fathers. Most adolescent mothers report an unmarried relationship with the father of the child before they became pregnant. The fathers of children born to adolescent mothers tend to be 2 to 4 years older than the mothers. Although there is a similar pattern of age difference between adult parents, some consider this age difference among adolescents as suggestive of an exploitative sexual relationship between older adult males and younger adolescent females.
Paternal involvement is often reported as a positive factor associated with lower maternal stress and better child outcomes. However, some fathers are abusive and increase the family stress rather than reduce it. The quality of the teenagers’ relationship prior to parenthood predicts the likelihood that adolescent parents will remain together. If the father plays a role in the pre-birth decision to raise the child, he is likely to have a higher level of involvement in the child’s life. While fathers often report the intention to remain involved in their children’s lives, consistent contact tends to decrease as the children become older. There are many factors that affect continued involvement, including lack of employment and financial stress. Continued paternal involvement may also be complicated by disapproval from the adolescent mother’s family of origin, particularly if the teens are relying on them for housing and other financial support.
Although partner support is associated with positive psychosocial outcomes for the mother and child, teens who cite pregnancy as a primary reason for marriage evidence higher rates of divorce. Further, when there are different fathers for the adolescent mother’s subsequent children, there is greater complexity of paternal involvement with each child.
Development of Children of Teen Parents
Children born to adolescent mothers are at risk for lower academic achievement, higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems, and poorer social adaptation than are children born to older mothers. However, most of these differences can be accounted for by the social and economic risk factors associated with teenage parenting; once poor socioeconomic status, low maternal educational achievement, and single marital status are taken into account, the relationship between maternal age and adverse child outcomes is not significant. Maternal education is one of the stronger predictors of adverse outcomes for children; this is encouraging for those engaged in pre-vention and intervention efforts, in that education is a variable that can be targeted and changed.
While children born to adolescent parents are at greater risk than children born to older parents, many function within normal limits. Positive child outcomes are associated with the absence of multiple risk factors, such as maternal stress and abuse, and the presence of protective factors. Protective factors include characteristics of the child, such as intellectual ability and self-esteem; characteristics of the mother, such as low levels of depression; and parenting behavior, such as consistent and nonpunitive disciplinary practices. The presence of the father is a protective factor when he provides support to the teenage mother, thereby reducing her stress, but can also be a risk factor if he is abusive and increases the level of family stress.
Interventions to Help Teenage Parents
Public interventions for teenage parents typically target those on public assistance, with the goal of making these parents more self-sufficient and less dependent on welfare. Typically, these programs provide case managers to help the adolescents obtain needed schooling, work training, and child care. Many of these programs have been successful in helping some teen parents remain in school, obtain a GED or high school diploma, and obtain employment. However, outcomes are often limited by the low educational achievement of some of the participants and by the other stressors that affect their performance.
Interventions have also been developed to encourage teenage parents to delay subsequent pregnancies. Studies find that a majority of teenage parents have a second child within 2 years of having their first child and that larger families create additional risks for child outcomes. These programs have had, at best, small impact on adolescent parents’ family planning.
Finally, welfare policies frequently change with the intent of creating greater self-sufficiency among those on welfare by providing assistance to obtain schooling and employment. The impact of programs designed to decrease reliance of teenage parents on welfare is unclear, and it warrants continued evaluation.
Although interventions designed to assist adolescent mothers with their education and employment have met with some success, interventions designed to reduce teenage pregnancy and parenting have not. Interventions to reduce teenage parenting may be more effective if they focus, instead, on changing the broader context in which teenage parenting occurs by creating educational and community environments that foster access to a wider range of options during these adolescents’ formative years.
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