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Adolescent Parenthood

Adolescent Parenthood

Adolescent parenting refers primarily to women and men nineteen years or younger who give birth to and elect to parent a child. Although most adolescent pregnancies are unintended, an increasing number of pregnant adolescents choose to continue the pregnancy and become parents. Estimates suggest that each year, slightly more than 10 percent of all births worldwide—almost 15 million— are to adolescent women (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1996). Adolescent childbearing is more common in developing countries, where about one in every six births is to women under twenty.

At any age, pregnancy and first parenthood produce changes that require adaptation. For adolescents, three transitions occur simultaneously. They must adjust to changes in their family-of-origin relationships during adolescence, changes in their physical and cognitive abilities, and changes in their social reality. Add to this the changes caused by premature parenthood, and the potential for stress increases. Typically, adolescent parents experience stress from five sources: relationships with the self, partners, parents, nonfamily institutions, and intergenerational relations. Thus, the adolescent parent faces a series of competing developmental tasks that increase the likelihood of stress.

Trends in the United States

Despite a modest reduction in the pregnancy rate among sexually experienced fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds since the late 1980s, nearly one-fifth of sexually active adolescent females become pregnant each year in the United States (Darroch and Singh 1999). Nationwide, the estimated adolescent pregnancy rate in 1996 (the most recent year for which adolescent pregnancy rates can be computed) was 98.7 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged fifteen through nineteen, down 15 percent since peaking in 1991 at 116.5 and lower than in any year since 1976 (Ventura et al. 2000). Although about 25 percent of the overall decline in the pregnancy rate resulted from increased abstinence, approximately 75 percent was due to more effective contraceptive practice. Nevertheless, nearly one million adolescents between fifteen and nineteen become pregnant each year, and nearly two-thirds of these pregnancies are to eighteen to nineteen year olds (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1999).

Among those girls aged fifteen to nineteen who become pregnant, just over half give birth annually (Darroch and Singh 1999). Consistent with the steady decline in the pregnancy rate, a parallel drop was observed in the birthrate. For example, 51.1 per 1,000 women in this age group years gave birth in 1998, 18 percent lower than in 1991 when the rate reached its recent peak of 62.1 (Ventura et al. 2000). This declining birthrate represents a smaller decrease for those eighteen to nineteen (13% drop to 82 per 1,000) than for women aged fifteen to seventeen (21% drop to 30.4 per 1,000). Overall, nearly two-thirds of births to teenagers occur in the later years of adolescence.

Although the prevalence of adolescent pregnancy and childbearing in the United States declined in the 1990s, substantial racial variations exist. In 1996, whites were nearly 2.5 times less likely to become pregnant (66.1 per 1,000 fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds) than Hispanics (164.6) or African Americans (178.9). Differences in pregnancy rates among racial groups persisted across the 1990s, and sharper drops in the birthrates among African Americans than among whites narrowed the gap between these groups. For example, the birthrates per 1,000 African-American adolescents declined 26 percent from 1991 (115.5) to 1998 (85.4), whereas the rates for whites declined 19 percent (43.4 to 35.2). A modest but steady decline in the birthrates for Hispanic adolescents occurred between 1994 (107.7) and 1998 (93.6), resulting in Hispanic adolescents now having the highest birthrate. Importantly, despite the overrepresentation of adolescent pregnancy and childbearing among minority groups, the actual number of births to whites is nearly double that of births to both African-American and Hispanic adolescents (Ventura et al. 2000).

Detailed and thorough information on the fathers of children born to adolescent mothers is scarce. However, the general consensus is that these fathers are less likely to be adolescents. In the mid-1990s, slightly over half of adolescent mothers reported that their child's father was at least three years older (e.g., Darroch, Landry, and Oslak 1999). In fact, sexually experienced adolescent women with much older partners were more likely to conceive than were young women whose partners were closer in age. Overall, 30 to 50 percent of pregnancies to an adolescent mother involved a father younger than twenty at the time of the child's birth. Unlike the birthrate trends for adolescent mothers, rates for adolescent fathers grew substantially between 1986 and 1996, when 23 of every 1,000 males age fifteen to nineteen became fathers (Thornberry et al. 2000).

International Trends

Consistent with the trends in the United States, declines in pregnancy rates and birthrates to women age fifteen to nineteen occurred in the majority of industrialized countries and in many developing countries (Singh and Darroch 2000). Among the more developed regions (i.e., Australia, New Zealand, Europe, North America, and Japan), the lowest adolescent birthrates (ten or fewer per 1,000) in 1995 were in ten countries, nine of which were western, northern, and southern European countries that experienced at least a 70 percent decline since 1970: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Japan experienced little change (12% drop) since 1970 and reported the lowest birthrate (3.9) in 1995. In contrast, birthrates increased substantially (35% or more) between 1970 and 1995 in seven countries—all were eastern European countries that also reported high birthrates (35 or more per 1,000) in 1995: Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. Still, the number of industrialized countries with high adolescent birthrates has fallen from twenty-nine countries in 1970 to twelve countries in 1995. Overall, the United States continues to have the highest premarital pregnancy rate and correspondingly one of the highest rates of births to young, unmarried women in the industrialized world.

Similar declining trends in birthrate among adolescents have occurred in many countries of developing regions (i.e., Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East), while little change has occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1996). For example, nearly 35 percent of young women in Latin America and the Caribbean, and an even higher proportion (50–60%) in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have their first child before the age of twenty.

Antecedents of Adolescent Pregnancy

Research consistently shows that there is no single factor associated with the specific behaviors that lead to adolescent pregnancy (e.g., early initiation of sexual intercourse, lack of access to information and services, nonuse or inconsistent use of contraception). Instead, multiple factors place adolescents at risk for pregnancy, including family structure, economic disadvantage, community disadvantage, family, peer, and partner attitudes and behavior, and characteristics of teens themselves (e.g., Coley and Chase-Lansdale 1998). Like adolescent mothers, the fathers appear to exhibit many of the same risk factors (e.g., Thornberry et al. 1997). Studies on non-U.S. samples of adolescent parents suggest similar findings (e.g., Dearden et al. 1995; Gupta and Leite 1999; Lee et al. 1997; Olenick 1999).

For instance, living in a lower socioeconomic household, being raised in poverty by a single parent, having older and sexually active or pregnant/parenting siblings, and residing in rural settings and communities with high rates of poverty, welfare use, and single-mother households place teens at elevated risk of early pregnancy. These same adolescents exhibit certain behaviors and hold particular attitudes that also elevate their risk for pregnancy, such as having lower self-esteem, doing less well in school, having low educational aspirations, and perceiving lower educational, career, and economic opportunities. The early onset of adolescent sexual behavior and pregnancy also is linked to other problem behaviors (e.g., use of alcohol, tobacco, and/or drugs, delinquency, violence); in the United States, these linkages tend to be stronger for whites than for African Americans. Also, findings show that parent-child connectedness, parental supervision, monitoring, or regulation of children's activities, and parents' values against teen intercourse or unprotected intercourse decrease the risk of adolescent pregnancy.

Adoption, Marriage, and Single Parenthood

Fewer than 4 percent of U.S. adolescents place their child for adoption (Bachrach et al. 1992). Adoption is less common among African-American or Hispanic unmarried mothers, whose extended family members have traditionally played an important role in helping to raise children born outside of marriage. Also, compared to adolescent mothers who keep their infants, those who choose adoption are more likely to be in school at the time, younger, come from higher socioeconomic status households, have more favorable attitudes toward adoption, hold more realistic expectations of and understanding about the consequences of parenthood, and perceive having more alternatives to early parenthood. Findings suggest that compared to those who keep their child, those who give their child for adoption are more likely to experience both short- and long-term socioeconomic benefits, even after controlling for preexisting differences (e.g., Donnelly and Voydanoff 1996). Overall, the latter are more successful in achieving a higher education, avoiding rapid subsequent pregnancy, and securing employment, and are less likely to be receiving welfare support than are those who keep the child. Although giving a child for adoption is associated with experiences of greater sorrow or regret concerning her parenting decision, adoption does not result in significant negative psychological consequences for the young mother.

Marriage is an alternative response to placing the child for adoption. In fact, in developing countries (e.g., Central and West Africa, South Asia) over half of all women under eighteen are married, often in response to out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In contrast, fewer adolescent pregnancies in industrialized countries result in marriage. For example, less than one-third of such births in the United States occur or result in marriage; young white mothers are most likely to marry, followed by Hispanics and African Americans. In general, studies suggest that the immediate benefits of early marriage for adolescent mothers include financial support from her husband and an expanded familial support system. These benefits tend to be outweighed by a truncated education for both young mothers and fathers that leads to underemployment and future economic hardship. Also, adolescent marriages are less stable and more prone to divorce than other marriages. The risk of dissolution of subsequent marriages also is higher when the first marriage occurs during adolescence.

Overall, the low incidence of adoption among adolescent parents and the disproportionate number of those who marry means that an increasing number of unmarried adolescents are raising children. In lieu of the general decline in the adolescent birthrate since the late 1950s, the proportion of nonmarital adolescent births has risen steeply. In 1998, nearly eight out of ten adolescent births in the United States occurred outside marriage. Still, the total number of births to unmarried women under twenty years represents less than one-third of the total number of births to all unmarried women—a shift since 1970, when half of nonmarital births occurred to adolescents. A similar pattern exists for adolescent fathers. When compared to all fathers of children born out-of-wedlock, estimates are that less than one-fifth of all nonmarital births are to young men under age twenty and slightly more than 60 percent are to men age twenty to twenty-nine. Similarly, estimates suggest large percentages of teen births occur outside marriage in other Western and European industrialized countries as well.

The consequences of nonmarital childbearing are discussed below. Although the research available has been predominantly based on U.S. samples, findings from non-U.S. samples suggest that these consequences are shared worldwide.

Adolescent Mothers

Compared to adolescents who delay parenthood, those who become mothers experience elevated risks for negative outcomes (e.g., Coley and Chase-Lansdale 1998; Herdman 1997; Maynard 1997). Adolescent mothers are less likely to complete high school, avoid welfare, be employed, have stable employment, and earn adequate incomes. Longitudinal research shows that for many adolescent mothers, some of these negative consequences may be short term, as many are able to eventually complete school and become economically self-sufficient. However, they are likely to experience numerous stressful life events, adverse family functioning, and low levels of life satisfaction.

There is a great variability among adolescent mothers in the likelihood of becoming socioeconomically disadvantaged. For example, having parents with more education, attending a special school for pregnant youth, having high aspirations at the time of birth, finishing high school within five years of the birth of a first child, limiting sub-sequent childbearing, and growing up in a family that did not receive welfare promoted economic well-being (Brooks-Gunn and Chase-Lansdale 1995). Some findings also suggest that the economic disadvantages of early parenting may be more prevalent among African Americans than among whites. Although being a young mother seems to influence later experiences, the contextual precursors (e.g., poverty) associated with adolescent parenthood explain much of the deleterious effects.

Effects of Adolescent Parenthood on Children

Overall, research shows that children of adolescent parents are at greater risk for health, developmental, and behavioral problems compared to children born to older mothers (e.g., Alonso and Moreno 2000; Maynard 1997). Compared to older mothers, adolescent mothers are more likely to experience pregnancy and delivery problems and have less healthy babies overall (e.g., low birth weight, high infant morbidity), but these negative health consequences are becoming less common in industrialized countries because of increased health services for young mothers. Few differences in cognitive functioning are found in infancy, but small and consistent differences are detected in preschool children that continue into middle childhood. Also, preschool children of adolescent mothers tend to show more behavior problems (e.g., aggressive, less self-control) than children of older mothers, a finding especially pronounced for boys. During adolescence, problems begin to show up, such as grade failure, delinquent acts, and early sexual activity and pregnancy.

Research finds that the health of infants is affected more by family background characteristics (e.g., race, residence, mother's education) and mother's health-related behavior (e.g., smoking, drinking, prenatal care) than by mother's age (Geronimus and Korenman 1993; Roy et al. 1999). Other factors that place these offspring at greater risk include the adverse social and economic effects associated with early parenthood, the emotional immaturity of a younger mother, and less experienced and/or less adequate parenting. Although adolescent mothers tend to be as warm toward their young child as older mothers, research shows that they are less verbal, sensitive, and responsive, provide a less stimulating home environment, perceive their infants as being more difficult, and have more unrealistic expectations (Coley and Chase-Lansdale 1998). Fewer differences are typically found when adolescent mothers are compared to mothers in their early twenties who also live in poverty (e.g., Lacroix et al. 2001). Also, differences are typically not found in infant health outcomes of unmarried versus married adolescent mothers. Despite consistent evidence of greater risk, findings show more variability in whether children exhibit these problem behaviors and that many children develop normally.

Societal Costs of Adolescent Parenting

In the United States, and most other countries too, adolescent mothers have a high probability of raising their children in poverty and relying on public assistance. More than one-half of all U.S. adolescent mothers and about three-fourths of all unmarried adolescent mothers receive welfare support (Moore et al. 1993). Whereas they represent only a minority of all welfare cases, 53 percent of welfare funding is to families formed by adolescent births (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994). Also, adolescent mothers are most likely to have long careers on public assistance, as more than 40 percent report living in poverty at age twenty-seven.

Although the children of adolescent mothers visit medical providers less frequently and have lower total medical expenses, more of their expenses are paid by others than is true among children of older mothers. Estimates suggest that the expenses paid by others would decrease by nearly half if adolescent mothers postponed childbearing until at least age twenty-two (Maynard 1997). Overall, best estimates indicate that adolescent childbearing coupled with the other disadvantages faced by adolescent mothers costs U.S. taxpayers a total of $13 to $19 billion annually.

Adolescent Fathers

For adolescent fathers, much of their stress involves vocational/educational issues, interpersonal relationships, health, and concern over future parenting competence. Like adolescent mothers, fathers obtain less education and, thus, have lower long-term labor market and earning potential than their counterparts who delay fathering. Whether these deficits predate the pregnancy or are a result of the pregnancy (e.g., drop out of school to provide support), these young fathers are generally disadvantaged.

The involvement of fathers with their children is higher than expected, at least in the first few years. Research shows that almost half of young nonresident fathers visit their children weekly, and almost 25 percent have daily contact. However, contact with the child typically diminishes over time, such that fewer than 25 percent see their school-age children weekly. Lack of contact is related to economic status; those fathers with more resources (e.g., education, income) are more involved. Financial support follows a similar pattern, although when support is provided, it is often modest. Estimates project that U.S. fathers who do not marry the adolescent mothers have incomes sufficient to expect them to contribute support at a level that would offset as much as 40 to 50 percent of welfare costs (Maynard 1997).


Because the majority of adolescent mothers do not marry, they likely spend the first few years after the child's birth in a multigenerational household. Findings suggest that the presence of a grandmother in the home appears to be both beneficial and harmful to the adolescent parent and her child. Grandmothers often assist the adolescent mother with childcare responsibilities and provide additional financial resources. Their presence in the home is beneficial to the health and development of low birth weight infants born to young mothers (Pope 1993). Grandmother support for older adolescent mothers also is associated with the mother completing her education, especially if the grandmother provides childcare.

However, coresidence with a grandmother may not always foster optimal childrearing environments. The competing developmental needs of young mothers (e.g., autonomy, school, work, childcare) and young grandmothers (e.g., adult midlife, work, relationships, parenting, unanticipated childcare demands) combined with their likely economic struggle often result in stressful living arrangements and consequently less supportive and beneficial environments for the adolescent and her offspring. In some cases, an adolescent mother may assume less responsibility for the care of her child, leaving an already overburdened grandmother in charge. As the grandmother's stress increases, the quality of the care she provides may diminish. Yet studies show that when young mothers have mature, flexible, and autonomous interactions with their own mothers, they are more likely to be emotionally supportive, affective, and authoritative parents to their own child (Brooks-Gunn and Chase-Lansdale 1995).

Policy Related to Adolescent Parenting

There are several policy concerns around the economic, social, and psychological burdens of adolescent parenting for individuals and the broader society. Many adolescent parenting programs attempt to address these concerns by providing services to adolescents with the goal of decreasing the likelihood of second births, increasing self-sufficiency through vocational training, and enhancing parenting skills through parent education. Additional policy concerns focus on the provision of child support. Shirley L. Zimmerman (1992) argued that adolescent parenting must be examined in the larger context in which it occurs, because regions where there are higher poverty rates, higher unemployment rates, higher divorce rates, and low rates of school completion report higher rates of births to teens. She suggested that policy must address the forces that "give rise to high birthrates among the young, cultural norms, family instability, academic failure, and individual motivation within the context of persistent inequality and growing social isolation of the poor" (p. 428). Although the occurrence of adolescent parenthood will not completely disappear, multifaceted strategies are warranted to facilitate the transition out of poverty or at least minimize the hardships imposed by social disadvantage on adolescent parents.

See also:Adoption; Birth Control: Sociocultural and Historical Aspects; Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Fatherhood; Grandparenthood; Motherhood; Nonmarital Childbearing; Parenting Education; Pregnancy and Birth; Poverty; Sexuality Education; Sexuality in Adolescence; Single-Parent Families


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