Teen pregnancy has been called an "epidemic" and a national emergency. Stereotypes of teen parents abound: they are said to be uneducated, irresponsible, abusive, immoral, and destined to a life of poverty.
But what do we really know about teenagers who become parents? This article will begin by discussing how teen child bearing became defined as a problem and then examine a recent study to determine what is myth and what is fact in our assumptions about teen parents.
Census data reveal that the number of teenagers becoming pregnant and bearing children has not changed significantly since the second world war. What has changed are society's norms about marriage and sexual activity.
In 1950, the median age of marriage for men was 22.5 years; for women it was 20. Thus, 50 percent of women were marrying in their teen years and 50 percent were marrying at age 20 or older. By the mid-1980s, this was no longer true: 50 percent of men were not marrying until they were 25 or older, while 50 percent of women were not marrying until they were at least 23.
Similarly, sexual activity outside of marriage has become more common and accepted. During the 1970s, the proportion of teen women who had experienced sex increased from 30 percent in 1971 to 50 percent in 1979. Contraceptive use among teens was also on the rise during the seventies. However, a large proportion of teens reported and continue to report sporadic and ineffective contraceptive practices (Chase-Lansdale & Vinovskis, 1987). These changes, combined with economic and gender role shifts, have created the "problem of teen child bearing."
Of course, real issues do arise when young women choose to bear and rear their children without the personal economic resources or resources from a spouse. Thus far, the government has stepped in to help meet these needs, but ambivalence about allowing the government to take over the responsibilities of the family has caused policymakers to look for other means of addressing this phenomenon. In the meantime, teen pregnancy remains a concern for child welfare.
But is age really the problem? Consider a case scenario. Jan, a 15-year-old, lives with her parents in a small North Carolina town. She becomes pregnant and hides the pregnancy from her family until she is well into her second trimester. While her mother wants her to consider adoption, her father and boyfriend believe this will "scar her for life". In the end, she decides to keep the baby. Jan continues to live at home, but neglect reports begin to filter into the county CPS workers. Is Jan coming to the attention of CPS because her age prevents her from being a good parent, or is there some other problem?
In their 1993 article, Children of Adolescent Mothers: Are They at Risk for Abuse?, Ester S. Buchholz and Carol Korn-Bursztyn review a large sample of the literature to try to determine the role of age in parenting. Their work focuses on areas in which teen mothers are generally seen as deficient.
Teen mothers are often perceived as having inadequate coping skills and social supports. There is no doubt that teen mothers are caught between separating from their families and the need for help in child rearing. The literature suggests that a delicate balance must be in place for a teen mother to have the support she needs to be a good parent.
While teens who marry in response to pregnancy seem to have more difficulty than those who continue to live with their parents, a teen can also have trouble in her family's home. When the teen's mother "takes over", the young woman's sense of herself as a parent is undermined. In contrast, the mother who models parenting skills while encouraging her daughter to assume the maternal role provides the most social support. Child welfare workers will need to examine the dynamics between the teen mother and her family closely to understand whether a teen is truly a bad parent or whether her family is contributing to a sense of inadequacy.
Many assume that teens who become pregnant know the least about parenting. However, the literature reveals that pregnant and nonpregnant teens showed no difference in their knowledge of child rearing. However, all teenagers know less about child rearing than older mothers.
Another study, this time of married, rural teen parents, upheld the stereotype that teens are less nurturing and more negative and punitive in their interactions with their children. However, no comparison was made to older parents living in the same area, leaving open the question of what is considered "normal" parenting in the study community. A second study comparing teen and older parents in the same community found no difference in attitudes between the two.
Child welfare workers, then, would be advised to consider community norms when thinking about a teen's child-rearing attitudes. One way to consider this factor is to ask: would the behavior this teenager exhibits be so alarming if it were coming from an adult parent in the same community?
In terms of actual behavior with their children, the authors noted that while young mothers do not appear as equipped as older mothers to provide an environment that enhances their infant's cognitive development (i.e., age-appropriate toys and activities), they were not found to be more punitive than older mothers. Indeed, the children of teen mothers were well within normal developmental limits when studied at eight months of age. This finding came from a study hypothesizing that children of teen parents would have notable developmental delays.
When the potential for abuse was examined, studies cited by Buchholz and Korn-Bursztyn indicated that teens are more likely to be reported for maltreatment in cases that become "unsubstantiated." The authors suggest that teen parents may be more carefully scrutinized than older parents. When cases are substantiated, neglect is cited more often than abuse.
One of the most alarming findings noted by Buchholz and Korn-Bursztyn was the high rate of depression and stress in teen mothers. One study found their suicide rate to be seven times that of non-mothers. The difficulty of competing developmental crises--adolescent transition, child bearing, and possibly marriage or leaving home--leave the teen mother open to significant life stress that can impinge on her parenting ability. And at any age, depression and stress can predispose a parent to neglect or abuse a child.
This finding indicates that a teen parent's complaints of depression and stress should be taken extremely seriously. If the teen does not volunteer information about feelings of depression, ask questions such as "How does the stress you're feeling now compare to other difficult times in your life?" "Do you have people you can talk to about your feelings and who will give you a break from all of your responsibilities?"
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