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Teenage parenting: challenges, interventions and programs.

Although the overall birth rate in the United States has declined since 1970, the rates of adolescent pregnancies and childbearing remain higher than in many other industrialized countries (Testa, 1992). More than 500,000 teenagers in the U.S. have babies every year. In fact, births to adolescents make up one-fifth of the annual births in the U.S. (Testa, 1992). Of even more concern, girls between the ages of 10 to 14 years are the fastest growing group of parents. Current trends indicate that many adolescent mothers will not marry and will live in poverty. As of 1992, 67 percent of teen mothers were single when they gave birth (Hamburg & Dixon, 1992). A related concern is teen fathers' all-too-common lack of involvement with their children and with the mothers of their children.


Handling the dramatic changes of adolescence is difficult enough. Mastering the developmental tasks of adolescence and becoming a parent at the same time is especially demanding. These two tasks can easily conflict with each other, meaning that a teenage mother often will compromise one role or fail at both. Adolescent parenthood can be described as an "off-time" in the transition to adulthood (Boxer, 1992). By becoming parents, teenagers disrupt the expected sequence of first, finishing school; second, finding employment; next, marrying; and last, having children. Many teenage parents feel socially isolated because it can be difficult to find friends that share parenting experiences.

Teen mothers are often too immature to properly nurture their children. Adolescents' typical self-absorption makes it difficult to distinguish the child's needs from their own. Indeed, teen mothers are usually still emotionally dependent on their own mothers. In addition, adolescents may have unrealistic expectations about child development (Musick, 1994), which may lead to child abuse when those expectations are not realized. Compared to older women, adolescent mothers are more impatient and punitive, and less nurturing (Cooper, Dunst & Vance, 1990). They may also be so stressed by the challenges of motherhood that they become depressed, develop poor self-esteem, and are not able to provide their children with emotional stability.

Other attendant risks of adolescent motherhood are: an inability to make appropriate decisions because of a lack of experience; greater health risks during pregnancy because of poor prenatal care; a tendency for prolonged and difficult labor; a lack of social support systems; and an inability to handle financial matters. Teen mothers often find it difficult to prioritize financial needs (e.g., when to pay the doctors, how to pay for food, how to obtain money for medicine, etc.). Families headed by teen parents are more likely to live in poverty (Unger & Cooley, 1992), and such families represent the fastest growing group of welfare recipients in the United States (Duany & Pittman, 1990).

Other negative consequences of early childbearing can include: dropping out of school because of parenting responsibilities, limited vocational skills, additional pregnancies, and homelessness as a result of poverty. Roughly 17 percent of teen mothers will be pregnant again within one year, and 30 percent will have more children within two years (Summerlin, 1990). Having more children can cause further financial and social-emotional stresses. Furthermore, the salary that a teenage mother can be expected to earn over her lifetime is half that of someone who delays childbearing (Summerlin, 1990). Because of economic reasons, many adolescent mothers and their children are homeless. They may live in temporary shelters that are overcrowded and noisy, lack privacy, and offer limited opportunities for nurturing parent-child interactions (Anderson & Koblinsky, 1995).


A study by Males (1993) indicates that many teen pregnancies involve fathers who are older than the mothers. Because many adolescent mothers are poor, they may view relationships with older men as an escape from poverty. Adolescents who do become fathers, however, are frequently overlooked in our efforts to assist teen mothers. Their needs, as well as their responsibilities, have been ignored. Much like teen mothers, teen fathers can expect lower incomes and inadequate education in comparison to men who delay parenthood. Yet, young fathers should be held financially accountable to their children and to the mothers (Vinovskis, 1992). Even if their initial financial contributions are minimal, they could increase payments after they get full-time employment. Furthermore, the teen father should play an important role in his family; research results point to the presence of the adolescent father as a stabilizing influence in the home (Vinovskis, 1992). Teen mothers commonly miss the emotional support of the adolescent fathers for themselves and their youngsters.

Teen fathers also face the difficulties of undergoing developmental changes while becoming a parent. Furthermore, many adolescent fathers are reluctant to get involved with their children because, traditionally, their own fathers are uninvolved in their adolescent parenting. Teen fathers may appear guarded and fearful about caring for their children because they expect criticism and blame for simply fathering their youngsters. Society often looks down upon teen fathers and blames them for shirking their familial responsibilities (SECA Public Policy Reports, 1993). In order to lesson their anxiety and stress, many adolescent fathers simply abandon their families.

The Southern Early Childhood Association (SECA) Public Policy Report (1993) indicates that teenage fathers can be involved parents on three levels: 1) through nurturing interactions with their children, 2) through contact with the mothers, and 3) through financial support. By being accepting and nonjudgmental, professionals can help teen fathers fulfill their parenting roles.


Children of teen parents face additional challenges of their own. Adolescents are twice as likely to have premature infants compared to mothers in their 20s (Tyree, Vance & Boals, 1991). Low birthweight newborns are 40 times more likely to die during their first month of life as compared to neonates of normal weights. In addition, health problems and birth defects are 39 percent higher in low birthweight, premature infants.

Another serious concern is the connection among teen parenting, child abuse and neglect, and poverty. Child abuse is more likely when the family lives in poverty, which is common in households headed by unmarried teens (Hegar & Scannapieco, 1995). Child neglect, also a serious problem in families headed by teen parents, is responsible for even more deaths than child abuse. Surviving children are at risk for physical and mental disabilities as they get older (Summerlin, 1990).

It is estimated that families headed by young single mothers represent a large majority of homeless people (Anderson & Koblinsky, 1995). To add to their plight, homeless children are likely to suffer from emotional difficulties such as depression and aggression, and they are at greater risk for such health problems as asthma, anemia and infections. Because homeless families headed by single parents are often transient, many youngsters cannot attend school regularly and will need special education. All of these factors can put the children of single, adolescent parents into the at-risk category.


A number of interventions are available to assist teen families (Hamburg & Dixon, 1992; Tyree, Vance & Boals, 1991), including programs that provide pregnancy prevention information, counseling, life skills training, educational and vocational preparation, prenatal care and parenting education, and appropriate child care and social support systems. Preventing pregnancy is the first intervention. Adolescents need to be educated about the consequences of being sexually active and the importance of delaying childbearing. Through counseling, adolescents can learn about prevention and receive the encouragement they may need to finish school. Counselors also can identify resources for health care, life skills training (e.g., financial and household management), housing, welfare payments, and social support (e.g., extended family, neighbors and friends).

Pregnant adolescents must receive proper prenatal care in order to prevent premature births, low birthweights and birth defects. Special efforts should be made to reach very young pregnant adolescents (ages 12 to 14), who make up the fastest growing segment of childbearing teenagers (Hamburg & Dixon, 1992). Having adequate child care can help young parents finish school and obtain vocational skills. Provision of child care appears to be closely related to a reduced number of repeated pregnancies, completing high school and better employment opportunities (Marsh & Wirick, 1991). High quality child care also offers the children of teen parents developmentally appropriate and stimulating experiences. Transportation is also important, as parents may need to travel to child care centers, schools and jobs.

Peer friendships are important for teen parents, because their friends can give positive feedback and helpful advice, and provide opportunities to practice social skills. Such social support systems may offer encouragement, financial help, resources for housing and jobs, as well as respite care. Social support systems, ultimately, act as buffers against the stresses encountered by teen parents (Cooley & Unger, 1991; Voight, Hans & Bernstein, 1996). Other research suggests that adolescents with adequate support systems are more likely to finish school, find jobs and feel more confident in their parenting roles (Brooks-Gunn & Chase-Lansdale, 1991).


This section will describe a variety of recommended practices and interventions used in three selected programs. All three programs follow a number of interventions suggested by researchers (Hamburg & Dixon, 1992). The first program, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is titled The Summer Training and Education Program (STEP). The goals of STEP are to improve the life skills and living conditions of impoverished teen parents by increasing school attendance, reducing adolescent pregnancies, developing responsible social behaviors and increasing vocational skills.

STEP offers courses in functional life skills, remedial reading and functional mathematics. Participants receive 80 hours of vocational and paid work experience during two summers. Adolescent parents and pregnant teens can meet in support groups during the school year. STEP also developed a curriculum for functional math and reading instruction, known as Practical Academics (STEP, 1989b). A second curriculum, also authored by STEP, is the Life Skills and Opportunities Curriculum (LSO) (1989a), which covers pregnancy prevention, parenthood responsibilities, career goals, community resources, employers' expectations and good decision-making.

STEP emphasizes not only parenting issues, but also educational and vocational opportunities (Marsh & Wirick, 1991). One study that evaluated STEP found teen parent programs to be most successful when they address a number of needs together (Marsh & Wirick, 1991). This study also revealed that the STEP participants increased their knowledge about pregnancy prevention, gained academically, acquired work experiences, earned money and increased their sense of confidence about the future.

The second program, a residential one, is located in Sacramento, California, and is known as Between Us Sisters Starting To Operate Efficiently (BUSSTOE). BUSSTOE assists low-income, pregnant teens, adolescent parents and their young children (Lowenthal, 1992). The program helps meet the needs of overburdened county welfare and probate departments, hospitals, and detention facilities. The services provide help for emotionally troubled teen parents, some of whom have had scrapes with the law, or problems with aggressive behavior, substance abuse, academic failures and parenting difficulties.

An important component of the program is the assessment and treatment plan for each client. BUSSTOE follows research recommendations such as providing services to meet each participant's needs (Marsh & Wirick, 1991) and providing developmentally appropriate activities for the young children of teen parents (Valliere, 1994). Evaluations measure the progress of each mother-child dyad. Desired outcomes of the treatment include the following, if appropriate, for the mothers and/or the children: 1) improved behavioral and social functioning, 2) improved physical health and nutrition, 3) increased use of appropriate parenting skills, 4) more nurturing parent-child relationships, 5) improved parent-child communication, 6) better psychological functioning and 7) better developed educational and vocational skills.

Structured activities, including both individual and group therapies, help those with psychological, behavioral, social and substance abuse problems. The social activities emphasize peer friendships and nurturing relationships between adolescent mothers and their children. The educational programs focus on completing high school, social skills training, instruction in functional life skills, parenting education and appropriate child care. Clients, who must be at least 16 years old, are encouraged to enroll in a regional vocational program that provides training and jobs, and they are expected to follow program rules and earn privileges based upon good behavior.

The third program is called An Ounce of Prevention Developmental Training and Support Program (DTSP). DTSP provides staff training and support in urban and rural settings in Illinois (Bernstein, Hans & Percansky, 1991). The primary goals of DTSP are to improve the lives of low-income, adolescent parents and their children by teaching parenting skills, encouraging participants to complete school and develop vocational skills, and providing quality child care for working parents. An important feature of DTSP is staff training to recognize and commend their clients' positive interactions with their children. These practices help increase parental pride, self-esteem and confidence. A preliminary evaluation of DTSP indicates that it helps the majority of participants to become more effective parents (Bernstein, Hans & Percansky, 1991).


Adolescent parents face the daunting challenge of learning age-appropriate developmental tasks while simultaneously learning to be parents. As concerned citizens, we have a responsibility to advocate for high quality services to help pregnant adolescents, teen parents and their young children fulfill their potential.


Anderson, E. A., & Koblinsky, S. A. (1995). Homeless policy: The need to speak to families. Family Relations, 44, 13-18.

Bernstein, V. J., Hans, S. L., & Percansky, C. (1991). Advocating for the young child in need through strengthening the parent-child relationship. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 20, 28-41.

Boxer, A. M. (1992). Adolescent pregnancy and parenthood in the transition to adulthood. In M. Rosenheim and M. F. Testa (Eds.), Early parenthood and coming of age in the 1990's (pp. 46-54). Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Brooks-Gunn, J., & Chase-Lansdale, P. L. (1991). Children having children: Effects on the family system. Pediatric Annals, 20, 470-481.

Cooley, M. L., & Unger, D. G. (1991). The role of family support in determining the developmental outcomes of infants of adolescent mothers. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 21, 217-234.

Cooper, C. S., Dunst, C. J., & Vance, S. D. (1990). The effect of social support on adolescent mothers' styles of parent-child interaction as measured in three separate occasions. Adolescence, 25, 49-57.

Duany, L., & Pittman, K. (1990). Latino youths at a crossroads. Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Clearing House report (ISSN: 0899-5591). Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund.

Hamburg, B. A., & Dixon, S. L. (1992). Adolescent pregnancy and parenthood. In M. Rosenheim & M. F. Testa (Eds.), Early parenthood and coming of age in the 1990's (pp. 17-33). Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hegar, R., & Scannapieco, M. (1995). From family duty to family policy: The evaluation of kinship care. Child Welfare, 75, 200-217.

Lowenthal, R. L. (1992). The between us sisters starting to operate efficiently program. Sacramento, CA: Between Us Sisters Starting to Operate Efficiently Corporation.

Males, M. (1993). School-age pregnancy: Why hasn't prevention worked? Journal of School Health, 63, 429-432.

Marsh, J. C., & Wirick, M. A. (1991). Evaluation of the Hull House teen pregnancy and parenting program. Evaluation and Program Planning, 14, 49-61.

Musick, J. S. (1994). Grandmothers and grandmothers-to-be: Effects on adolescent mothers and adolescent mothering. Infants and Young Children, 6, 1-9.

SECA Public Policy Reports. (1993). Involving teen parents. Little Rock, AR: Southeast Educational Development Laboratory.

Summer Training and Education Program. (1989a). The life skills and opportunities curriculum. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Summer Training and Education Program. (1989b). Practical academics. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Summer Training and Education Program. (1989c). Teaching life skills in context. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Summerlin, K. L. (1990). Giving teen mothers a second chance at school. Georgia Alert, 12, 11-47.

Testa, M. F. (1992). Introduction. In M. Rosenheim and M. F. Testa (Eds.), Early parenthood and coming of age in the 1990's (pp. 1-16). Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tyree, C. L., Vance, M. B., & Boals, B. M. (1991). Restructuring the public school curriculum to include parenting education classes. Little Rock, AR: Arkansas State University.

Unger, D. G., & Cooley, M.L. (1992). Partner and grandmother contact in black and white teen parent families. Journal of Adolescent Health, 13, 546-552.

Valliere, J. M. (1994). Infant mental health: A consultation and treatment team for at-risk infants and toddlers. Infants and Young Children, 6, 46-53.

Vinovskis, M. A. (1992). Historical perspectives on adolescent pregnancy. In M. Rosenheim and M. F. Testa (Eds.), Early parenthood and coming of age in the 1990's (pp. 149-186). Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Voight, J. D., Hans, S. L., & Bernstein, V.J. (1996). Support networks of adolescent mothers: Effects on parenting experience and behavior. Infant Mental Health Journal, 17, 58-73.

Wolock, I., & Horwitz, B. (1984). Child maltreatment as a social problem: The neglect of neglect. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 54, 530-543.

Barbara Lowenthal is Professor, Department of Special Education, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. Richard Lowenthal is a clinical psychologist.
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Author:Lowenthal, Richard
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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