All you have to do to notice that teenage pregnancy has become a major contemporary issue in America is turn on MTV. 34 percent of girls in the US become pregnant before 20 . In Los Angeles County alone, 14,860 of mothers that receive WIC services are under the age of 19. It is no surprise to me that 73 percent of pregnant teens are from low-income households. Children who come from poor families have fewer resources and are at higher risk (i.e. they often live in areas with higher crime rates, horrible public education, little health and mental health care, etc.). The school drop out rates for pregnant mothers is just astonishing. This phenomenon perpetuates the cycle of poverty. This is not to say that adolescents who are from middle or upper class families do not get pregnant… of course they do.
Rich or poor, children of adolescent mothers are more vulnerable in a variety of ways. Children of teen mothers are more at risk than other children for developmental disturbance and delays. Some attribute this to what is called the “Dual Developmental Crisis,” wherein parenting adolescents are in fundamentally conflicting developmental life stages. Adolescents are in a developmental stage in which they are forming their identities. They are trying on different roles, pushing boundaries, and essentially figuring out who they are. However, parenting does not allow for these tasks. Adolescent parents are forced into the role of mother or father, which leaves little room to try out any other role. Due to the fundamental ego centrism of teenagehood, their parenting tends to be less empathetic, responsive, and appropriate.
Theorists argue that this adolescent ego centrism interferes with creating a healthy attachment with one’s infant. Attachment theory proposes that the quality of caregiving an infant receives is internalized and becomes an internal working model for relationships throughout that child’s life. Recent neurobiological research has proven that brain development is shaped by genetics, as well as, environmental factors (i.e. attachment). Attachment patterns can engender or hinder cognitive, affective, emotional, and memory development in the brain. Children with secure attachments are often socially competent, active problem solvers, empathetic to others, ability to regulate affects and impulses, and ability to trust and rely on others appropriately. Children who have insecure attachments may have low affect, emotional, and impulse control, have a high incidence of antisocial behavior, lack empathy, have trouble bonding with peers and adults, and have delayed cognitive, language, and physical development.
Therefore, we should be providing teen mothers and fathers with the resources to help them become the best parents they can be. Sharing knowledge about infant/child development, emotional support, and resources are the only ways to assist them with overcoming the odds stacked against them and minimize negative effects for their children. Infant development education is particularly imperative for empowering young mothers and fathers. When we teach these adolescents the importance of attachment, developmental milestones, and basic needs of an infant/child, it allows them to have the tools to be an effective parent. Knowledge is power! Furthermore, supportive extended family and the opportunity to complete high school are also indicators of success for adolescent mothers and fathers.
All of this said, in my professional experience, many teenage mothers are able to create healthy, loving, nurturing attachments with their babies. Teenage pregnancy is here to stay no matter what your opinion of it is. So lets work together to support these young mothers in being the best parents they can possibly be.
Links to resources for pregnant and parenting teens:
Girls Club of Los Angeles
LAUSD resources to STAY IN SCHOOL! Know your rights! LAUSD is required to provide appropriate accommodations for pregnant and parenting students.
Cal-Learn Provides case management, child care, and financial bonuses for keeping grades above a C for parenting teens who chose to stay in school.