The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2000) report that between 800,000 and 900,000 adolescent girls who are 19 years of age or younger and who live in the United States become pregnant each year. Other statistics suggest that four out of ten adolescent girls in the United States will have been pregnant at least once before they reach 20 years of age (Klein & the AAP Committee on Adolescence, 2005). In fact, more than 95 percent of these adolescent pregnancies may be unintended, with approximately 50 percent of adolescent pregnancies being carried to term (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999; Klein & the AAP Committee on Adolescence, 2005).
Although younger ages for childbearing were more commonplace several decades ago, the demands of today’s society (e.g., the need for higher education, women being more likely to want to establish a career before having children) have prompted a dramatic increase since 1970 in women’s mean age at the time that they have their first child (Martin et al., 2007). As a result, having children during the adolescent years would no longer be viewed as normative. Research also suggests that adolescent pregnancy and parenting is related to more problematic outcomes for both adolescent mothers and their children.
Of most concern with regard to outcomes for adolescent mothers and their children is the developmental mismatch that occurs when adolescent mothers are trying to meet their own developmental milestones while also fostering the development of their infants. As a result of this developmental mismatch, adolescent mothers may have negative outcomes (e.g., failing to seek medical care, needing to drop out of school, experiencing an increase in negative emotional states; Szigethy & Ruiz, 2001) and inadvertently may have difficulty fostering positive outcomes in their infants (e.g., due to a lack of maturity and/or confidence for fostering their children optimally; East, Matthews, & Felice, 1994).
Research also suggests that adolescent mothers have been more likely to live in poverty, to be less educated, to experience high rates of family instability (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989), to hold lower-paying jobs, to be single parents, and to be on welfare than are women who postpone childbearing until their twenties (Hayes, 1987). Outcomes for the infants of these mothers also may be problematic, particularly if adolescent mothers and their children do not find a strong support system (e.g., Sieger & Renk, 2007). For example, these children appear more likely to lag behind in cognitive abilities, to repeat at least one school grade more often, to experience school maladjustment, and to misbehave relative to children who are born to older mothers (Furstenberg et al., 1987).
So what are we to do? Although many of the sex education programs targeting adolescents in the United States are focused on teaching abstinence, it is clear that adolescents are unlikely to stop having sex. In fact, current statistics suggest that 77 percent of adolescents in the United States will have sex by the time that they reach 20-years of age (Finer, 2007). Further, approximately one-fourth of adolescent boys and girls will have sex by the time they reach 15-years of age (Klein & the AAP Committee on Adolescence, 2005).
Of even greater concern, adolescent girls in the United States are more likely to have multiple sex partners and less likely to use contraceptives relative to their counterparts in European countries (Darroch, Singh, Frost, & the Study Team, 2001). Given statistics such as these, it should not be a surprise that adolescent pregnancy rates in the United States are significantly higher that those of many other developed countries (Ventura, Matthews, & Hamilton, 2001). Each of these statistics suggests that, perhaps, the ‘abstinence is best’ motto is not working in the way that it was intended. As a result, a different intervention is in order. For example, other developed countries provide adolescents informed (and sometimes free) access to reproductive services, resulting in a significant reduction in adolescent birthrates (Bracher & Santow, 1999).
Further, earlier access (e.g., in preschool and elementary school) to age-appropriate information also appears to reduce the rates of adolescent pregnancy (e.g., Lonczak, Abbott, Hawkins, Kosterman, & Catalano, 2002). Although many believe that providing adolescents with information about sex will lead to earlier ages for intercourse, research suggests exactly the opposite (AAP Committee on Adolescence, 2001).
As a result, it may be the right time for a change in how we manage sex education. Such changes ultimately may lead to fewer adolescents experiencing a developmental mismatch as they work toward achieving their developmental milestones.
AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) Committee on Adolescence. (2001). Condom use by adolescents. Pediatrics, 107, 1463-1469.
Alan Guttmacher Institute (1999, April). Teenage pregnancy: Overall trends and state-by-state information. Retrieved from http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/teen_preg_stats.html.
Bracher, G., & Santow, M. (1999). Explaining trends in teenage childbearing in Sweden. Studies in Family Planning, 30, 169-182.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2000). Fact sheet: National and state-specific pregnancy rates among teens. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/od/oc/media/pressrel/r2k0714.htm.
Darroch, J. E., Singh, S., Frost, J. J., & the Study Team. (2001). Differences in teenage pregnancy rates among five developed countries: The roles of sexual activity and contraceptive use. Family Planning Perspectives, 33, 244-250, 281.
East, P. L., Matthews, K. L., & Felice, M. F. (1994). Qualities of adolescent mother’s parenting. Journal of Adolescent Health, 15, 163-168.
Finer, L. B. (2007). Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003. Public Health Reports, 122, 73-78.
Furstenberg, F. F., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Chase-Lansdale, P. L. (1989). Teenage pregnancy and childbearing. American Psychologist, 44, 313-320.
Hayes, C. D. (Ed.). (1987). Risking the future: Adolescent sexuality, pregnancy, and childbearing (Volume 1). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Klein, J. D., & the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) Committee on Adolescence. (2005). Adolescent pregnancy: Current trends and issues. Pediatrics, 116, 281-286.
Lonczak, H. S., Abbott, R. D., Hawkins, J. D., Kosterman, R., & Catalano, R. F. (2002). Effects of the Seattle Social Development Project on sexual behavior, pregnancy, birth, and sexually transmitted disease. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 156, 438-447.
Martin, J. A., Hamilton, B. E., Sutton, P. D., Ventura, S. J., Menacker, F., Kirmeyer, S., & Munson, M. (2007). Births: Final data for 2005. National Vital Statistics Reports, 56. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
Sieger, K., & Renk, K. (2007). Pregnant and parenting adolescents: A study of ethnic identity, emotional and behavioral problems, child characteristics, and social support. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36, 567-581.
Szigethy, E. M., & Ruiz, P. (2001). Depression among pregnant adolescents: An integrated treatment approach. American Journal of Psychiatry, 158, 22-27.
Ventura, S. J., Matthews, T. J., & Hamilton, B. E. (2001). Births to teenagers in the United States, 1940-2000. National Vital Statistics Reports, 49. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.