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6.1: Adolescent Pregnancy

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What are some of the physical, emotional, and social effects of becoming a teenage parent?

Biologically, adolescent girls can become pregnant just as adult women can. However, younger adolescent mothers and their children tend to experience greater risks, often due to poor prenatal care. Even though there is little difference biologically, there are enormous differences in psychological and social terms between having a child at 15, while still in high school, and at age 25. Generally, the younger the teenage mother, the more serious the problems and disruptions will be to her life. About 12,000 girls 14 years old and younger become pregnant each year. These adolescents are especially at risk. On the other hand, some 18- or 19-year-olds who become pregnant are capable of being competent mothers.

Abstinence is the refraining from sexual intercourse altogether. Abstinence is the safest choice for adolescents. If you abstain from sex, you will never get pregnant or you will not get someone else pregnant. Most adolescents who engage in sexual intercourse that leads to pregnancy are neither ready nor interested in becoming parents. So why do they take the chance? What is the likelihood that a sexually active adolescent will become pregnant?

As shown in Figure 5.1, among young American women aged 15 to 19, about half are sexually active, or engage in sexual intercourse; the other half are not sexually active.

Figure 5.1 Sexual activity among women ages 15-19.

Teenage Pregnancy Rates-A Little Math Work Convert data in Figure 5.1 to

  • numbers (e.g., of the 9 million women, how many engage in sex, use contraception, etc.),
  • a bar graph using numbers or percents,
  • ratios, and
  • rates per thousand.

About two thirds of those adolescents who are sexually active use contraception. The other third do not. 20% of sexually active girls become pregnant. A sexually active girl who does not use contraception has a 90% chance of pregancy within one year. However, some sexually active girls who use contraception become pregnant, also. How can this happen?

Pregnancy can occur if the contraceptive is not used correctly, or because most methods of contraception are not foolproof. Unlike contraception, abstinence is foolproof. If you abstain from sex, you will never get pregnant. Engaging in sexual intercourse can result in unwanted pregnancy. Using effective contraceptives can greatly reduce, but does not entirely eliminate, the chances of pregnancy.

What Do You Think?
Since it is so hard for adolescents to raise a child, why do you think many more of them don't give up their babies for adoption?

About 32% of the girls who become pregnant have abortions (termination of pregnancy) and another 14% miscarry. About half of the girls who become pregnant give birth to their babies. The majority of those girls who give birth keep their babies. However, some offer their babies for adoption.

The facts on teenage pregnancy listed below provide more information on this very serious problem.

Teenage Pregnancy Facts

  • During the past 10 years, over 10 million adolescents got pregnant. This number represents about 1 in 10 female adolescents.
  • Each year approximately 500,000 children are born to adolescent mothers. 85% of these babies are unplanned.
  • About 10,000 babies are born every year to children under age 15.
  • One-fourth of teenage mothers have a second child within two years of their first.
  • A sexually active girl who does not use contraception has a 90% chance of pregnancy within one year.
  • Of teenage mothers aged 15 or younger, 82% were themselves daughters of teenage mothers.
  • Teenage pregnancy rates have changed over time in this country. For example, the number of teenage pregnancies was much lower in the United States during the 1950s. Teenage pregnancies increased sharply in the 1960s and 1970s during the “sexual revolution.”
  • In poorer communities, teenage pregnancy rates are twice as high as the average. Education and financial status are good predictors of teenage pregnancy-the lower the level of education and the lower the financial status, the more likely a teen will get pregnant.
  • Teenage pregnancy rates in the United States are much higher than in European countries. For example, U.S. rates are twice as high as England or Canada and nine times as high as the Netherlands or Japan.

“I dragged that stupid bag of flour around for eleven whole days, and all I learned is that I never ever want a baby in my whole life unless someone else offers to look after it at least half a day, and there's a free day care center next door.”

-Robin, Flour Babies

Anne Fine

Did You Know?
The sexual revolution of the 1960-70s reflected a cultural revolution of young people in this country. Adolescents, especially older adolescents, demonstrated a lot of antisocial behavior. Long hair, baggy and tattered clothes, drugs, alcohol, and a permissive attitude toward sex prevailed. Among young women, the number engaging in premarital sex increased dramatically.
What Do You Think?
Why do you think children of adolescent mothers have a greater chance of becoming teenage mothers themselves? What could prevent this from happening?

Activity 5-1: Why Do Adolescents Become Pregnant?


For many adolescents, pleas or pressure from a sexual partner overshadow concerns about the possibility of pregnancy. How many times have lines such as these been thought of or spoken during sexual arousal?

“It can't happen to me.”

“You won't get pregnant the first time.”

“C'mon, just one time won't make any difference.”

“Don't worry. I can't get pregnant at this time of the month.”

“If you really loved me, you wouldn't stop me now!”

“But we're engaged.”

And how many times have such statements led to a decision that changed someone's life forever?

Over a million teenagers become pregnant each year. Most of these pregnancies are unwanted. Have you ever wondered why so many adolescents are willing to risk pregnancy and all the responsibilities pregnancy brings with it? This activity examines some of the reasons given.


  • Activity Report


Step 1 You will be given an Activity Report requiring your written response to several questions. This should take about 10 minutes.

Step 2 Your teacher will then divide the class into groups.

Step 3 Take your Activity Report with you. In your groups, compare your responses with those of the other members of your group.

Step 4 After the discussion, write your own personal position statement on adolescent pregnancy.

What Do You Think?
Why is there such a sharp difference between teenage pregnancy rates in this country and those in other industrialized countries?

The Psychology of Adolescent Pregnancy

Earlier we explored some basic reasons that adult couples have children. Some of those same reasons may apply to adolescents. But adolescents often have their own special reasons for wanting to have children.

One reason adolescents give for having a child is to show that they are “grown up.” Also, some adolescent boys may assume that fathering a child is a way to gain respect. Other adolescents feel that becoming a parent is a way to bolster their self-esteem. Some adolescents say they are looking for love and affection they don't get from their families. Some adolescents admit that they see getting pregnant as a way to rebel-a way of “getting even” with or punishing parents. By getting pregnant, a girl may avoid going to school. It may be a remedy against boredom or a way of getting welfare payments from the state. None of these reasons are positive reasons for getting pregnant.

What Do You Think?
What would you say to an adolescent who is thinking about getting pregnant because she wants to become an “adult” quickly?

Role-play Becoming a Parent Work with a partner to explore issues in teenage pregnancy. One of you is a teenager looking to parenthood as a way to get respect and to be treated like a grown-up. The other is a school counselor trying to convince the teenager that parenthood is not the answer. After 10 minutes, trade roles and trade partners. Share your findings with the class.

There are, of course, much better ways of improving and maintaining self-esteem, attaining adulthood status, or gaining respect, such as finishing school, getting a job, or pursuing a career. Adolescents who use pregnancy in the ways listed above may not be fully aware of what they are doing. The price they pay is very high for themselves and for the child they bring into the world.

Many sexually active teenagers get pregnant because they do not know about contraception or cannot get contraception. But others do not even try to obtain contraceptive methods because they think pregnancy cannot happen to them. Still others are ignorant of the simple facts of how or when pregnancy occurs. Additionally, those who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to take greater risks with their own sexual behavior.

Effects of Adolescent Pregnancy

The impact of adolescent pregnancy is mainly on the mother and child. However, the father, parents, and society as a whole are also affected and must help bear the impact.

Did You Know?
An average cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 is $153,660. That does not include the cost of college.

Being a teenage parent creates difficult choices and challenges. Basically, these choices and challenges fall into three categories-biological, psychological, and social. How well anyone handles these challenges depends largely on his or her social circumstances and maturity. The poorer and more socially disadvantaged the person, the rougher it is. The younger (or less mature) the teen, the more difficult the challenge will be.

With good prenatal care, pregnancy presents few problems to girls who are 18 years old and older. By that age, a girl is biologically fit to be a mother. A girl younger than 14 or one who has not fully developed faces the physical burden of sustaining not only her own growing body, but also the growing body of a fetus. Typically the mother, the fetus, or both will suffer.

Raising Kids-How Much Does It Cost? Convert the numbers in Figure 5.2 to a circle graph, using percentages. What would the average cost per year be?

Expense Amounts in U.S. Dollars
Housing $50,970
Food $26,850
Transportation $22,980
Clothing $10,680
Health Care $10,470
Education $14,340
Other $17,370

Figure 5.2 The cost of raising a middle-class child to 18 years old.

Did You Know?
Lack of prenatal care contributes to special health hazards, such as having four to five times as many complications during pregnancy as women who receive prenatal care.

Socially, becoming a parent is not a one-time event (unless the child is put up for adoption). Raising a child requires time, love, and money. How do you get a good job without education? In this highly technological society, education is critical. How do you get an education if you have a baby to care for at home? How do you get a baby-sitter without any money? For many young mothers, pregnancy creates a cycle of dependency, a cycle of relying on others such as family or government funds for support. Once a cycle of dependency is established, it is difficult to get out of it. Also, being a parent puts a lot of restrictions on how a person spends his or her time. Parenting can be a very lonely experience, so many teenage parents feel socially isolated. They are not treated with respect by most adults, and they no longer feel a part of their peer group (people who are the same age or in the same grade). They are teenagers who must learn to cope in an adult world.

Babies of Teenage Mothers

Prenatal care is important at any age, but it is especially important for young mothers. Many adolescent mothers are not physiologically mature. That is, they are not fully developed physically. Also, many adolescent mothers have poor health habits, such as unhealthy diets, smoking, or drug and alcohol use. The lack of prenatal care makes it more likely that babies born to teenage mothers will have more problems than those born to women in their 20s and 30s. Prenatal care detects health problems before they become serious. It teaches the mother, no matter what age, that what she eats and what she does directly impacts the baby. Prenatal care encourages the mother to develop healthy habits and eliminate unhealthy ones. It helps her understand her feelings and learn what to expect. Without prenatal care, problems increase.

Premature and Low Birth Weight

Infants born early or weighing less than 5 pounds 8 ounces (2,500 grams) at birth are at greater risk of dying during the first year. They are also more likely to suffer long-term disabilities such as learning disabilities, brain disorders, and behavioral disturbances. These problems put an even greater burden on the young mothers taking care of these children.

Did You Know?
One-third of pregnant teenagers receive inadequate prenatal care.

About 10% of infants born in the United States are premature. With proper care, most of them develop normally. Many factors can cause prematurity. Teenage mothers (as well as those who are 40 or older) are more likely to have premature infants. Because adolescents who use drugs or alcohol are more likely to be sexually active, teenage mothers are often drug or alcohol users. Smoking, drinking alcohol, and using drugs are unhealthy activities anytime. During pregnancy, smoking, drinking alcohol, and using drugs are harmful to both the mother and the fetus. These activities increase the chances of premature birth and health problems in the baby.

Birth Defects

Some infants are born with a malformed body part or body function. These malformations or birth defects develop while the fetus is in the uterus rather than after birth. However, some birth defects may not be apparent right away. Some may surface later on as the baby grows.

Birth defects may be cause d by genetic factors from the mother or from the father, or they may result from harmful influences during pregnancy. These influences can include illness or diseases suffered by the mother or exposure of the fetus to harmful substances such as tobacco, drugs, or alcohol.

Teen Parents Looking for a Job Explore the problems of getting a job as a pregnant teen or young mother with a baby. Working in pairs, one of you should role-play them other interviewing for a job and the other should role-play the interviewer. What concerns might the interviewer have? After 10 minutes, trade roles and trade partners. Share your answers with the group.

Many birth defects are minor or easily treated. Some 2% of defects seriously impact normal growth or functions. Any mother can give birth to an infant with birth defects, but the likelihood is greater for teenage mothers. The higher risk of defects often results from life circumstances, such as poor nutrition or an unhealthy environment, or the lack of prenatal care. The combination of these factors and a young age can add up to the fact that a teenage mother is more likely to have a baby who will be sick or die within the first year.

Premature babies with inadequate care are more likely to grow up in poverty, do poorly in school, and be abused or neglected. This is not to say all teenage mothers are incapable of caring for their infants. There are certainly some who prove to be excellent mothers, especially with help from their families or public institutions. But even then, the personal cost to the teenage parent, especially the mother, is enormous.

Difficult Feelings

Health problems, while important, are by no means the only or most important issues related to teenage pregnancy. From a practical standpoint, being pregnant, or being the sexual partner of someone who is pregnant, has a tremendous impact on one's life. It influences feelings, behavior, success at school, future plans, and relationships with parents and friends. Pregnancy affects every option in life. Psychologically a teenager can be overwhelmed by the responsibilities of parenthood depending on the individual's level of maturity, family support, and financial support. In this society, which emphasizes individualism and independence, children are not in a good position to bring up their own children.

Activity 5-2: Problems of Being a Mother and Father


Imagine this scenario: It's Saturday night, and a teenage couple is watching a video in his parents' house. They sit together on the couch, holding hands. She turns to him and says, “Um, honey, I'm pregnant.” What happens next? The reaction could range from “My dreams have come true!” to “A-I-E-E-E-E-E!” But now the fact remains that she's pregnant, and the problems of pregnancy begin. Do you have any idea what these problems could be?


  • Activity Report


Step 1 You will be given an Activity Report requesting your written response to the question: “What specific problems could a mother face? A father face?”

Step 2 Your teacher will then divide the class into groups.

Step 3 You will compare your responses with those in your group.

Step 4 The group will then tally the responses and report back to the class.

Step 5 Write a position statement expressing your views about becoming a teenage mother or father.

Many confusing and conflicting emotions surface when a teenage woman and her sexual partner suspect or realize that she may be pregnant. The initial reaction is often one of disbelief (“This can't be happening to me.”). Denial of the unpleasant reality sometimes leads a pregnant teenager to delay getting help for weeks or even months, until the signs of her pregnancy become obvious.

Other likely feelings include fear (“What is going to happen to me?”), shame (“What will everyone say?”), guilt (“I will be punished.”), and often regret (“I shouldn't have done it.”). Anger at the partner (“How could you do this to me?”) is especially severe if seduction, pressure, coercion, or any kind of force led to the pregnancy. However, not all reactions to pregnancy are negative. As discussed in the previous section, some adolescents get pregnant because they want to. Or a pregnancy may be unintended, but the parents may be pleased or able to make the best of the situation at least. In those cases, it is more likely there will be feelings of excitement, pride, and anticipation. Many feelings depend on the life circumstances of the people involved, including how much support and counseling they receive.

Hard Choices

The pregnant teenager and her partner face some tough choices. Once again, the situation is not the same for everyone. Age, family background, religious beliefs, future goals, and financial factors will significantly influence the choices that are available. The pregnant teenager must decide first if she will have the baby. About half of teenage mothers decide to carry on with the pregnancy. Of those, most decide to keep and raise the baby and a small fraction decide to offer the baby for adoption. The other choice a pregnant teenager has is abortion, or the termination of the pregnancy. The decisions a pregnant teenager must make involve many emotional, physical, psychological, and moral considerations. And if she decides to carry on with the pregnancy and raise the baby herself, there are many practical consequences that will affect her day-to-day life and her future plans.

Most adolescents are far from being socially or financially independent. This fact results in many problems trying to raise a child. Often, a pregnant teenager drops out of school, or girls with poor academic skills and performance are more likely to get pregnant after dropping out of school. Seven out of ten teenagers who become pregnant finish high school, but they are less likely to go on to college than women who delay childbirth.

A teen mother does not have as many choices as other teens when it comes to time or activities. A teen mother often feels isolated and lonely. Achieving her aspirations or dreams of a career may seem impossible. This is especially true if the teen mother comes from a disadvantaged background. An adolescent mother will more likely depend on welfare support to care for herself and her child. About 55% of women on welfare became mothers during adolescence.

What Do You Think?
If you were the principal of a high school, would you allow or encourage a pregnant teenager to continue attending classes as long as possible? What are your arguments for and against her doing so?

A young father also faces difficult life choices. He, too, is likely to drop out of school, especially if he wants to help support his child. Without a good education, many young fathers will remain in low-paying jobs. Adolescent fathers also commonly feel left out and powerless because their female partners make the key choices and confront the consequences. Many of these young fathers are prevented from seeing their children if they separate from the child's mother. Their self-esteem suffers from the inability to support their children and the negative view that society typically has of teen parents.

Traditionally, getting married has been the “solution” to the problem of premarital pregnancy. If the couple is compatible and mature enough, this may be a successful relationship. However, teenage marriages tend to break up at a much higher rate than later marriages. It takes more than having a child to make a marriage work.

In some cultures and in some families, teenage pregnancy is not as serious a problem as in others. In some cultural or family situations, the older women may take on the burden of care, adding the new baby to the extended family. However, although these families survive, they are usually financially dependent on others such as the government. In these situations, it becomes hard for an individual to break free from that cycle of poverty.

Look at the Did You Know? on page 31. Calculate the monthly cost of raising two children. If you are a parent on welfare receiving the 1990 average monthly payment, is your welfare check enough to cover the cost of caring for your children?

What Do You Think?
Do you think welfare encourages a cycle of dependency? Should people in need receive help from the government? If so, for how long should they receive it? Would you put restrictions or conditions on those payments (such as finding a job within six months)?

Looking at Welfare Payments Using the numbers from Figure 5.3, calculate the following:

  1. Total payments made to families in 1950
  2. Total payments made to families in 1990
  3. Percentage change in average monthly payments from 1950 to 1970 to 1990
  4. Percentage increase in the number of recipients from 1950 to 1990
  5. Percentage change in total payments from 1950 to 1990
Year Average Monthly Payment from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the federal government's welfare program) to a Family in Need Number of Families (in thousands) Receiving This Aid
1950 $385 2,233
1970 $640 [Not Available]
1990 $379 11,464

Source: 1991 Youth Indicators, U.S. Department of Education

Figure 5.3 Aid to families with dependent children.

You are a social worker. It seems that every day you are assigned a new case concerning a pregnant teen who wants to drop out of school. Or you get a case in which four- and five-year-olds are left at home alone, while their young mother goes to work or school. How would you try to help these young mothers address their current problems and try to prevent future ones?

Review Questions

  1. Why do adolescents get pregnant? List five reasons.
  2. What are two predictors of teenage pregnancy?
  3. Can you get pregnant even if you use contraceptives during sexual intercourse? What is the only way to avoid getting pregnant or making someone else pregnant?
  4. What physical factors might impact a young teenager's pregnancy more than a more mature woman's pregnancy?
  5. Name three factors that make teenage parenthood in American society so difficult.
  6. What does a cycle of dependency refer to?

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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Jan 30, 2016
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