Even for the most prepared parents, raising a healthy and happy child is one of life's major challenges.
Having the ability to check off commonly accepted parenting prerequisites – a quality education, a good job, mental and emotional stability, a safe home – can make the challenge easier to tackle and overcome.
Unfortunately, adolescents who become parents often have a shortage of key life skills and other resources that are vital to the parenting process.
This sad reality is supported by research showing that, on average, children who are born to teen parents are less likely to ever reach their full potential.
And the effects of teenage pregnancy on parent, baby, and community can be devastating.
According to The Urban Child Institute, adolescent parenting is one of the major risk factors associated with early childhood development. In addition to its other effects, teen parenting is likely to hinder a child's social and emotional wellbeing.
When a baby is born to a teenage mother, he is likely to have more difficulty acquiring cognitive and language skills as well as social and emotional skills like self-control and self-confidence. These abilities are already developing in infancy, and they are essential for school readiness.
Studies on early childhood development find that adolescent mothers (19 years of age and younger) are less likely than older mothers to engage in emotionally supportive and responsive parenting. They tend to have less knowledge about child development and effective parenting, and often misjudge their infant or toddler's ability to adapt and learn.
We don't need research to prove that, generally speaking, age brings maturity, self-assuredness, knowledge and experience. By the age of 21, one has typically graduated from high school and is pursuing post-secondary education or participating in the workforce (or both).
Throughout our childhood and teenage years we are acquiring life skills and problem-solving abilities that prepare us to confront and navigate challenges – both unforeseen and anticipated - in adulthood. As a result, those who are beyond their teen years are more likely to make informed choices, use effective coping strategies, and think through important decisions. It's not hard to see how these qualities lead to more effective parenting.
When a baby is born to an adolescent mother, there are several interrelated risk factors at play, meaning that the likelihood that one or more unfortunate outcomes will occur is stronger.
A dream deferred – Adolescent parents commonly view quitting school as a solution to finding the time it takes to raise a baby. Feelings of embarrassment and shame associated with early pregnancy, or difficulty keeping up academically can also drive them to drop out. The popular MTV reality series "16 and Pregnant" offers numerous examples of these unfortunate outcomes, and serves as a glaring reminder of the need to direct more attention and resources to sex education for teens as well as programs encouraging teen mothers to stay in school.
Harsh parenting – Research has found that teen parents are more likely to engage in harsh parenting practices like yelling and spanking. Having fewer life experiences and coping skills, compared to older parents, can make it harder to handle the irritability and frustration that sometimes arise when caring for a new baby.
Depressive symptoms or persistent stress from other sources can increase these feelings of anger and resentment.
Single parents – In a majority of cases, adolescent parents are not married and the discovery of pregnancy is unexpected. Too often, teen fathers abandon their parenting responsibilities due to fear and inability to adequately provide for their child, leaving the mother with even less social support and financial assistance.
Unfortunately, teen pregnancy doesn't only affect the individuals involved – its impact is far-reaching.
High rates of teen births can weaken a community's economic conditions.
According to The Urban Child Institute, the prevalence of births to adolescent mothers negatively affects high school graduation and increases unemployment. Without a high school diploma or equivalent, teens and adults have greater difficulty securing quality employment and have lower earning potential. A less educated population and unskilled workforce negatively affects the economy, and makes it difficult for communities to break aggressive cycles of poverty and crime as resources are consistently depleted.
In Shelby County, teen pregnancy is not a new or isolated issue – it is a full-blown epidemic. The latest figures indicate that although the teen birth rate is declining, it is still above the national rate and among the highest in the country.
In 2011, national news coverage of Shelby County's teen birth rate sparked a local movement to reduce teen pregnancy. Efforts like the countywide 'No Baby' campaign helped to increase education for pregnancy prevention methods among teens, and public awareness throughout the community.
On a more positive note, it is important to understand that not all babies born to adolescent parents are doomed to fail. Increased risk is not a guarantee of future problems.
Clearly, many children of teen parents go on to become successful adults, but it often involves parents making greater sacrifices than older parents have to make. For example, some adolescent parents may abandon their own aspirations in an effort to ensure that academic and career success is attainable for their child.
However, research shows that children born to adolescent mothers are more inclined to repeat their parents' behavior. The Urban Child Institute reports that they are more likely to drop out of school, have more health problems, face unemployment and become teen parents themselves.
So what can be done to stop this cycle from continuing?
Sex education programs that teach the benefits of abstinence and pregnancy prevention are essential. Parents and educators can share in this responsibility by ensuring that teens gain this knowledge at home and at school. Avoiding discussion on the issue of sex and safe practices only heightens potential for teen pregnancy to occur.
Promoting positive parenting among young mothers can also improve their children's chances for success. Increasing parents' knowledge about child development and effective parenting strategies will help them buffer their children from many of the risks that accompany early parenthood.
Starting at birth, children begin to develop social and emotional skills. It is important for parents, no matter their age, to ensure their children are adequately prepared to face challenges later in life by maintaining a loving home environment that nurtures their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them. A strong foundation of social and emotional skills will help them make better choices in adulthood, and decrease the probability that they will search for love in the wrong places.
(The New Tri-State Defender has partnered with The Urban Child Institute to make sure every child has the best chance for optimal brain development during the critical first three years of each child's life. This is one in a series of stories and columns in our campaign.)