Teenage Motherhood: Its Relationship to Undetected Learning Problems

Article excerpt

The problem of teenage parenthood, acknowledged to be a significant social problem in the United States since the late 1960s, has been the subject of much study (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1985; Chilman, 1980; Furstenberg, Lincoln, & Menken, 1981; Lancaster & Hamburg, 1986; Hayes, 1987). Efforts to understand its causes have generally focused on the issue of individual choice regarding the decision to engage in sexual behavior (Chilman, 1978; Pete & DeSantis, 1990) and to use contraceptive devices (Finkel & Finkel, 1975; Goldsmith, Gabrielson, & Gabrielson, 1972). The association of teenage motherhood with dropping out of school prematurely (Gray & Ramsey, 1986; Roosa, 1986), not being employed (Trussell, 1976), and becoming dependent on government subsidies (Klerman, 1986; Moore, 1978) is well-documented. In general, consideration of how schools and educational policies contribute to the high rate of teenage motherhood has been limited to how dropping out affects the likelihood of a girl becoming pregnant, how pregnancy affects the probability of dropping out, and the relationship between educational aspirations and pregnancy rates (Moore, Simms, & Betsey, 1986).

Although developmental delay is not inevitable, children born to adolescent mothers have been shown to be at significant risk for a variety of developmental problems, including mental retardation (Whitman, Borkowski, Schellenbach, & Nath, 1987). It has been estimated that up to 10% of infants born to adolescent mothers will be diagnosed as mentally retarded prior to adolescence (Broman, 1981), an incidence level that is about three times greater than for the population as a whole (Whitman et al., 1987).

Recent governmental efforts to prevent adolescent pregnancy and parenthood have focused primarily on encouraging abstinence:

The purpose of prevention programs is to find effective means ... of reaching adolescents ... before they become sexually active in order to maximize the guidance and support available ... in promoting abstinence from premarital sexual relations ... OAPP is soliciting applications for grants to provide innovative approaches to family life educational services that clearly and unequivocally promote abstinence for unmarried adolescents. (Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs, 1992, p. 3507).

Two main hypotheses are addressed in this study: (1) that unidentified and untreated learning difficulties may be related to teenage girls becoming pregnant, deciding to raise their children, and dropping out of school, and (2) that teenage pregnancies may not characteristically be "unintended."

The data presented were collected in a large southern city during the one year the author was providing psychological services in a local health department's ongoing intervention program for adolescent mothers and their infants. Since the program had not been designed to investigate the issues discussed in this paper, the data are limited in several respects (e.g., the sample was not randomly selected and so is not representative of teenage mothers nationwide; standard scores on academic achievement tests were not available; and self-esteem data could not be obtained for girls prior to their delivery). Thus, the results should be regarded as preliminary and as providing hypotheses to guide further studies.

METHOD

Subjects

The subjects were 64 girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17, who voluntarily enrolled in a comprehensive program for teenage mothers and their infants that was provided by the local public health department in a large city in North Carolina. Of the 64 girls, four were white and 60 were African-American. They had been sexually active from a young age, the average age at first intercourse having been 13.3 years (range 10 to 16, median 14). Average age at the time of first birth was 15.5 years (range 12.5 to 17; median 15). One girl who gave birth at the age of 12 1/2 had been raped by her mother's boyfriend. …