Cognitive, Psychosocial, and Reported Sexual Behavior Differences between Pregnant and Nonpregnant Adolescents

By Holden, George W.; Nelson, Patricia Beatty et al. | Adolescence, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview
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Cognitive, Psychosocial, and Reported Sexual Behavior Differences between Pregnant and Nonpregnant Adolescents

Holden, George W., Nelson, Patricia Beatty, Velasquez, John, Ritchie, Kathy L., Adolescence


The one million annual adolescent pregnancies in the United States pose a variety of potential problems for both the mother and child. The more serious include health risks, dropping-out of school and losing employment opportunities, experiencing the trauma of abortion, going on welfare, being at risk for child abuse, and increasing the likelihood of divorce (e.g., Brooks-Gunn & Furstenberg, 1989; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989).

For at least the past 15 years researchers from a variety of disciplines have studied why some adolescents become pregnant while others do not. Studies investigating the antecedents of adolescent pregnancy have been published in leading journals in the fields of public health, nursing, population policy, sociology, social work, and psychology. One result is that the literature is saturated with a wide range of variables related to teenage pregnancy. Though some investigators focus on antecedents of pregnancy and others on antecedents of contraceptive use, the variables identified are frequently the same.

Chilman (1979, 1986) and others (e.g., Morrison, 1985; Nelson, 1990) have reviewed the more than 25 variables that have been associated with premarital intercourse and contraceptive use in adolescents. Implicated variables range from biological, cultural, and parental to academic and cognitive. Given the large number of variables, it is necessary to group them into manageable clusters. For example, Chilman (1979) grouped the variables into "Social Situational" (e.g., social class and poverty), "Psychological" (e.g., low self-esteem, alienation), and "Biological" (e.g., early puberty). These groupings can be thought of as competing models of the cause of teenage pregnancy.

Within a particular cultural group (and thereby avoiding Chilman's Social Situational variables) one can posit at least three competing models of the antecedents of adolescent pregnancy. These models can be labeled the "cognitive," "psychosocial," and "sexual behavior." The first model views adolescent pregnancy as resulting from some cognitive deficit. This deficiency has been reported to be manifested in a variety of variables, including external locus of control, poor problem-solving skills, inability to plan for the future, lack of knowledge about contraception, and poor performance in school. In contrast, the psychosocial model adopts the position that the pregnancy is the result of a socially induced variable, such as low self-esteem or particular social learning experiences which result in the acceptance of adolescent pregnancy. A third competing model is the most parsimonious: pregnancy results when teenagers are more sexually active and less likely to use contraception, though they do not necessarily differ from nonpregnant teenagers on other dimensions.

The Cognitive Model

Most of the research conducted to date has focused on one or more cognitive variables (Yoos, 1987). The most commonly studied include locus of control (e.g., Herold, Goodwin, & Lero, 1979; Lieberman, 1981; MacDonald, 1970; Pass, 1986; Ralph, Lochman, & Thomas, 1984; Visher, 1986), problem-solving skills (e.g., Steinlauf, 1979), and future orientation in general and planfulness about contraception in particular (e.g., Blum & Resnick, 1982; DeAmericis, Klorman, Hess, & McAnarney, 1981; Jones & Philliber, 1983; Walters, Walters, & McKenry, 1987; Zelnik & Kantner, 1977). In addition, cognitive variables relating to knowledge have also been studied, such as knowledge about contraception (Eisen & Zellman, 1986; Morrison, 1985), or knowledge or expectations about child rearing and parenting (Parks & Smeriglio, 1983; Roosa, 1983; Walters, McKenry, & Walters, 1979). A final type of variable that relates to cognitive functioning is academic performance and school failure (e.g., Cairns, Cairns, & Neckerman, 1989; Hansen, Stroh, & Whitaker, 1978).

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Cognitive, Psychosocial, and Reported Sexual Behavior Differences between Pregnant and Nonpregnant Adolescents


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