The number of adolescents who become pregnant in the United States each year has generated widespread public concern and has positioned adolescent pregnancy as a major social problem. Empirical data suggest that family stress, strain, and conflict may be predictors of high risk for early pregnancy (Hanson, Myers, & Ginsburg, 1987; Knowles & Tripple, 1986; Robbins, Kaplan, & Martin, 1985). The breakdown of the family system may encourage adolescents to seek other "love objects" in order to compensate for their lack of attention and nurturance (Fox, 1980). This love object may be the conceived child or the sexual partner, both of whom may provide a sense of security that is absent in maladapted families (Landy et al., 1983). Adolescents from families that lack resources and the ability to effectively manage these resources may face greater risk for early pregnancy (Fox, 1980). Family-related transitions and stressors may also contribute to exposure to negative consequences for the adolescents' mental health and development (Blom, Cheney, & Snoddy, 1986; Humphrey, 1988). Consequently, numerous adverse effects have been related to adolescent pregnancy and parenthood, including excessive stress, inadequate social support networks, interrupted education, welfare dependency, and repeat pregnancies (Elster, McAnarney, & Lamb, 1983; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989; Mosher & Horn, 1988).
More specifically, the role of family stress has been linked with pubertal timing and early female maturation (Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991; Wierson, Long, & Forehand, 1993). Pregnant adolescents are faced with dual developmental crises - the situational crisis of pregnancy and parenthood superimposed on the maturational crisis of adolescence (Elster et al., 1983). Adolescence is a time when lifelong competencies and coping strategies develop. Thus, adolescence is a peak point for experiencing rapid changes and disorienting events. As a consequence, adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to stressful events (Newcomb, Huba, & Bentler, 1986).
Because an empirical relationship between family stress and risky sexual activity among teens has been demonstrated (Chilman, 1985; Fox, 1980), these variables merit further exploration. When assessing the needs of adolescents at risk for early pregnancy and those already pregnant, a missing link is apparent. Although much is known about the consequences of pregnancy for adolescents, little is known about the experience of pregnancy from the adolescent's perspective (Stenberg & Blinn, 1993). The purpose of this study was to investigate whether there is a relationship between the pregnant adolescent's family stress level and the perception of her pregnancy as a life event. Also examined was age of first menarche among pregnant adolescents and its relation to family stress levels.
While research concerning the relationship between family stress and adolescent pregnancy is limited, studies on family stress (Barnett, Papini, & Gbur, 1991; Belsky et al., 1991) and the individual's perception or appraisal of stressful events in life (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) have been conducted. According to Newcomb et al. (1986), the subjective awareness that disruptive events occur, even without directly experiencing the change, can influence how individuals structure their lives and organize their internal coping strategies and defenses. Thus, the perception of potential life changes is seen as important for adolescents to consider when evaluating their own vulnerabilities and creating a self-perception, or self-identity, that will guide the remainder of their lives (Newcomb et al., 1986). Phenomenological theory suggests that persons will assign significance to an event based on their experience and mastery of the environment. Therefore, if a person appraises an event as important, the event would be expected to be more distressing than if the event were appraised as unimportant (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). …