Academic journal article Social Work Research

First Births among Unmarried Adolescent Girls: Risk and Protective Factors

Academic journal article Social Work Research

First Births among Unmarried Adolescent Girls: Risk and Protective Factors

Article excerpt

In this longitudinal investigation, the authors drew on cumulative risk theories to provide new evidence about the effects of sociodemographic risk factors for adolescent nonmarital childbearing among 958 girls in a nationally representative sample. The effect of a cumulative risk index was highly significant--adolescent girls who experienced five or more sociodemographic risk factors were 16 times more likely than their counterparts with only one risk factor to experience a nonmarital childbirth during the teenage years. The authors also examined the role of hypothesized protective factors--including high self-esteem, high basic skills, and high educational expectations--in interaction with the cumulative risk index. Findings suggest that under similar levels of sociodemographic risk, adolescent girls with high educational expectations are less likely to experience a nonmarital birth. However, the buffering effects of high educational expectations account for comparatively less than cumulative risk effects on nonmarital childbearing during adolescence.

Key words: adolescents; childbearing; protective factors; risks; unwed mothers

Researchers and policymakers have long been concerned with the unacceptably high rate of adolescent nonmarital childbearing. These concerns center on the increasing proportions of welfare use among mothers who bear children as unmarried teenagers, the potential limited life chances of teenagers who become parents, and the heightened developmental risks faced by the children of adolescent mothers (Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989; Leadbeater & Bishop, 1994).

Effective policies and programs designed to reduce adolescent childbearing require an understanding of its complex and interrelated array of antecedent factors. A vast literature describes sociodemographic risk factors (for example, family structure, poverty status) for adolescent childbearing (Hayes, 1987; Wu, 1996; Wu & Martinson, 1993), and more recently, studies have examined the role of more proximal individual characteristics and attitudes (Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Plotnick, 1992). Still lacking, however, is a complete understanding of how individual characteristics moderate sociodemographic risk. Faced with sociodemographic stresses, some children and youths avoid problematic outcomes, in part because of individual characteristics. These children are labeled "resilient" because they defy the odds and develop successfully (Luker, 1996; Luthar, 1991). Key individual factors, including high levels of self-esteem, basic skills, and educational expectations, have been identified as serving protective functions in numerous studies of children and youths across a range of problematic outcomes (Garmezy, 1991; Luthar; Rutter, 1987; Sameroff, Bartko, Baldwin, Baldwin, & Siefer, 1998; Sameroff, Siefer, Zax, & Barocas, 1987). Such factors also may influence the association between sociodemographic risk factors and adolescent nonmarital childbearing. The primary aim of the investigation reported in this article was to explore whether and how these variables are related to nonmarital childbearing during adolescence. Specifically, we tested whether the association of cumulative sociodemographic risk and adolescent nonmarital childbearing depends on the presence or absence of hypothesized protective factors.

Incidence and Correlates of Adolescent Nonmarital Childbearing

In recent years the teenage nonmarital birth rate has declined steadily (Levin-Epstein, 1996). The proportion of all nonmarital births that occurs to teenagers is currently less than one in three, a decline since 1970, when half of all nonmarital births occurred to adolescents (Ventura, Bachrach, Hill, Kaye, Holcomb, & Koff, 1995). At the same time 76 percent of births to adolescents occur outside of marriage. It is important to remember that the path to nonmarital childbearing includes decisions and behavior related to sexual activity, contraception, marriage, abortion, and adoption (Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Miller & Moore, 1990). …

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