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The Hardships of Teen Pregnancy

By Cindy Reitzi

April 2005

It takes a village to raise a child. -- African proverb

Teaching hinges on hope. Without hope for our students’ future, teaching is minute by minute. And few things siphon my hopes like teen motherhood.

Most of us live in a single to nuclear family culture: no extended family or “village” and scarce affordable daycare. Considering this, the statistical portrait of teen mothers is depressing, beginning at birth.

Babies of teen mothers have 21% higher probability of low birth weight, increasing possibilities for infant death, blindness, deafness, chronic respiratory problems, mental retardation, mental illness, and cerebral palsy. It doubles chances for dyslexia, hyperactivity, and other disabilities.1

Teen mothers are often victims of abuse. As Kathleen Sylvester, vice president for domestic policy of the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote: “Some studies show… as many as two-thirds were victims of rape or sexual abuse at an early age – crimes often committed by males living in the same household. ... They are easy prey for older men: young…victims of early sexual abuse often develop emotional patterns that make them vulnerable to the attentions of older men.”2 A 1995 Guttmacher Institute study suggests that almost two-thirds of the fathers of the babies are 20 or older.

The younger the girl, the more likely sex was forced. Four in 10 girls whose first intercourse was at 13 to 14 report sex was unwanted.1

Teen mothers start parenthood with few viable economic skills. Forty-one percent of mothers under 18 finish high school, compared to 61% of 20- to 21-year-old first mothers. A scant 1.5% of teen mothers earn a college degree by age 30.1

Making matters worse, in the past 25 years, the median income for college graduates increased 13%, while the median income for high school dropouts decreased 30%.1

Frighteningly, babies of high school dropouts have an eight times higher risk of being killed than those of college graduates.3

Teen mothers are mostly single parents. Eighty percent of fathers do not marry mothers and pay less than $800 annually in child support, important income for poor children.

Children living apart from fathers are five times more likely to be poor than children from two-parent homes. Children of uninvolved fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, abuse alcohol or drugs or go to jail, and four times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems.1

So, if teen mothers have no functional family of origin, no “village” to rely on, all parenting responsibilities fall on young girls who received little nurturing themselves. It’s no surprise they turn to welfare. One-half of all teen mothers and more than three-quarters of unmarried teen mothers receive welfare within five years of their first child’s birth.1

While on paper, married, two-parent families sound like stabilizing alternatives, chances of marital success are slim. Only 30% of married teen mothers stay married. Teen marriages are twice as likely to fail as marriages in which the woman is at least 25 years old.1 Plus, studies of welfare mothers suggest some teen moms may be better off unmarried for safety reasons. According to Esta Soler, president of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, “Studies consistently show that at least 50% to 60% of women receiving welfare have experienced physical abuse by an intimate partner…compared to 22% of the general population… A significant number of women receiving welfare also report a history of physical and sexual abuse in childhood.” In a California study, some recipients report lifetime abuse rates of 80% to 83%.4

While the absence of a caring father has profound consequences for children, the presence of an abusive one may be a matter of life or death. All of these factors take a toll on children. Teen parents are twice as likely as older parents to abuse or neglect their children.5 In reported incidents of abuse and neglect, 100 per 1,000 were families headed by teen mothers. The rate is less than half in families with new mothers in their 20s: 51 incidents per 1,000 families.1 Foster care placement is also significantly higher for children of teen mothers.1

Children of teenagers, then, come to school with baggage and consequently perform poorly. They are 50% more likely to repeat a grade, do worse on standardized tests, and are less likely to complete high school than if their mothers had delayed childbearing. Sons of teen mothers are 13% more likely to end up in prison; daughters, 22% more likely to also become teen mothers.1

But dismal statistics do not account for intangibles: persistent mother love, “villages” of grandmothers, caring teachers and teen moms in school, trying to graduate. If we as educators can help keep the mothers strong, I have better hopes that their children may thrive.


  1. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

  2. “What to Do with Those Teenage Mothers,” Kathleen Sylvester.

  3. “A Horror Called 'Neonaticide'," Charles Downey.

  4. Testimony, Family Violence Prevention Fund, Esta Soler.

  5. University of Georgia.

Posted April 1, 2005

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