The Emotional Development of a Child With a Teenage Mother

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the 2010 U.S. teen birth rate dropped to its lowest number of nearly 368,000 births, the U.S. has a significantly higher adolescent birth rate than other industrialized countries 1. The future for these teen mothers and their children is grim. Compared to adult women, teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of high school, rely on public assistance and live in poverty. Their children face a higher risk of having emotional and social difficulties.

Children Face More Emotional Difficulties

Children of teenage mothers are more likely to be overactive, impulsive and suffer from low self-esteem, anxiety and sadness, according to a report by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, “Playing Catch-Up: How Children Born to Teen Mothers Fare.” These children have lower interpersonal skills, more difficulty forming and maintaining friendships and are more likely to argue and fight than children of older mothers. Children of teenage mothers have a 31 percent incidence of depression and 25 percent risk of adolescent parenthood themselves, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics 2.

Mother's Lack of Maturity

Lack of maturity, life experience and social supports hinder a teenage mother’s ability to appropriately shape her child’s behavior and activities. Compared with an older mother, a teen mother might touch, vocalize and smile less at her infant and be less accepting of her behavior. According to a report titled “Academic and Behavioral Outcomes Among the Children of Young Mothers” and published by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, “It is possible that immature parenting styles or over-stressed parents have a larger impact on problem behaviors than they do on children’s academic skill.” 3

Teen Brain Still Developing

Another factor compounding the difficulty of parenting at such a young age is that the teenage brain is undergoing tremendous neurological and emotional changes. The frontal cortex associated with executive brain functions, which covers planning, decision-making and balancing emotional demands, does not fully mature until about age 24. “Any interventions put into place need to take into account the adolescent’s developing brain function to enhance these executive brain functions,” according to a report published on the American Academy of Pediatrics website.

A Comprehensive Approach

A comprehensive approach to prenatal and postpartum care for a teenage mother and her child is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and ought to include parenting education, medical and psychological care and educational services to keep teen moms in school. More programs also emphasize the father’s engagement, which has been shown to reduce the mother’s distress and depression, and is associated with fewer behavioral problems in the child.

What Parents Can Do

Parents play an important role in preventing early sexual activity in their teenage children. Have conversations about when it’s OK to date and listen to your teen express her concerns about what might come up. Convey your family values about relationships and sexual behavior. Talk about abstinence, contraception, avoiding teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and healthy relationships. Ensure that your teen continues to have periodic physical examinations with their health-care provider to stay up to date on immunizations and get screenings and counseling to prevent risky behavior.