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Bunting et al-2004-Child & Family Social Work

Blackwell Science, LtdOxford, UKCFSChild and Family Social Work1365-2206Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004May 200492207215Research ReviewResearch Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood:
the contribution of support
Lisa Bunting and Colette McAuley
School of Social Work, Queen’s University, Belfast, UK
Dr Lisa Bunting,
c/o School of Social Work,
Queen’s University,
7 Lennoxvale,
Belfast BT9 5BY,
E-mail: [email protected]
Keywords: family support, partner
support, paternal support, peer
support, social support, teenage
Accepted for publication: January 2004
This paper aims to provide a critical analysis of the role of support
in teenage motherhood. Family, partner and peer support are considered and literature emanating from both the USA and UK is reviewed.
In summary the research literature indicates that family support is
particularly important to teenage mothers and has been found to
have a positive influence on parenting behaviours and practices.
However, the mother–daughter relationship is not always a straightforward one and conflict between the two can diminish some of the
positive impact. The research on partner support highlights how support from fathers and/or other male partners has been linked with
improved financial and psychological outcomes for teenage mothers
as well as having a positive influence on parenting behaviours. There
is also evidence to suggest that support from partners may become
increasingly important to teenage mothers over time and can be a
valuable source of socializing participation and positive feedback.
While the research available on peer support is much more limited
it suggests that the emotional support of peers is perceived as being
important by teenage mothers. Current research findings suggest that
families, partners and peers tend to provide different, but complementary, forms of support for teenage mothers which, on the whole,
appear to contribute to more positive outcomes for this group.
The issue of teenage pregnancy and parenting has
been the subject of much debate over the past two
decades, with politicians, researchers and the media
in general voicing deep-seated concerns about the
consequences of teen parenting for both mothers and
children. The high profile of this subject has resulted
in an intense interest in the factors which predispose
young women towards teenage motherhood and the
outcomes for them and their children. Much of this
has served to emphasize the negative aspects of teenage pregnancy, with a variety of interrelated factors
such as poverty, low educational attainment, unemployment, family background, emotional/psychological difficulties and a history of sexual abuse being
generally accepted as increasing a young woman’s
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
chances of becoming pregnant in her teenage years
(Hudson & Iniechen 1991; Breakwell 1993; Kiernan
1997; Coley & Chase-Lansdale 1998; Herronkohl
et al. 1998; Social Exclusion Unit 1999). Similarly,
research studies and reviews of both the American
and British literature catalogue a plethora of negative
consequences for teenage mothers and their children
which include: short-term and long-term medical
risks to mother and child; increased rates of maternal
depression; lower educational and employment status;
and less optimal parenting practices (Hudson &
Iniechen 1991; Irvine et al. 1997; Coley & ChaseLansdale 1998; Corcoran 1998; Clarke 1999; Social
Exclusion Unit 1999; Hobcraft & Kiernan 2001).
However, it has been argued that the tendency to
approach teenage pregnancy as a social problem has
led to an exaggeration of negative outcomes and
© 2004
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
resulted in the positive aspects of teenage motherhood
being ignored (Phoenix 1993; Coleman 1998).
Equally it has also been argued that the presence of
social support tends to ameliorate many of the negative outcomes often associated with teenage parenthood (Furstenburg & Crawford 1978; Barth et al.
1983). Given that social support has the potential to
improve outcomes for teenage mothers the aim of this
paper is to critically analyse the literature on social
support and the role this plays in teenage motherhood. More specifically it will examine the literature
on three types of social support, that of family, partner
and peers.
While the literature on social support is nowhere near
as extensive as that on predisposing factors and outcomes, the role of family support is by far the most
commonly researched type of support within the literature. Within this, the role of support from the
maternal grandmother, in particular, has been widely
investigated. Caldwell & Antonucci’s (1997) review
of American literature suggests that, as a majority of
teenage mothers live with their mother for up to five
years after giving birth, grandmothers are a primary
source of housing, financial and child-care assistance.
Co-residence with grandmothers has also been linked
with increased educational attainment and stable
employment for young mothers as well as better
parenting and child developmental outcomes for their
children. However, the review also suggests that racial
variations exist in the benefit of support for African
American and White teenage mothers. Living with
grandmothers has been associated with more behaviour problems for the children of White teenagers but
not for those of African American teenagers. African
American teenage mothers have also been found to
be less likely to live with the father of their baby and
more likely to remain at home with their family than
White teenage mothers.
This is supported by Henly’s (1997) investigation
into the impact of family structure and support on
both African American and White American teenage
mothers’ well-being. The researchers identified six
family structures which included a nuclear family
structure, three multi-adult family structures, teenagers living on their own and teenagers residing with
partners. The study found significant differences
between the family structures utilized by African
American teenage mothers and those utilized by
White teenage mothers. Forty-three per cent of Afri-
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
can Americans compared with 17% of Whites were
living in one of the three multi-adult structures with
either their mother, their mother and another adult
or another adult only. Within this, 21.5% of African
American teenage mothers compared with 6.2% of
Whites were residing with their mother while a further
9.2% of African American and 5.5% of Whites were
living with their mother and another adult. About
one-sixth of both groups resided in the nuclear family
structure with both their mother and father while
37.4% of the African American sample and 28.8% of
the White sample reported living alone. The study also
found that White respondents were much more likely
to be living with a male partner or husband than
African American teenage mothers.
However, while the researchers found evidence of
great variety in family structure across the two ethnic
groups, the sample proved to be more similar with
respect to the provision of different types of support.
Three-quarters of the sample, both African American
and White teenagers, reported that they could expect
to receive some form of emotional support, while over
90% reported using informal child-care arrangements. There were no significant differences between
the two ethnic groups, with an overall 56.5% reporting weekly access to child care. With regard to financial support, a total of 26.1% reported some form of
non-welfare financial assistance. There were significant differences across racial groups, with 34.2% of
Whites receiving financial support compared with
only 15% of African Americans.
When the data were analysed for the impact of
family structure on support the researchers found that
family structure tended to be more important for
White teenage mothers than for African American
ones. In particular, White respondents who were married or cohabiting did not fare as well as those who
were not living with their partners, tending to economically worse off than those residing with their
parents and having poorer long-term work aspirations. This would suggest that while marriage and
cohabiting represent a move towards independent
family formation for teenage mothers it may also limit
the amount and quality of support available. Living
in multi-adult family structures appeared to have no
negative impact on support, with all three being
equally supportive to maternal well-being for both
groups. With regard to the impact of support on wellbeing measures, the study found that African Americans who reported less emotional support were significantly more likely to report poorer grades and greater
financial insecurity. For White respondents there was
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
little association between emotional support and other
dependent variables, although child-care utilization
was found to be related to better education outcomes
for this group but not African Americans.
Overall the provision of support had a stronger
relationship to maternal well-being than any other
independent variable, confirming the importance of
such support for all teenage mothers. Racial differences in support suggest that African American teenage mothers have much less access to informal
financial support, leading to greater financial insecurity. This may partially explain the higher incidence of
residence with family member or other adults, aside
from partners, as an economic coping strategy for this
group. The relationship between emotional support
and educational outcomes for African American teenage mothers may also be attributed to differing aspirations for this group, suggesting that they may
require additional support and encouragement with
regard to educational needs. By contrast, the tendency for White teenage mothers to have higher longterm work aspirations may result in a greater need for
practical support in the form of child care rather than
emotional support.
While the research is limited by a lack of analysis
into the processes of support and its dynamics within
certain family structures, the study highlights how
residence with parents, mothers and/or other adults
can benefit teenage mothers of both races. Although
it has been suggested that marriage is the single most
effective means of improving the economic situation
of teenage mothers (Corcoran 1998), Henly’s (1997)
study has found that the opposite may be true. The
study also highlights how ethnic differences can
impact on the types of support teenage mothers need
and how financial assistance may be a particular area
of need for African American mothers.
While Henly’s (1997) study focuses on the impact
of family structure on emotional, financial and childcare support, Dellman-Jenkins et al. (1993) provide a
more in-depth exploration into who young, American
mothers are likely to turn to for these types of support.
Sixty-one per cent of the 60 mothers reported that
they were most likely to turn to their own mothers for
assistance with child care, 49% for financial support
and 21% for emotional support. The 18 mothers of
parenting teenagers who took part in the study also
perceived themselves as playing a significant support
role in their child’s life. A majority (77%) felt that
their children were most likely to turn to them first
not only for all three types of support but also for any
type of support.
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
However, when asked to identify areas of need that
would enhance their parenting, 35% of the teenage
mothers stated that they needed more emotional support from family and friends, 30% that they required
more financial assistance and 20% that they required
reliable babysitting. A further 45% went on to identify
assistance with obtaining employment and better
decision-making skills as areas of need. Similarly 30%
felt that they would benefit from budgeting knowledge
and 15% that they required further child development
While it is clear that families can provide a strong
source of support for teenage mothers, other studies
which explore support from an interpersonal perspective produce more ambiguous findings. Nitz et al.
(1995) assessed the role of stress, interpersonal conflict, social support and family relationships with 75
African American teenage mothers. The study utilized
the buffering theory of social support as a framework
within which to explore the issue. This theory purports that where social support is higher, the teenage
mother will experience less stress associated with
parenting which, in turn, will have a positive impact
on her parenting behaviour. Participants were asked
to name individuals who met the six differing support
functions of material aid, advice, positive feedback,
physical assistance, social participation and discussion
of private feelings. They were also asked to rate their
satisfaction with that support as well as naming people
who were sources of interpersonal conflict. Analysis
revealed that while the teenager’s own mother was the
most frequently identified provider and source of support, siblings were also reported as providing significant levels of support. However, while 89% of the
sample named their mother as a source of support,
36% also said that their mother was a source of conflict for them. While the study did not investigate the
nature of this conflict it is suggested that the teenager’s struggles for autonomy and independence, as
well as disagreement over child-rearing practices and
decisions, may be responsible. It is also suggested that
conflict between mothers and daughters may be a
proximity issue, with co-residence tending to lead to
more conflict between the two.
Although the study did not find an association
between parenting stress and parenting behaviours,
there was a significant relationship between interpersonal conflict and parenting behaviours. Teenagers
with larger, conflicted networks tended to exhibit less
optimal parenting behaviours while those with large,
unconflicted support networks tended to exhibit
more positive parenting behaviours. While the study
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
benefits from a high response rate of 85%, the use of
a relatively small sample selected from those young
women enrolled in parenting classes only, is a limitation. In addition, the cross-sectional nature of the
study does not enable assessment of changes to the
support network over time and how this may impact
on parenting stress and behaviours. Despite these limitations the findings suggest that while social support
from family members is a valuable asset to teenage
mothers, the exchange is not a straightforward one,
with interpersonal conflict negating some of the positive impact.
The complexity of the supportive relationship
between mother and daughter is further supported by
the research of Voight et al. (1996), who investigated
the effectiveness of social support networks in supporting 25 first-time African American teenage mothers. The study was longitudinal in nature and
assessment took place when the children were
6 weeks, 6 months, 12 months and 18 months old.
Analysis of the data revealed that female relatives were
prominent members of the social support networks
of urban African American teenage mothers. Again
mothers were the most frequently mentioned source
of positive support while male relatives other than
brothers were noticeably absent. However, as with
Nitz et al. (1995), support and conflict were not
mutually exclusive, with the mother–daughter relationship being cited as the most frequent source of
conflict as well as the most frequent source of support.
Analysis also revealed that the more types of support
provided by mothers the more optimal the teenage
mother’s behaviour with her child was. However, the
study also found that the more types of support provided by the mothers the more negative the experience of parenting for the teenage mothers. Thus it
would appear that while support from their mothers
helps teenagers to be better mothers themselves, the
process is not an enjoyable one for the young women.
Siblings were also found to be a source of both
support and stress, while having more siblings and
receiving more types of support from them was negatively related to parenting behaviour. Despite this
finding, overall, larger support networks were found
to be more beneficial to teenage mothers’ parenting
experiences and behaviour. However, again, it would
appear that the greater number of individuals in the
support network who are a source of both support and
stress is negatively related to parenting behaviour.
While the findings of the study are limited by the
small and selective nature of the sample, the results
clearly support many of Nitz et al.’s (1995) findings.
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
The finding that more types of maternal support is
positively associated with parenting behaviour and
negatively associated with parenting experience is particularly interesting. It suggests that advice and assistance, which may be well intended, may be perceived
as intrusive by the teenage who is a mother, and by
association an adult, in her own right.
Similarly Caldwell & Antonucci’s (1997) review of
the literature further supports the concept that coresidence and intergenerational support may create
specific difficulties for the teenage mother. Research
has found that better parenting is provided by grandmothers to very young teenage mothers than to older
teenage mothers residing with them. Similarly a
greater level of child-care provision from grandmothers has been negatively correlated with teenage
mother’s self-esteem, while higher levels of family
support have been found to reduce anxiety in young
mothers when their child is 1 month old, but not
when the infant is 8 months old. Thus it would seem
that while family support has an important role in
meeting a variety of needs for teenage mothers, the
benefits of such support may diminish over time.
By late adolescence, the need for support and the need for
independence may conflict, resulting in diminished benefits
of support in conflictual mother–teenage mother relationships. (Caldwell & Antonucci’s 1997, p. 231)
While there has been extensive investigation into
the role of the family and support networks for young
mothers in America there has been considerably less
investigation of this issue in the UK. Health Education Authority analysis of data on living arrangements,
taken from surveys on smoking and pregnancy (Social
Exclusion Unit 1999), indicate that, as in America,
many families provide housing support for teenage
mothers. The surveys revealed that seven out of ten
15–16-year-old mothers and 50% of 17–18-year-old
mothers remain living at home with their families.
However, aside from statistical evidence, there has
been little investigation into the interpersonal dynamics of family support. The ‘Three Generations Study’
(Dennison & Coleman 1998) is one study which has
made some attempt to explore this issue in order to
better understand what characteristics of family relationships are associated with positive outcomes. Using
an in-depth, qualitative approach the researchers
interviewed 53 young mothers and their mothers living England.
As the timing of interview varied from a few months
post birth to a few years post birth, a variety of family
structures were evident among the sample. Some of
© 2004
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
the young mothers remained living at home, some had
done so initially but had since established an independent household, others had lived apart from their
families since the birth. The researchers found that
although the relationship between the teenage mothers and the grandmothers varied greatly, they fell
broadly into two groups defined by the age of the
young mother. The mothers of older teenage mothers
appeared to offer practical support with housework,
money and babysitting but left nearly all aspects of
child care to their daughters. The grandmothers saw
themselves as a safety net, there to provide support
when it was needed but leaving a majority of the
responsibility up to the young woman. While the older
teenage mothers saw themselves as adults and were
keen to be independent, they also knew they could
rely on the support of their mothers if they needed it.
Many of the older teenage mothers were either living
apart from their families or were planning to move out
in the near future. However, the relationship between
younger teenagers and their mothers was a more complex one in which independence from the grandmothers was less commonly asserted and there was greater
reliance on her advice, practical help and support.
Several of the younger teenage mothers saw themselves as being somewhere between a teenager and an
adult, a view often echoed by their mothers who recognized that their daughter needed to enjoy normal
teenage activities as well as taking responsibility for
her child. Getting the balance between the two was
an issue for many grandmothers, and while they saw
their advice and support as necessary for the welfare
of the child a large number were anxious not to take
over. Although some young mothers did perceive their
mother’s help as interference they generally saw the
necessity for her help and few expressed anything but
moderate levels of conflict. Many of the grandmothers
looked after the child while their daughter attended
school or college, and several had had to give up their
jobs to facilitate this. This sometimes led to a feeling
of being trapped and not in control of their own lives,
and several indicated that they themselves lacked
social support.
While the findings of this study are limited by the
use of a small qualitative sample, the in-depth nature
of the study reveals that many of the issues pertinent
in America apply to young mothers in Britain also.
The study highlights the importance of grandmother
support in a variety of areas while confirming that the
need for high levels of support may decrease over time
as the young mother becomes more independent. It
also highlights how pregnancy has a major impact not
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
only on the teenagers but also on their mothers, who
may have to make their own sacrifices to help their
daughters and may feel unsupported themselves.
While research into the role of family support and
teenage motherhood is relatively common, investigation into the role of partner support is often conspicuous by its absence. Research into this type of support
is further hampered by the less than precise nature of
the term ‘partner’, which is often taken to include
current boyfriends as well as biological fathers, who
may, or may not, reside with the teenage mother and
child. However, despite a lack of comprehensive work
in this area there are a number of studies which provide useful insights into the supportive role of fathers.
Roye & Balk’s (1996) review of the American literature on partner support indicates that this type of
support, whether from the baby’s father or from a
significant other, is related to higher self-esteem
scores when the teenager feels that her support needs
are being satisfied. The review also explores the relationship between partner support and a variety of
outcomes for teenage mothers including economic
and educational outcomes and psychological wellbeing. The results indicate that while marriage or
cohabitation with a biological or surrogate father can
economically benefit the young mother and her child,
low marriage rates and high levels of relationship
breakdown negate much of the positive impact. It is
suggested that economic difficulties prevent young
men from entering into marital or cohabiting relationships, and thus the better economic circumstances of
such couples may be due to their being financially
better off in the first place, rather than to the living
Equally, while partner support is thought to
improve the economic situation of teenage mothers,
it has also been associated with non-completion of
schooling for this group. Roye & Balk’s (1995) review
of American research has found that African American and Caucasian teenage mothers who are married
or living with a boyfriend are more likely to drop out
of school (Unger & Cooley 1992; Warrick et al. 1993).
Similarly, a study of Hispanic and African American
teenagers (Roye 1994) found that boyfriend support
was significantly correlated with school drop-out
rates. While the reasons for this association remain
unclear it has been suggested that male partners may
encourage young women to truant because they worry
about their meeting other men in school (Warrick
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
et al. 1993). With regard to psychological well-being,
some studies have shown that partner support
increases the self-esteem of teenage mothers and
reduces depressive symptomology. However, others
have reported a more mixed effect on maternal psychological health, suggesting that some partners may
be a source of stress and conflict for the young women
which may, in extreme cases, result in abusive and
self-destructive relationships.
As well as exploring the impact of partner support
some research has focused on changes in support
over time. Gee & Rhode’s (1999) longitudinal study
explored changes in partner and maternal support
over a one-year period. At the first stage of the study
375 teenagers, 70% of whom were pregnant and 30%
of whom had recently given birth to their first child,
were interviewed. Approximately one year later, data
were gathered from 75% of the initial sample, with
67% agreeing to participate.
The study found that teenage mothers experience
significant postpartum changes in their social support
networks, with teenagers nominating fewer individuals as supportive at Time 2 than Time 1. Although
mothers and partners remained most frequently nominated sources of support at both interviews, this fell
from 84% to 75% for mothers and from 69% to 44%
for fathers by the time of the second interview. Teenage mothers also reported that their mothers provided
less emotional and tangible support and were an
increased source of strain. At Time 2 partners provided more support relative to mothers and by this
stage the young mothers rated them as equally important sources of support. This suggests that as maternal
support decreases other aspects of support provided
by partners, such as socializing and positive feedback,
become increasingly important to teenage mothers.
The authors fit this within a developmental perspective in which romantic ties take on increasing prominence relative to mothers over time. It is also
suggested that these changes may be due to mothers
encouraging their daughter to take on a majority of
parental responsibility, although it is recognized that
these young women still continued to receive a substantial amount of maternal postpartum support.
However, despite the growing prominence of male
partners in the support network, only 17% of the
young mothers remained with the same partner over
time. This would suggest that few of the young women
were still in a romantic relationship with the father of
their baby by the time of the second interview. The
study also found that relationship disruption had a
negative impact on young mothers, with those teen-
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
agers who ended a relationship in the first postpartum
year experiencing a greater number of negative life
events than those who had never had a male partner.
However, those young women who sustained a relationship over the course of the first postpartum year
showed lower levels of depression than the other
young women in the sample. While the findings of this
study are limited by use of a predominantly African
American sample recruited from one specific setting,
they would seem to indicate that definite changes
occur in the support networks of young mothers.
Male partners appear to play an increasingly important support role for young mothers as time passes,
with greater psychological benefits being derived from
stable relationships. While mothers still remain the
most prominent members of the support network, it
would seem that young women look to their partners
for other aspects of support and place equal value on
this support as that provided by mothers.
While Gee & Rhode’s (1999) study did not differentiate between partner support and paternal support, Brunelli et al.’s (1995) research particularly
focused on the association of paternal support with
maternal child-rearing attitudes. This American study
used a sample of 144 Hispanic and African American
teenage mothers and a comparison group of adult
mothers, matched for socio-economic status, race and
parity. With regard to family structure and paternal
contact, the study found that: adult mothers in both
ethnic groups were more likely to be living with the
father; Hispanic women in both age groups were more
likely to be living with the father; and, in keeping with
previous research, African American teenage mothers
were least likely to be living with the father. A further
34% of fathers were non-resident but involved with
children, while 27% had little or no contact with their
The study explored four types of support including
instrumental support, emotional support and assistance with child care and housework. Although fewer
African American fathers resided with mothers, they
were found to provide more overall support than Hispanic fathers, although, not surprisingly, resident
fathers provided significantly more support than nonresident fathers. The study also found that while support from grandmothers had little effect on maternal
child-rearing attitudes, support from fathers had a
more significant impact. Paternal support, in particular emotional support, was found to have the greatest
impact, with the more emotional support the young
women perceived from her partner the less likely she
was to endorse power-assertive child-rearing atti-
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
tudes. Although these findings indicate that paternal
support is important to young mothers and can have
more of an impact on child-rearing attitudes than
maternal support, they also show that grandmothers
still provide significantly more support one year after
birth than fathers.
With regard to maternal support, the results indicated that, as with fathers, resident grandmothers
provided higher levels of instrumental and emotional
support than non-resident grandmothers. African
American resident grandmothers also tended to provide more instrumental and emotional support than
Hispanic resident grandmothers. Comparison of both
paternal and maternal support over the four categories indicated that overall grandmothers provided significantly more support than did fathers. This differs
from the findings of Gee & Rhode (1999) and may
be attributable to a number of factors, such as different sample size and ethnic composition, the use of
different support categories and a cross-sectional as
opposed to longitudinal research design.
Whilst highlighting the value of paternal support for
young mothers, Brunelli et al.’s (1995) research also
confirms how ethnicity and family structure can have
an impact on the level and types of support available
to young women.
A study of the factors influencing decisions about
pregnancy and living arrangements (Allen & Bourke
Dowling 1998) also provides support within the British context that maternal grandmothers tend to provide more support than fathers. The research found
that while 70% of the 84 teenage mothers interviewed
had discussed the future of their pregnancy with husbands or partners, a significant minority had not. Of
the 59 women who discussed the pregnancy with their
partner or husband, only nine had found them the
most helpful and, indeed, the mothers were more
likely to identify them as unhelpful or unsympathetic,
with a lack of partner support being a particular issue
for some women. A small number of the mothers
identified their partner as providing the most practical
support while around a quarter thought they had provided the most financial support. The authors summarized their detailed findings by concluding that
parents tended to receive a much higher rating than
partners in terms of helpfulness, sympathy, practical
assistance and financial support. They concluded that
most husbands and partners did not seem to play a
major role in the decision to continue pregnancy or
in supporting the women throughout their pregnancy.
The authors also noted that many of the men who
had dissuaded the mothers from terminating their
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
pregnancy by promises of support were no longer
involved with the teenage mother or child at the time
of interview, some 21 months later.
The role of peer support in teenage motherhood is an
area of research that has received much less attention
than that of family support or even partner support.
Despite a lack of prominence in the research agenda,
several of the previously mentioned studies have
investigated peer support as part of the wider social
network of teenage mothers. Voight et al. (1996)
found that friends were numerous in the mothers’
support networks and were likely not only to share
social activities with the mother but also to provide
positive feedback and advice that is not characterized
by the conflict often present in mother–daughter
Friends can provide special type of self-affirming support that
is not usually accompanied by the setting of standards and
provision of criticism that is inherent in relationships with
parents and sometimes siblings and partners… In fact, friends
may help buffer adolescents from the pressures and problems
of family. (Voight et al. 1996, p. 69)
The study also found that the numbers of friends
providing support was a predictor of parenting behaviour. The authors hypothesize that peer support may
not be a causal factor resulting in improved parenting
practices but rather that greater numbers of friends
may reflect greater social competence on the part of
the young mothers. The social skills necessary to
maintain friendship networks may in turn be the same
skills the mothers applies to her interaction with her
Similarly, Nitz et al. (1995) found that friends were
the second most frequently identified provider and
source of support, while Dellman-Jenkins et al. (1993)
found that friends played a key role when adolescents
needed someone to talk to about daily activities or
emotional support. However, while these studies provide a positive perspective on peer support the issue
is explored only as a minor aspect of wider support
networks. Richardson et al.’s (1995) research differs
in that it focuses specifically on peer support and
provides a comparative analysis with family support.
Analysis of the interview and questionnaire data provided by 46 teenage mothers confirmed that peers
were an important source of emotional support for
adolescent mothers. In fact, the perceived emotional
support of friends surpassed that of parents and other
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Research Review: Teenage pregnancy and motherhood: the role of support L Bunting and C McAuley
family members. The study also found that social
support from peers was significantly related to a
reduction in parenting stress, particularly with regard
to the high levels of emotional support provided by
this group. While Richardson et al.’s (1995) study confirms the important role friends can have in supporting adolescent mothers, the findings are, however,
limited by a small sample size and very low response
rate. It is possible that the group who did not respond
may have very different characteristics from those who
did, and that fewer friends and fewer social skills
might make young mothers more unlikely to participate in the research process. However, in light of the
findings of other studies it would appear that peer
support is particularly important in meeting the emotional needs of teenage mothers. Support from friends
combines with family and partner support to contribute to the increased mental well-being of teenage
mothers by decreasing parenting stress and providing
avenues for positive interaction and feedback.
Support, in particular family support, is clearly
important to teenage mothers, with the person they
most rely on for practical and child-care support
being their own mother. While the level of support
available may vary by the age, race and place of residence of the teenage mothers, maternal grandmothers
appear to have a positive influence on the parenting
behaviour and practices of this group. However, the
relationship between mother and daughter is not a
straightforward one and it would appear that high
levels of support from grandparents may be related to
a poorer experience of parenting for teenage mothers
themselves. Similarly, conflict between the teenage
mother and other family members has been found to
diminish some of the positive impact of family support and has been associated with less optimal parenting behaviours. The potential for conflict in
interpersonal relationships may also increase with
time, with older teenage mothers wanting to assert
their independence and be less reliant on their mothers for assistance and advice.
However, a majority of these findings originate
from America and there has been limited research into
the dynamics of family support with the UK. That
which has been done shows similar results, highlighting how grandmothers themselves are aware of the
potential for conflict and struggle to maintain a balance between helping their own child and recognizing
that she is a mother in her own right. Similarly the
Child and Family Social Work 2004, 9, pp 207–215
issue of partner support is one that has remained
almost completely neglected by British research.
American enquiry has suggested that partner/paternal
support is linked with improved financial and psychological outcomes but lower educational attainment for
teenage mothers. Exploration of the issue in comparison with other types of support has found that while
maternal grandmothers may provide quantitatively
more support, partner/paternal support becomes
increasingly important to the teenage mothers over
time. Specifically, emotional support from partners
has been found to be an important aspect of support
for teenage mothers and has been related to better
parenting practices. Peers also appear to play an
important role in emotionally supporting the teenage
mother, although there is much less research on this
particular type of support. It is suggested that peer
support provides positive feedback and advice for
young mothers which is not characterized by the
same conflict often present in mother–daughter
However, while support from family members,
partners and peers may often provide a complementary combination of support for teenage mothers,
investigation of the support provided to teenage
mothers within the British context has been limited.
Likewise there has been limited investigation into
changes to the support network over time, although
some American research suggests a decrease in the
level of maternal and partner support during the first
postnatal year. Recent research in Northern Ireland
(Bunting 2003) has explored the needs and supports
available to teenage parents from the perspective of
both professionals and teenage mothers. In relation to
the provision of informal support to teenage mothers,
this study found that a majority of health visitors
thought that the teenage mothers on their caseloads
received high levels of support from their family and
friends. Sixty per cent thought that the father provided support while half thought that the father’s family also provided support. Similarly, almost all of the
teenage mothers interviewed reported receiving support from their families, while around three-quarters
rated both the fathers and their families as supportive.
Where support was provided by these groups, the
teenage mothers rarely perceived a decrease in the
level of assistance over time.
Allen, I. & Bourke Dowling, S. (1998) Teenage Mothers: Decisions
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Blackwell Publishing Ltd
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