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Current theoretical perspectives on adolescent pregnancy and childbearing in the United States

Caldas, S.J. (1993, January). Current theoretical perspectives on adolescent pregnancy and childbearing in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Research, pp. 4-20.


Caldas initially reviews some statistics on teenage pregnancy in the United States:

  • 2/3 Of all adolescent births and 90 % of all black adolescent births in the U.S. are out of wedlock.
  • Teen pregnancy rates have been increasing since the mid-1980s, following more than a decade of decline.
  • Pregnancy rates for African Americans over 15 are twice as high as for whites and those under 15 have rates six times higher than those of whites.


Caldas reviews research (completed largely in the last decade) to determine the contributing factors of teen pregnancy. He organizes his review by six causal hypotheses:

  • Insufficient sexuality education is a major factor in the number of teen pregnancies. Caldas demonstrates the extensive nature of sexuality education in the U.S. He concludes conservatively that most American adolescents are knowledgeable enough about human reproduction to prevent a pregnancy if they so desire. He raises the point that "the more important question would seem to relate to the motivation to prevent adolescent pregnancy and childbearing." (author’s emphasis)
  • Pregnancy and/or birth fulfills a subconscious need of the adolescent. Research shows that adolescents with higher educational goals use contraception more effectively and thus have lower pregnancy rates. Also, adolescents who are low in ego strength, or self-esteem, appear to have a greater tendency to engage in early, unprotected, non-marital sexual relationships.
  • The desire to receive welfare payments motivates many poorer adolescents to have children. In 1989, and estimated 53% of total Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) outlays went to families begun by adolescent mothers. Caldas notes that the evidence is inconclusive as to whether motivates teen pregnancies.
  • Adolescent daughters of single-parent, female-headed families are more likely to accept it as a normal condition for women to be independent of man’s help. Adolescent girls whose dating behavior is under greater parental supervision report a lower rate of sexual activity and reduced chance of becoming pregnant. Non-voluntary intercourse is twice as common for females under 14 as is voluntary. Adolescent daughters of single parents are more likely than their peers to engage in premarital sex, bear children early, and give birth before marriage. Mothers with permissive sexual attitudes have children with more permissive sexual attitudes and who are more sexually active. Girls whose mothers had spoken to them about birth control were more likely to use it. Caldas upholds the truth of this hypothesis, pointing to the loss of parental control over dating and the example of being a single mother as evidence.
  • The cause of adolescent sexual and parenting behavior is directly related to the strength of "social norms" received and internalized by adolescents. Caldas records that peer pressure is a significant determinant for girls but not for boys. He also notes that black culture is more tolerant of adolescent childbearing and has greater unfavorable social circumstances, which he says accounts for the much higher incidence of sexual activity and pregnancy among blacks. Caldas cites Singh’s conclusion, "The general social milieu in which adolescents live is the most important factor associated with their rates of birth, abortion, and pregnancy."
  • The act of coitus leading to adolescent pregnancy and childbearing is directly affected by hormonal influences. This hypothesis remains largely untested. One study of early adolescents found hormonal influences to affect the sexual behavior of males, to affect the behavior of white females in the area of masturbation but not coitus, and not to affect the behavior of black females. There remains too little data to draw strong conclusions, especially for older adolescents.


Caldas found the most compelling research support for the last two hypotheses. Single parent families and permissive "social norms" seem to be significant contributing factors to increased risk for adolescent pregnancy. He notes that this does not mean that these cause adolescent pregnancy, nor that they are the only contributing factors, nor even the most important ones. Research simply shows that they contribute for some reason in some way.


Caldas has extensively reviewed current research, is aware of the limitations of the various studies, and seems properly conservative in his conclusions from the data. The study appears well-done and the results trustworthy.


  1. This study may inform youth workers of many of the factors which put young women at risk of pregnancy. It also equips them to educate others, particularly single mothers and those who are black or of lower class strata.
  2. Parents who are less exposed to teen pregnancy should also be educated, as they may be less aware of the risks.
  3. These findings may advise teens of their risk factors. Knowledge of these risks, closer supervision, and contraception discussion may help those who work with youth reduce their risk factors.
  4. Helping kids assess the impact that their environment has on their decisions about sex and contraception may help them reestablish their values. Discussing such questions as "What do those around you believe about premarital sex? Do you think they’re right? What do you think is right for you? Do realize the risks you’re under?", will help youth make informed, critical decisions about sexual issues.

Daniel H. Hammerle cCYS