Teen pregnancy has been a hot topic of conversation for the last few decades. But contrary to messages we see and hear in the media, the US teen birth rate has been declining since 1991.1 While the rate of teen pregnancies in the US has declined in recent years, teen pregnancy rates in the US are significantly higher than other Western nations.1
Teen pregnancy is defined by the American Pregnancy Association as a pregnancy that occurs for a birther under the age of 20.2 Teen parents often battle with stigma for breaking social norms.3 Teen mom television shows, teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, and sex education programs emphasize the adverse outcomes of teen pregnancy. These negative images can create a negative stigma, which can impact how people receive and interact with teen parents. The cycle of these stereotypes is one potential explanation why teen parents feel fear, social isolation, and the need to drop out of school.
Stigma can present itself in many forms. Teen parents are often labeled as cheap and irresponsible.3 Many teen parents describe generally experiencing more negative treatment than older parents as teen parents are considered to be ill-equipped for their role as parents. Some report being subjected to demeaning looks, offensive comments, and lowered expectations.3 Teen parents are often reluctant to ask for help and tend to overcommit to responsibilities to counteract common stereotypes.3 The stigma extends beyond their peers in school. Many teens experience bias when seeking medical care for themselves or their children. It is not uncommon for young parents to feel they have been treated differently when seeking prenatal care. This bias, along with other factors like socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and race, can lead to compounding health inequities.4
Teen pregnancy wasn’t always stigmatized. Before 1970, teen birth rates were higher, with premarital sex concealed through shotgun weddings and adoptions.3 As mothers raised their children alone, many began to feel scrutiny from others in their communities. In 1976, the Alan Guttmacher Institute linked teen pregnancy to poverty, the destruction of nuclear families, and crime.3 These outcomes became focal points for politicians and medical professionals.3 Media outlets coined phrases like “children having children,” as stories of young parents were increasingly featured. However, few people questioned this shift in attitude.
Teen pregnancy occurs more frequently in certain racial or ethnic groups and more often within some regions of the country. U.S. teen pregnancy rates are the highest among American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Black adolescents.1 Factors like low education and low-income levels contribute to teen birth rates.1 Black and Latinx youth are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to become parents at a young age.5 Poor teens of color have less access to quality health care and contraceptive services. They are more likely to live in neighborhoods with limited opportunity for advancement.5 Teens with this demographic background are left vulnerable to exploitation and the pitfalls of being misinformed. These racial and ethnic disparities are not only the cause, but also an outcome of teen pregnancies.5 Thus, creating a vicious cycle that furthers systemic oppression where those who have less are kept in a position to have less. It has more to do with a lack of opportunity than with the color of one’s skin.5
For those experiencing the effects of stigma, there are ways to cope with the negative effects. Seeking support is key. It may be challenging to admit that help is needed, however, there are several places where support can be found.
- Seek treatment from a mental health professional.
- Join our teen mom support group!
- Get help from school.
It is also helpful to seek more information. Connecting with others who have similar experiences can provide the knowledge needed to avoid believing the misconceptions of stigma. It’s important not to equate the circumstance as a personal characteristic. Those who support teens experiencing stigma should speak out against it. Openly sharing our opinions can instill courage in those who are impacted, letting them know they are not alone.
Teens now have many influences discouraging pregnancy such as highly effective, low maintenance birth control methods, the Great Recession, peer pressure and cautionary tales from TV.5 Although parenting as a teen is challenging, it should not be a label that restricts how we view individual people. Teen parents can feel the effects of its stigma well into adulthood as they constantly feel the need to work against negative stereotypes. To change social perceptions, we must change the narratives told in society. It is important to remember bias often leads to the mistreatment of marginalized groups and typically reinforces systemic inequalities.
Written by: Candace Page, MPH
Blog Reviewer: Dr. Krista Mincey, MPH, Dr.PH, MCHES
- National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2021). Reproductive Health: Teen Pregnancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Teen Pregnancy | CDC
- American Pregnancy Association. (2023). Teen Pregnancy. Teenage Pregnancy | American Pregnancy Association
- Lee, S.B. (2020). Walking on Eggshells: An Update on the Stigmatizing of Teen Mothers. MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing 45(6):p 322-327. DOI: 10.1097/NMC.0000000000000655. Walking on Eggshells: An Update on the Stigmatizing of Teen… : MCN: The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing (lww.com)
- Holmes, N. (n.d.) Breaking the Stigma. Candor Health Education. Breaking the Stigma – Candor Health Education
- Wiltz, T. (2015). Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist in Teen Pregnancy Rates. Stateline. Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist in Teen Pregnancy Rates – Stateline