Supporting young parents
Supporting young parents
Young parents face the challenge of meeting not only their own developmental needs at a time of significant growth, but also the needs of their children. The challenge for practitioners and policy makers is to create a range of supports that respond to the needs of both young parents and their children. If this is achieved, then teenage parenthood need not be a negative experience; rather, it can become a catalyst for growth and positive life outcomes.
Adolescence and young adulthood are periods of rapid biological, psychological, and social change (Arnett, 2006; Viner, 2005). Despite the popular idea that these phases of life are inevitably associated with "storm and stress", evidence suggests that the majority of young people progress through adolescence and young adulthood with few major difficulties (Daniel, Wassell, & Gilligan, 1999; Schulenberg & Zarrett, 2006). A proportion of young people, however, do experience significant life challenges that threaten their ability to achieve their full potential.
Teenage parenthood is one challenge that can have a considerable impact on a young person's life and is associated with a number of adversities. For example, it is more likely to occur for young people from a low socio-economic background, who are under-achieving in their education, who misuse drugs and/or alcohol, or who engage in antisocial behaviours (Woodward, Horwood, & Fergusson, 2001). In turn, young parenthood can act to further entrench some of these problems and perpetuate a cycle of disadvantage for both the young parent and their child (e.g., by limiting the young parent's ability to engage in education, it can lead to further underachievement in education) (Fergusson & Woodward, 2000; Jaffee, 2002). Additionally, young parents often face substantial social stigma. For example, many young mothers report experiences of judgment or even hostility in their dealings with social service institutions, education providers, and health care facilities (McDermott & Graham, 2005).
The difficulties of teenage parenthood, however, are not the whole story. The challenges of being a young parent are often accompanied by significant personal growth and satisfaction. Many young parents indicate that having a child motivated them to cease risky or antisocial behaviours and lifestyles, and imbued their lives with a newfound sense of purpose, maturity, and responsibility.
Practice considerations are general principles based upon lessons from research and practice designed to provide additional guidance to service providers about specific issues relating to children and families.
What methods can child and family services use to support young parents?
Young parents face many of the same challenges as other parents. Thus, the childrearing supports and strategies recommended will often be the same for all; a teething infant, for example, requires the same intervention regardless of the parent's age.
However, young parents are not only undergoing major developmental changes themselves, but may also face stressors that are not experienced to the same extent by other parents (e.g., social stigma). This necessitates that support for young parents is delivered in a manner that is sensitive to their particular experiences and needs. Additionally, each young parent will present with individual needs arising from their personal history and current life context. The role of the service provider, then, is to understand the shared and individual needs of young parents and to develop services that respond to these needs.
Develop a holistic understanding of the young parents' lives and their developmental phase
The first step towards providing appropriate care for young parents is to develop a general understanding of adolescent biological, psychological and social development. This provides a framework with which to understand the elements underlying a young person's current presentations and behaviours. If possible and appropriate to obtain, comprehensive individual case histories can further enhance the quality of an intervention.
- Adolescence is a time of rapid brain and cognitive development. Knowledge of brain development (and particularly of those brain systems that are relatively late to develop) may help service providers to better understand some of the attitudes and behaviours of young parents (see text box below).
- Some teenage mothers have a limited understanding of sexual health, effective contraceptive methods, and/or the reproductive process (Moore & Rosenthal, 2006).
- Proper nutrition is important for all pregnant woman and mothers with young children. However, it can be particularly important for young mothers; early pregnancy exposes both mother and child to risk due to a potential competition for energy and nutrients between the still-developing mother and her in-utero child (World Health Organization, 2005).1
The adolescent brain
Over the past 15 years, technologies such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) have allowed a major expansion in the understanding of brain and cognitive development during adolescence and young adulthood. An overarching message of this research is that teenagers and young adults are not as neurobiologically mature as was once believed (Paus, 2005; Steinberg, 2009).
The areas of the brain associated with everyday skills and basic information processing reach adult levels of maturity by mid-adolescence. However, this does not mean the brain is fully mature at this point. The brain systems involved in evaluating risks, delaying gratification, and controlling behaviour do not mature until late adolescence or early adulthood (Steinberg, 2009).
Young adulthood marks the beginning of more nuanced ways of thinking, especially in regard to complex social and ethical issues (Bennett & Baird, 2006; Labouvie-Vief, 2006).
- Postpartum (or postnatal) depression is very common among young mothers. Research indicates that over half of adolescent mothers exhibit depressive symptoms within the first 3 months of motherhood (Hudson, Elek, & Campbell-Grossman, 2000; Logsdon, Birkimer, Simpson, & Looney, 2005).
- Low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness are also common problems for young parents, especially for those who have limited social support (Hudson et al., 2000).
- For young mothers, parents (and especially mothers) often provide invaluable emotional, financial, and practical support for childrearing (McDermott & Graham, 2005).
- When working with young families, it is not enough to simply understand the structure of the family (e.g., the number, gender, and co-habitation status of parents). Family processes (e.g., parenting practices, parental relationships) are more powerful determinants of child wellbeing and long-term outcomes than family structure (Amato & Fowler, 2002; McIntosh, Burke, Dour, & Gridley, 2009).
- Many young mothers strive to provide a "traditional" or nuclear family structure, even in the absence of the child's father. This can involve the promotion of attachment and the delegation of disciplinary power to other caregivers (such as their own mother, a sibling, or other family members) (Nelson, 2006).
Questions to consider in planning and delivery of services
- How would finding out from individual young parents about their family of origin, their major life experiences, and their use of social supports and health services (i.e., undertaking a comprehensive case history) assist with planning the services you are able to provide?
- Due to natural developmental processes, adolescents may have trouble evaluating risks, delaying gratification, and controlling behaviour; does your program take into account the changes that occur in the brain throughout adolescence and young adulthood?
- Do the young parents in your program have a good understanding of sexual and reproductive processes? Does your service provide advice or outside referral to those who have a limited understanding?
- Are the participants of your service aware of the nutritional needs of themselves and their baby? Does your service provide diet or lifestyle advice (e.g., literature on good eating habits)? If necessary, does your service provide referral to dieticians or general physicians?
- Are your staff aware of the signs and symptoms of postpartum depression? Do staff understand the ways in which low self-esteem and loneliness can manifest in a young parent's life? Does your service provide referral to appropriate mental health specialists?
- Does your program make efforts to understand both the family processes and the family structure of young parents? Are there family members or other individuals who play important roles in the lives of the young parents engaged in your program? If appropriate, is there an option to include family members or other important people in any of your program's activities?
Be sensitive to the needs of young parents when delivering services
Working with young parents requires sensitivity to a number of unique factors that may influence their ability or willingness to participate in programs.
- Due to the social stigma surrounding young parenthood, young parents tend to respond more positively to practitioners who are non-judgmental, and who understand and accept the realities of young parenthood (Malin & Morrow, 2009; Soriano, Clark, & Wise, 2008).
- As there are connections between young parenthood and factors such as low levels of educational attainment and antisocial behaviour, it is possible that young parents will have had negative experiences with school teachers or other authority figures. People who have had such experiences often do not respond well to unidirectional or excessively authoritarian teaching styles (Baker, Clark, Crowl, & Carlson, 2009).
- Very few school-aged mothers complete secondary school. For many of these mothers, this is because a number of preventable barriers to continued schooling are not addressed. These barriers include inflexible school policies and procedures, a lack of adequate child care and transportation, and other practical difficulties that make continuing education very difficult (Barling, 2007).2
- Education with young parents works well when it is conducted in a reasonably relaxed and unstructured way, and when the young parents are allowed to have input into the content of the program (Malin & Morrow, 2009; Soriano et al., 2008). Many young parents find it particularly important that they are not "told what to do", but rather "treated as an adult" or "like an equal" (Malin & Morrow, 2009, p. 499).
- Crucial to the success of many programs for young parents is the provision of free childcare (which is often undertaken through a collaboration with a child care service). This not only "frees up" the parent to focus on the program, but it also provides the child with a positive socialising experience (Soriano et al., 2008).
- Accessibility is an important consideration for many young parents. They are more likely to participate in programs or activities that are accessible by public transport, or that provide transport to participants (Soriano et al., 2008).
Questions to consider in planning and delivery of services
- If young parents are eligible to use your service, are they attending the service? If not, what might be the reasons for their lack of engagement?
- Is your service "youth friendly"? Does it provide activities that would be appealing to young people (i.e., informal and largely unstructured)?
- Does your service provide encouragement and support for young mothers to complete their secondary education? Have you considered working with local schools to provide flexible, parent-friendly policies and procedures?
- Is your service able to provide childcare?
- Is your program easily accessible by public transport? Can the young parents afford the costs of transport? Is the provision of transport (e.g., a mini-bus) to and from activities a viable option?
Remember young fathers
Contrary to the stereotype of the irresponsible and disinterested adolescent father, many young fathers seek to remain actively involved with their child (Duncan, 2007).3
- Financial insecurity or confusion about child care are the factors most likely to lead to a father's disinterest in or non-involvement with a child (Rhein et al., 1997).
- Many services for young parents fail to provide environments that are appropriate and engaging for young fathers (Osborn, 2006). For example, young fathers may feel uncomfortable attending a playgroup where they are the only male parent.
- Separate male-only services may offer an alternative, as might services that offer a degree of anonymity as an antidote to embarrassment (e.g., an internet chat-site for young fathers).
Questions to consider in planning and delivery of services
- If your program works predominantly or solely with young mothers, are attempts made to understand the position of the father?
- Does your service encourage the involvement of fathers?
- Can you offer alternate activities or services that will engage young fathers (e.g., male-only activities, a young fathers internet forum)?
Adopt a strengths-based approach
In the past, many child and family welfare service providers subscribed to what has been called the "at-risk paradigm". That is, they focused almost exclusively on the problems and vulnerabilities of their target group. There has been a considerable recent shift towards providing services that use a "strengths-based approach".
- In relation to young parents, a strengths-based approach involves a shift in perception, from seeing young parents solely as people who are at risk, to seeing them as people who are experiencing challenging circumstances but who, with the right support, can achieve positive age-appropriate outcomes. Put simply, this approach involves helping young parents to thrive, rather than simply to survive (Wolin, 1999).
- Practitioners and policy makers who adopt a strengths-based approach will work on two fronts. Firstly, they will help young parents to minimise both existent problems, as well as the risk factors for future adverse outcomes. Secondly, they will support young parents to identify their own strengths and to work towards positive personal and interpersonal outcomes that involve more than simply the absence of risk.
Questions to consider in planning and delivery of services
- How does your service utilise a strength-based approach in its work with young parents? Do your staff understand the difference between the "at-risk paradigm" and a strengths-based approach?
- In what ways does your service help young parents to identify their own skills and strengths?
- Does your service encourage young parents to set positive, age-appropriate goals that involve more than simply the absence of risk?
- Does your service actively challenge the stereotypes of young parenthood?
Collaborate with other local community groups and services
Collaboration between social service providers and other local community groups and service providers is often beneficial for all involved.
- Collaboration is especially useful when working with the complex issues around vulnerable and at-risk families (e.g., young parent families). Programs that form partnerships and collaborations with other local community services are better able to handle the diversity and complexity of young parent's needs (Soriano et al., 2008).
- Some examples of organisations and services that existing parenting programs have collaborated with are: child care centers, health care and sexual health clinics, mental health services, schools, TAFE and other education providers, cultural centers and organisations, government sectors (e.g., housing, family services), book libraries, and toy libraries (Soriano et al., 2008).
- Specific examples of a successful collaboration between a social service provider and other organisations come from the Strong Young Mums program (profiled in the case study), a program in which many of the participants are Aboriginal women. As well as regularly consulting with the local TAFE Aboriginal unit for cultural guidance, the program has created relationships with Aboriginal support workers, Aboriginal health workers, and the Aboriginal Family Support workers. Perhaps most innovatively, a partnership has been formed with National Parks and Wildlife. Under guidance of the Aboriginal wildlife ranger, the women engage in activities that connect them with the history, rock art, and ceremonial practices of the local Ngemba people.
- The Australian Young Pregnant and Parenting Network (AYPPN) was recently established to "connect all those working to improve outcomes for pregnant and parenting young people and their children, and to advocate for better policy and program support". Their website may be a good place to start to find similar groups and service providers with which to share information and collaborate.
Questions to consider in planning and delivery of services
- What services and community groups are available in the local community for young people? How might your service develop a collaborative relationship with these organisations? Are there local networks or partnerships of service providers that your service can join?
- Are other local groups or service providers aware of your service?
- Are young parents presenting to your service with needs and problems that your service is unable to meet (e.g., complex mental health problems, lack of adequate housing). Can your service target your collaborative efforts to local services that provide support for these particular needs and problems? And are those services sensitive to the needs of young people?
What might supporting young parents look like in practice?
There are a number of examples within CAFCA's Promising Practice Profiles database of promising and innovative methods that have been used by services and programs to support young parents.
One program in a rural area with a higher than average rate of teenage pregnancy supports teenage mothers to increase their parenting skills and confidence and also to help them re-engage with education and other community services relevant to their needs (Centacare Wilcannia Forbes, 2009).
Teenage mothers who have attended the program indicate that it has helped them to re-engage with education and service providers, and has given them greater confidence as parents.
Key components of the program include a range of support services and programs for young mothers including:
- Home visits: these visits tend to foster trust between the service providers and the young mothers. The content of the visits range from a casual "catch-up", to more structured visits with a parenting and/or child development focus.
- Playgroups specifically for young mothers: the majority of teenage mothers will not attend general playgroups because they feel uncomfortable and judged amongst older parents. These playgroups are in relaxed settings where parents can learn about child development as well as make new friends.
- Transport provision: only 5% of participants in the program have a driver's license and access to private transport, and there is no public transport system in the region. Therefore, organisers provide transport to all events, including TAFE classes that mothers may have enrolled in as a result of the program.
- Engagement of young mothers in all consultative processes: the mothers are frequently invited to have input into the program's structure and delivery. This takes the form of groups discussions, individual interviews, informal conversations, and surveys. Client input is considered crucial in order to keep them engaged.
- Close partnerships and collaborations with existing service providers: the service providers have active relationships with the local TAFE, community health and medical centres, the local library and the Department of Community Services, Family Support, Probation and Parole.
- Amato, P. R., & Fowler, F. (2002). Parenting practices, child adjustment, and family diversity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(3), 703-716.
- Arnett, J. J. (2006). Emerging adulthood: Understanding the new way of coming of age. In J. J. Arnett & J. L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Baker, J. A., Clark, T. P., Crowl, A., & Carlson, J. S. (2009). The influence of authoritative teaching on children's school adjustment: Are children with behavioural problems differentially affected? School Psychology International, 30(4), 374-382.
- Barling, M. (2007). Healthy young parents in education: Literature review. South Australia: SHine SA Inc.
- Bennett, C. M., & Baird, A. A. (2006). Anatomical changes in the emerging adult brain: A voxel-based morphometry study. Human Brain Mapping, 27(9), 766-777.
- Berlyn, C., Wise, S., & Soriano, G. (2008). Engaging fathers in child and family services. Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
- Boulden, K. (2000). Present, pregnant and proud: keeping pregnant students and young mums in education. Queensland: Association of Women Educators Inc.
- Boulden, K. (2003). Step by step, side by side: how to make your school a great choice for pregnant and parenting students. Queensland: Association of Women Educators Inc.
- Centacare Wilcannia Forbes. (2009). Strong Young Mums (CAFCA Promising Practice Profile). <www.aifs.gov.au/cafca/ppp/profiles/la_strong_young_mums.html>
- Daniel, B., Wassell, S., & Gilligan, R. (1999). Child development for child care and protection workers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Duncan, S. (2007). What's the problem with teenage parents? And what's the problem with policy? Critical Social Policy, 27(3), 307-334.
- Fergusson, D. M., & Woodward, L. J. (2000). Teenage pregnancy and female educational underachievement: A prospective study of a New Zealand birth cohort. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(1), 147-161.
- Hudson, D. B., Elek, S. M., & Campbell-Grossman, C. (2000). Depression, self-esteem, loneliness, and social support among adolescent mothers participating in the new parents project. Adolescence, 35(139), 444-453.
- Jaffee, S. R. (2002). Pathways to adversity in young adulthood among early childbearers. Journal of Family Psychology, 16(1), 38-49.
- Labouvie-Vief, G. (2006). Emerging structures of adult thought. In J. J. Arnett & J. L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Logsdon, M. C., Birkimer, J. C., Simpson, T., & Looney, S. (2005). Postpartum depression and social support in adolescents. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, and Neonatal Nursing, 34(1), 46-54.
- Malin, N., & Morrow, G. (2009). Evaluating the role of the Sure Start Plus Adviser in providing integrated support for pregnant teenagers and young parents. Health and Social Care in the Community, 17(5), 495-503.
- McDermott, E., & Graham, H. (2005). Resilient young mothering: Social inequalities, late modernity and the "problem" of "teenage" motherhood. Journal of Youth Studies, 8(1), 59-79.
- McIntosh, J., Burke, S., Dour, N., & Gridley, H. (2009). Parenting after separation: A position statement prepared for the Australian Psychological Society. Melbourne: Australian Psychological Society.
- Mendes, P. (2009). Improving outcomes for teenage pregnancy and early parenthood for young people in out-of-home care: A review of the literature. Youth Studies Australia, 28(4), 11–18.
- Moore, S., & Rosenthal, D. (2006). Sexuality in adolescence: Current trends. East Sussex: Routledge.
- Nelson, M. K. (2006). Single mothers "do" family. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(4), 781-795.
- Osborn, M. (2006). Young Men's Project: Great Yarmouth, UK. Reproductive Health Matters, 14(28), 123-126.
- Paus, T. (2005). Mapping brain maturation and cognitive development during adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 60-68.
- Rhein, L. M., Ginsburg, K. R., Schwarz, D. F., Pinto-Martin, J. A., Zhao, H., Morgan, A. P., et al. (1997). Teen father participation in child rearing: Family perspectives. Journal of Adolescent Health, 21(4), 244-252.
- Schulenberg, J. E., & Zarrett, N. R. (2006). Mental health during emerging adulthood: Continuity and discontinuity in courses, causes, and functions In J. J. Arnett & J. L. Tanner (Eds.), Emerging adults in America: Coming of age in the 21st century. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Soriano, G., Clark, H., & Wise, S. (2008). Promising Practice Profiles: Final report (PDF 2.1 MB). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. <www.aifs.gov.au/cafca/evaluation/pubs/pppfinalreport.pdf>
- Steinberg, L. (2009). Should the Science of Adolescent Brain Development Inform Public Policy? American Psychologist, 64(8), 739-750.
- Tehan, B., & McDonald, M. (2010). How to engage fathers in child and family services (CAFCA Practice Sheet 2). Melbourne: Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia. <www.aifs.gov.au/cafca/pubs/sheets/ps/ps2.html>
- Victorian Government Department of Human Services. (2005). A youth worker's guide to nutrition for young people. Melbourne: Victorian Government Publishing Service.
- Viner, R. (2005). ABC of Adolescence. London: Blackwell Publishing.
- Wolin, S. (1999). Easier said than done: Shifting from a risk to a resiliency paradigm. Reaching Today's Youth, 3(4), 11-14.
- Woodward, L. J., Horwood, L. J., & Fergusson, D. M. (2001). Teenage pregnancy: Cause for concern. New Zealand Medical Journal, 114(1135), 301-303.
- World Health Organization. (2005). Nutrition in adolescence: Issues and challenges for the health sector. Issues in adolescent health and development. Geneva: World Health Organization.
1 For a detailed guide to nutrition for young people, see: Victorian Government Department of Human Services (2005).
2 The Association of Women Educators has produced a number of excellent documents (e.g., Boulden, 2000; 2003) that showcase the models and practices of parent-friendly secondary schools, and that are designed to “help school staff, parents and communities work towards making their school a welcoming and supportive place for pregnant and parenting students”. These documents can be accessed on The Assocation of Women Educators website.
3 For more information on engaging fathers in child and family services, see: Berlyn, Wise, & Soriano (2008); Tehan & McDonald (2010).
Authors and Acknowledgements
Rhys Price-Robertson is a Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
The author acknowledges the valuable contributions of Myfanwy McDonald, Elly Robinson and Leah Bromfield in the preparation of this practice sheet. Thanks to Daryl Higgins for comments and feedback.
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