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Teen Pregnancies Resolved

by Pat Albertson

American and New Zealand researchers may have found the answer to why teenage pregnancy rates have been soaring in those two countries: Dad.

As government initiatives target sex education in school and promote the use of contraceptives, the answer to prevent early pregnancies may lie elsewhere: Behavioural patterns in teenage girls that are strongly related to a father’s presence or absence in a girl’s early years.

Pat Albertson spoke to Canterbury University researcher Bruce Ellis about a groundbreaking study.

The United States and New Zealand have the first and second highest rates of teenage pregnancy amongst Western industrialised countries.1) Per year, approximately 10% of American girls and 7% of New Zealand girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant, and around half of these culminate in a live birth.

Many of these girls have themselves come from father-absent homes, but up until now there has been no study that has been able to determine whether the absence of the father is of special significance, or whether it is merely one of a number of family and environmental stress factors.

Poverty, harsh parenting, and other difficult life events could make teenage girls more likely to have early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy.

This is the popularly accepted “life-course adversity model”, which holds that there is nothing really special about the biological father being present or absent in the family situation, but that it is just one of many things that could stress a child, and it does not really provoke early sexual activity.

Canterbury University’s Bruce Ellis and his colleagues completed a joint US and NZ research study in 2003 that specifically sought to isolate father absence from other positive and negative life factors, in order to investigate the relationship between that specific factor and daughters’ sexual development.

In doing so they also looked at the timing in which the father moved out of the home, its relationship to the age of his daughter’s first sexual intercourse and her risk of teenage pregnancy. Dr Ellis explains:

“Basically what we did was that we followed groups of girls throughout their lives. In the New Zealand study, the girls were followed from birth right up until age eighteen, and in the American study we started following them from about age four.

“These were long term million dollar studies with the specific point of the studies being to follow the girls over their lives.

What you can do with this type of a study is very carefully measure, not just their home environments, but also their larger ecological circumstances, types of behaviours they engaged in, types of parenting they had, all types of aspects of stress in their lives, whether they had behavioural problems when they were young, as well as the father’s role in the family, whether the father was present or absent, what age the girl was when he potentially moved out, and then you can look at how those things relate later on.”

“What our study showed very definitively was that the standard explanation [“life-course adversity”] was wrong. There was something special about the father being present in the home that protected girls from teen pregnancy, and something special about his absence that put girls at risk.

Even girls who had all the advantages, who came from middle class homes, who had high quality investment from their mothers, who lived in good neighbourhoods and who went to good schools, and had relatively stable home environments, but were growing up without their dad in the home were still at quite elevated risk for teen pregnancy.

“Conversely, even girls who had all the knocks against them, who were poor, who were in racial minorities, who lived in bad neighbourhoods and who were exposed to a lot of conflict; if those girls still happened to have their biological fathers living at home with they were still largely protected against teenage pregnancy.”

Bruce Ellis and his colleagues also found strong correlations between the timing of the father leaving the home, and the statistical degree to which girls are at likely to have early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. These results make for sobering reading.

After adjusting for environmental and family factors (socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc), Ellis and his colleagues categorised the data in “early father-absence girls” (birth-father left before the girl turned five), “late father-absence” (6-13) and father-presence. The report notes:

“Early father-absent girls had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by late father absent girls, followed by father-present girls.

This dose-response relationship suggests that past research has underestimated the impact of father absence on girls’ sexual outcomes. This issue may be especially relevant to predicting rates of teenage pregnancy, which were 7 to 8 times higher among early father-absent girls, but only 2 to 3 times higher among late father-absent girls, than among father-present girls”.

When questioned as to what it might be that was so significant about the presence or absence of the birth father in the home in terms of girls’ sexual outcomes, Bruce Ellis replied that there are several possible explanations that he and his colleagues are currently examining.

One explanation, which Ellis refers to as the “evolutionary model”, holds that girls’ brains have been designed to subconsciously detect and encode something about the father’s role in the family.

Although this does not mean conscious understanding, it seems to be the area in early childhood that girls particularly key into, in terms of affecting subsequent development of their personalities, up there with underlying emotional systems that might make certain types of sexual behaviour more or less likely as they become adolescents.

He cites previous research involving filmed interviews of 11 and 12 year old girls, conducted by young (19-20 year old) male interviewers: “What they find is that these 11/12 year old girls from father-absent homes are already sitting closer to the male interviewer and making more eye contact with him and they are talking more to the male interviewer than the girls from father-present homes, who are sitting a little bit further away and making less eye contact and are less perceptive and interactive within the interview”.

Something in their personality, their emotional and social makeup seems to be distinguishing these girls even before the onset of initial sexual activity. Something about the fathers’ presence or absence within the home and the interactions they have with their daughters early in life seems to influence the girls’ orientation towards males and their timing of first sexual activity.

The “personality trait model”, on the other hand, implies genetics. Explains Bruce Ellis:

“We know that personality has a certain inheritable compound to it, in that to some extent the traits that the parents have will pass on to their children genetically.

So it could be (although it is far from certain) that mothers of girls who have themselves experienced the early onset of sexual activity are simply passing on to their children genes that predispose them towards [similar behaviour], and that they are not only passing on those genes but that teenagers who tend to form unstable relationships are also passing on to their children unstable or father-absent home environments, and so it is possible that the reason that children from father absent homes are at risk from early sexual activity is that they are inheriting their parents genes for early sexual behaviour and unstable family environment.”

A third explanation is offered by the “social learning model”: When the mothers of fatherless girls are entering the dating and marriage market again, their daughters are in turn exposed to this behaviour. According to Dr Ellis there is no clear data to support this theory, and it could not be addressed through their study.

Although the answer may be a combination of the three possible models and explanations, Ellis’ believes his team has effectively eliminated the “life adversity model”, where father-presence/absence is seen as just one of a large number of factors. The study was specifically designed to measure and control for these life-stress variables.

The US/NZ research team is currently investigating what impact frequent contact with a non-custodial birth father, or a shared custody arrangement, might have on the likelihood of early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy for father-absent-girls.

While not specifically addressed in their research, girls who grew up in intact families correlated with the lowest likelihood. The earlier the father-daughter separation occured, the greater at risk the girls were; in the Christchurch data, about one in three girls who were father-absent from birth had teenage pregnancies, whereas if the father was there at birth but gone by age five, the rate was one in four.

If the father was around right up until age 13, the rate dropped to about one in thirty.

When asked about what the implications of the research findings might be for future directions in social policy, particularly for New Zealand, Dr Ellis cautioned that he saw himself as a scientist, not a policy maker.

But with the correlations being as they were, he says that these results “would certainly be supportive of social policies that would encourage fathers to stay in the home, policies that would encourage fathers to form stable families.

“It suggests that we need to find out more about girls who are father-absent. Even though a third of them are having teen pregnancies, two thirds of them are not. Even though half of them may be having sex before age 16, half of them don’t.”

“It is really important to try and understand this variation, why some girls engage in this risky behaviour and some don’t, for the practical use of trying to protect girls who are at risk based on their father being absent from the home.”

In conclusion, Bruce Ellis agreed that this study highlighted the importance of the family unit, stating that there is no question that children (both girls and boys) who grow up in the same home as their biological parents are advantaged on pretty much all measures.

However, that does not necessarily include families where one or both parents have psychopathology or have serious problems.

Although girls generally do better in intact families, where there are very high levels of family contact, the daughter may have better outcomes if the parents separate, and the parents who is largely responsible for the conflict moves out of the home.

The solution was not simply to keep families together at all costs, but one would have to take the quality of parenting and the home environment into account.

Next: Shattered Dreams – Precious Memories

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