Motherhood lessens teen delinquency, study shows

December 05, 2003

Unmarried adolescent mothers who keep their babies have lower rates of juvenile delinquency than girls who have abortions or give up their babies for adoption, according to new research.

"The transition to parenthood, unlike other types of pregnancy resolution, encourages adolescent females to assume a more responsible adult role that is ultimately incongruent with delinquent activity," says Esther I. Wilder, Ph.D., of Lehman College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and two colleagues writing in the journal The Sociological Quarterly.

Wilder and Trina Hope, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma and Toni Terling Watt, Ph.D., of Texas State University drew their information from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationwide survey of 19,000 teenagers in grades seven through 12. Previous research showed that girls who get pregnant have higher levels of juvenile delinquency than girls who never get pregnant.

About 9 percent of the subset of 6,877 girls studied had gotten pregnant. The highest rates of juvenile delinquency were found among girls who had abortions or gave babies up for adoption, Wilder says.

However, they noticed that girls who kept their babies were no more delinquent than girls who had never gotten pregnant. The most common types of delinquency involved alcohol consumption or petty criminal activity, Wilder adds.

Other researchers have asserted that the real cause of juvenile delinquency is spending time with delinquent friends. But statistical tests revealed that the effects of pregnancy on juvenile delinquency remain strong even when keeping unsavory company is taken into account.

In general, teenagers who live with both parents have lower rates of delinquency than those who do not. Moreover, there is little connection between receiving welfare and delinquency among young girls. But girls who got pregnant were more likely to come from homes where at least one parent received welfare or from families that were not intact. This background of family structure and economic disadvantage may partially explain the higher rates of problem behavior among pregnant adolescents, Wilder says.

In seeking to determine whether motherhood made girls less delinquent or whether girls who chose motherhood were less likely to become delinquent anyway, Wilder says, "Our findings confirm that girls who become pregnant are indeed different from their peers."

Overall, girls who experienced pregnancies tended to have higher rates of smoking or marijuana use. Before pregnancy, the girls who would end up keeping their babies smoked or used marijuana more than the girls who never got pregnant.

"After pregnancy, however, these same respondents had substance abuse rates about 45 percent lower than those of their never-pregnant peers," Wilder says. "Girls who kept their babies were especially likely to quit smoking and to stop using marijuana. Our findings support the notion that adolescent pregnancy is linked to a complex array of problem behaviors, but the nature of those links depends upon the outcome of the pregnancy."
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Esther I. Wilder at (718) 960-1128 or
The Sociological Quarterly: Visit


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