Tanya Rouleau Whitworth Finds Relationship Between Teen Childbearing and Adult Depression Varies Based on Adolescent Pregnancy Attitudes

Tanya Rouleau Whitworth

A new study by graduate student Tanya Rouleau Whitworth has found that the relationship between teen childbearing and adult depression varies significantly based on adolescent pregnancy attitudes.

Whitworth discovered that when they had negative adolescent attitudes toward getting pregnant, teen mothers had similar levels of depression as women who delayed childbearing until adulthood, but when they had positive adolescent pregnancy attitudes, teen mothers actually had fewer depressive symptoms than women with adult first births. She reports her findings in the online edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Whitworth studied 2,898 women in her sample set, including 592 women who had their first child in their teens and 2,306 women who had their first births as adults. The women were selected from waves one and four of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey of adolescents based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. schools. The first wave was conducted in 1995 when participants were in grades 7-12, and the fourth and most recent wave was conducted in 2008 when participants were 24-34 years old. Age at first birth in the analytic sample ranged from 16-19 years old for the women who had teen first births, and 20-32 years old for the women who had adult first births.

Adolescent pregnancy attitudes were measured at wave one asking respondents how much they agreed with the statement “It wouldn’t be all that bad if you got pregnant at this time in your life.”

“This study has two main findings,” Whitworth reports. “First, the results showed that teen childbearing was not associated with more depressive symptoms in adulthood when compared with adult childbearing, after accounting for adolescent depressive symptoms and background characteristics. This result contradicts both conventional wisdom and some previous empirical evidence that teen childbearing is detrimental to mental health.

“Second, the results showed that among women who had more positive adolescent pregnancy attitudes, women who had teen first births were actually less depressed in adulthood than women who had their first births as adults.”

“I do not wish to downplay the importance of educating teens about avoiding pregnancy,” Whitworth concludes, “but I also hope to highlight the heterogeneity of women’s experiences with teen childbearing and point out that teen childbearing may not be detrimental (in terms of depression) to all women. In fact, what this article clearly shows is that individual desires, attitudes and preferences do matter for mental health adjustment to major life events.”

The complete study, “Teen Childbearing and Depression: Do Pregnancy Attitudes Matter?” is available online here. Previous versions of the article were presented at the Ohio State University/Bowling Green State University 2013 Annual Graduate Student Conference on Population and the Population Association of America 2014 Annual Meeting.