Beginning Too Soon: Adolescent Sexual Behavior, Pregnancy and Parenthood. A Review of Research and Interventions.. Introduction


Infants and young children are totally dependent on nurturance from their parents and/or other caregivers. Parenting is demanding because meeting the needs of children, let alone maximizing their potential, requires personal, social, and economic resources. Thus, becoming a parent too soon, before adult abilities are attained and before the necessary resources are acquired, usually poses problems for children and their young parents. Because of their need for assistance from others, early parenthood represents a drain on the resources of their extended families and the larger society.

For several decades, concerns have been mounting in the United States about adolescent sexual behavior, pregnancy, and parenthood. These concerns have been intensified by several realizations. First, rates of adolescent births in the United States are much higher--from two to ten times higher--than in other industrialized societies. Second, although teen birth rates are lower now than they were after World War II, there have been increases in rates of adolescent childbearing in the U.S. since the mid 1980's; birth rates among teens currently are nearly one-quarter higher than they were in 1986. Third, adolescent childbearing outside of marriage has been increasing for several decades and at a very rapid pace. Of all births to young women under age 20, only 15 percent were nonmarital in 1960, compared to 30 percent in 1970, 48 percent in 1980, and 71 percent in 1992. Another reason for attention to the issue of adolescent pregnancy and birth is that the overwhelming majority of adolescents do not want to become parents this soon. Among all pregnancies to females under age 20, the proportion that were unintended was 84 percent in 1990. Moreover, there is increasing concern about adolescent sexual intercourse per se, not only because it leads to unintended pregnancy and parenthood, but also because sexually active adolescents have extremely high rates of sexually transmitted infections and are at risk of exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Finally, initial sexual experiences are often coercive. Indeed, before age 15, a majority of first intercourse experiences among females are reported to be non-voluntary. Coercion is not only a problem in its own right, but is presumed to be associated with poor protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.