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Self-Esteem and Teenage Pregnancy
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Self-Esteem and Teen Pregnancy

Although there have been numerous studies of the correlates of teenage pregnancy, we located only seven that both included a measure of self-esteem and met our review criteria. Four of the studies examined self-esteem only after the adolescents became pregnant (Barth, Schinke, and Maxwell 1983; Brunswick 1971; Streetman 1987; and Werner and Smith 1977). In two of these, there was no association between self-esteem and pregnancy status. In the other two, the self-esteem scores of pregnant girls were significantly lower than those of girls in the control groups.

Brunswick (1971) collected data on 483 low-income males and females between the ages of twelve and seventeen in 1969–1970. Because 86 percent of the subjects were black, most of the pregnant teenagers were black. The median age at first pregnancy was fifteen. The 16 ado-


lescents who were pregnant or who had already carried a baby to term were compared with 180 others on a self-esteem measure composed of three items from Rosenberg's scale and a fourth that asked the adolescent how much she would want to change herself if she could. There were no differences between the two groups either on the self-esteem measure or in their general mood or feelings of happiness. The pregnant women did report greater feelings of powerlessness, but, as the author points out, this may have reflected an accurate assessment of their life situation at the time.

In a more recent study, Streetman (1987) compared non-Caucasian teenage females without children to a group of teenage mothers and reported similar results. The sample included 93 females between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. More than 75 percent had at least one child. There were no differences between the groups on either the Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory or the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

Barth, Schinke, and Maxwell (1983) used a more sophisticated design and a more diverse sample in their study of pregnant adolescents. Participants were 185 young women, ranging in age from eleven to twenty-one, from three programs for school-aged parents and the alternative public high schools in which these programs operated. The schools were located in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Also unlike the previously discussed studies, only 49 percent of the young women were black; the rest were predominantly Anglo, with small percentages of Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. There were 62 pregnant females, 63 adolescent parents, and a comparison group of 60 female adolescents who were neither pregnant nor parents. The three groups were compared on five measures of well-being, including the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The self-esteem scores of both the pregnant teenagers and the adolescent parents were lower than those of the comparison group. Moreover, these differences continued to be significant after controlling statistically for differences associated with the adolescent's age, social class, and social support. Race does not appear to have affected the results, but this is not entirely clear from the report. In contrast to the Brunswick and Streetman studies, Barth, Schinke, and Maxwell used a larger sample of pregnant adolescents, distinguished between pregnant adolescents and adolescent parents, and controlled for a number of potential confounding factors, suggesting that their results should be given more weight.

A longitudinal study by Werner and Smith (1977) provides additional evidence for a link between low self-esteem and teen pregnancy.


The authors studied all the children born on the island of Kauai in 1955. During the eighteen-year follow-up conducted in 1973, the twenty-eight females who had become pregnant were compared with all other females in the sample. The teens who had become pregnant before turning eighteen differed from the comparison group on a large number of dimensions, including self-esteem as measured by a subset of questions from the California Personality Inventory. As in the Barth, Schinke, and Maxwell study, the pregnant teenagers had significantly lower self-esteem.

Because Werner and Smith's research was longitudinal, it was possible to investigate whether there were any childhood signs that indicated the risk of an early pregnancy. Unlike the children who later were identified as delinquents, those who became pregnant had not been identified as having a disproportionate number of learning disabilities or mental health problems at the age of ten. The variables at this age that did differentiate those who would become pregnant as teenagers were the family's social-economic status, the provision of educational stimulation, and ethnic background. Girls most likely to become pregnant were from the poorest families, with the least educational stimulation, and were at least part native Hawaiian—a group the authors described as valuing a nurturant maternal role and prizing children highly. No measure of self-esteem was obtained at age ten, and the measure of emotional support—a possible contributor to self-esteem—failed to distinguish the pregnant and nonpregnant adolescents, although emotional support was somewhat more likely tobe associated with subsequent pregnancy for the non-Hawaiians (Werner 1988). Only three of the twelve Hawaiians who were pregnant were identified as receiving little emotional support when they were ten years old, whereas nine of the sixteen pregnant non-Hawaiians were so identified. The small sample and the level of statistical significance (p <.10) preclude any definite conclusions, but this finding does suggest that different factors may be causally linked to adolescent pregnancy in different ethnic or racial groups.

In sum, although the cross-sectional studies of self-esteem and teenage pregnancy yield no consistent pattern of findings, the better-designed research links low self-esteem to adolescent pregnancy. Consistent with the studies on self-esteem and contraceptive use, no study shows self-esteem to be higher for pregnant than for nonpregnant adolescents. We must emphasize, however, that these results do not necessarily demonstrate that low self-esteem increases the risk of pregnancy


during adolescence. An equally plausible inference is that an adolescent pregnancy lowers self-esteem.

Three longitudinal studies offer a better test of the hypothesis that low self-esteem increases the likelihood of a teenage pregnancy. All three measured self-esteem at one point and later obtained information on pregnancies that subsequently occurred. Two of the three, based on the same data set studied at different time intervals, reported an association between low self-esteem and subsequent pregnancy; the third study reported no association.

Kaplan, Smith, and Pokorny (1979) obtained their sample from a 1971 survey of seventh-graders in a large urban school system. The survey included the Self-Derogation Scale as a measure of self-esteem. More than one year after the administration of the baseline questionnaire (and before each subject's eighteenth birthday), the researchers identified eighty-two adolescents who had given birth to their first child. (Evidence of birth was obtained from a clinic that provided perinatal services to the indigent, pregnant adolescents of the county.) The authors contrasted the unwed mothers with two comparison groups: one in which each unwed mother was matched with two adolescents by race, mother's education, and school; and one consisting of random controls selected from the female respondents from the baseline survey in seventh grade. Racial makeup was the only significant demographic difference between the groups: 90 percent of the unwed mothers and the matched comparison group were black, whereas only 25 percent of the subjects in the random control group were black.

Before becoming pregnant, the adolescents who later became unwed mothers were significantly more likely to have reported self-devaluing experiences associated with family and school and were less likely to have perceived themselves as succeeding, either at the time or in the future, than were the adolescents in either control group. They were also more likely to have had higher self-derogation scores (low self-esteem). Thus, low self-esteem as a result of family and school experiences distinguished adolescents who had babies from those who did not. Moreover, the black adolescents who did not become mothers thought it was more important to obey their parents and teachers than did those who had children. Together, these findings support Kaplan's (1975) theory that if children have positive family and school experiences, they feel good about themselves. They will want to maintain the good will and respect of the people in these situations and will behave in ways that they believe will ensure this.


The second analysis of this 1971 data set is reported by Robbins, Kaplan, and Martin (1985). To obtain information on out of wedlock pregnancies, 2,158 young adults (both males and females) from the original sample were contacted again when they were twenty-one years old. Of this later group of subjects, 63 percent were white, 27 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic, indicating that the original group of unwed adolescent mothers and their matched controls, both of which were predominantly black, were underrepresented in this follow-up. Six items from the Self-Derogation Scale were used as a measure of self-esteem (alpha =.79). The findings with respect to self-esteem were weaker than in the earlier report, as would be anticipated, given that the researchers obtained pregnancy data retrospectively from the adolescents themselves and that those identified as unwed mothers in the earlier study were underrepresented. Nonetheless, high self-derogation in seventh grade was significantly associated with a higher risk of pregnancy before age twenty-one for females. From additional analyses, it could be inferred that the association between self-derogation and pregnancy was limited to ages twelve to fifteen during the three years following the original testing, corresponding most closely to the period in the 1979 study by Kaplan, Smith, and Pokorny.

Additional findings indicate, however, that self-derogation may have different effects at different ages under different conditions. First, family stress was positively related to pregnancy when self-esteem (low self-derogation) was moderate or high for young women over eighteen. The authors suggest this may reflect a rejection of parental control in late adolescence by self-confident girls. Second, although the Hispanic girls in this study were significantly more likely than others to have high self-derogation scores, they were less likely than either whites or blacks to become pregnant out of wedlock during adolescence. This finding may indicate that other characteristics of Hispanic culture, such as religious affiliation or the degree of control exercised by the family over the adolescent's behavior, result in a lower adolescent pregnancy rate. This could occur, for example, if Hispanic parents encourage adolescents to marry at an earlier age than that favored by parents from different ethnic or racial backgrounds.

These two studies provide the clearest evidence that low self-esteem is causally associated with a subsequent teenage pregnancy. Another longitudinal study failed to confirm these findings, however. Vernon, Green, and Frothingham (1983) questioned 858 low-income females between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, predominantly black (86 per-


Table 4.3. Studies Examining the Association Between Self-Esteem and Teenage Pregnancy



Self-Esteem Scale


Self-esteem related to teenage pregnanc

Barth, Schinke, and Maxwell 1983

117 nonwhite females, 68 white females; 11–21 years old

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale


Kaplan, Smith, and Pokorny 1979 (longitudinal)

410 females

Self-Derogation Scale


Robbins, Kaplan, and Martin 1985 (longitudinal)

2,158 males and females; white, black, and Hispanic

Self-Derogation Scale

Negative, for females only

Werner and Smith 1977 (longitudinal)

614 males and females; 18 years old

California Personality Inventory


Self-esteem not related to teenage pregnancy

Brunswick 1971

196 black females; 12–17 years old

Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (subset)


Streetman 1987

93 nonwhite females; 14–19 years old

Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory; Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale


Vernon, Green, and Frothingham 1983 (longitudinal)

745 black females, 22 other nonwhite females, 91 white females; 13–19 years old

Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory


a A negative association indicates that low self-esteem is associated with a greater risk of becoming pregnant during adolescence.

cent), who were enrolled in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades during the fall of 1980. Ninety-five of the subjects later became pregnant. The researchers measured self-esteem (using the Coopersmith Inventory) at the initial testing, as well as pregnancy outcome during the following year using reports from local clinical and laboratory facilities that provided health services. They found no differences in pregnancy rates for young women who scored in the low, intermediate, or high self-esteem groups. The pregnancy rate was higher, however, among those girls for


whom the costs of pregnancy might be assumed to be lower: those who had lower vocational expectations, who attended church less often, and who had indicated that they would like or not mind being pregnant and would expect that their families would feel similarly about a pregnancy.

Table 4.3 indicates that studies investigating the association between self-esteem and teen pregnancy report mixed results. Only four studies (and three data sets) corroborate the anticipated association between low self-esteem and teenage pregnancy.

The failure to replicate findings is often sufficient reason to discount or to treat cautiously the results of a particular investigation. In this instance, however, the contradictory findings can be explained and indeed would have been expected from Kaplan's (1975) theory of the way in which engaging in deviant behavior may improve self-esteem. Participants in the Vernon, Green, and Frothingham (1983) study were in the ninth through eleventh grades at the time self-esteem was initially assessed, in contrast to the subjects in the other longitudinal studies, who were in the seventh grade. It is reasonable to assume that many of the older subjects had already become sexually active or had engaged in deviant behavior that would have increased their self-esteem. In short, although the observed association between low self-esteem and teenage pregnancy has not been well replicated, the design of those studies that have demonstrated such an association increases our confidence in the validity of the association.

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Self-Esteem and Teenage Pregnancy
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