Father's Absence Increases Daughter's Risk of Teen Pregnancy

Fathers who leave their families may increase their daughters' risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy, suggest the results of long-term studies in the United States and in New Zealand.

The association between father absence and early teenage sexual activity and pregnancy has long been noted, but many researchers have attributed it to factors associated with divorce including poverty, family conflict and erosion of parental monitoring.

But the new findings suggest a more direct link between a father's absence and his daughter's early teenage sexual activity and pregnancy.

"These findings may support social policies that encourage fathers to form and remain in families with their children," unless there is violence or a high degree of conflict, says study author Bruce J. Ellis of the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Among Western industrialized countries, the United States and New Zealand have the highest and second-highest rates of teenage pregnancy, past research has shown. Teenage childbearing is associated with a host of problems, including lower educational and career achievements, health problems and inadequate social support for parenting.

"Given these costs to adolescents and their children, it is critical to identify life experiences and pathways that place girls at increased risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy," Ellis says.

Ellis and colleagues analyzed data from two long-term studies that followed the progress of 242 girls in the United States and 520 girls in New Zealand for their entire childhoods, from before kindergarten to approximately age 18. Based on multiple interviews and questionnaires administered over the years to both parents and children, the data covered everything from family demographics to parenting styles and child behavioral problems to childhood academic performance.

The researchers defined absence of the biological or adoptive birth father at or before the child reached age 5 as early onset of father absence, while late onset of father absence was defined as occurring when the child was between 6 and 13.

The researchers found that father absence places daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. While the researchers said these findings need to be replicated in non-Western, "the striking similarity in results across the United States and New Zealand samples underscores the robustness and generalizability of the findings," Ellis says.

The study results are published in the current issue of the journal Child Development.

Ellis and colleagues noted that girls whose fathers left the family earlier in their lives had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by those whose fathers left at a later age, followed by girls whose fathers were present.

"It is not just a matter of whether the father is absent, but the timing of that absence," Ellis says. "This issue may be especially relevant to predicting rates of teenage pregnancy, which were seven to eight times higher among early father-absent girls, but only two to three times higher among later father-absent girls, than among father-present girls."

Even when the researchers took into account other factors that could have contributed to early sexual activity and pregnancy, such as behavioral problems and life adversity, early father-absent girls were still about five times more likely in the United States and three times more likely in New Zealand to experience an adolescent pregnancy than were father-present girls.

Girls who grew up in otherwise socially and economically privileged homes were not protected. "Father absence was so fundamentally linked to teenage pregnancy that its effects were largely undiminished by such factors as whether girls were rich or poor, black or white, New Zealand Maori or European, cooperative or defiant in temperament, born to adult or teenage mothers, raised in safe or violent neighborhoods, subjected to few or many stressful life events, reared by supportive or rejecting parents, exposed to functional or dysfunctional marriages, or closely or loosely monitored by parents," Ellis says.

The researchers suggested several mechanisms to explain the results. One is that a longer duration of father absence results in the daughters having greater exposure to their mothers' dating and future relationship behaviors, and this exposure may encourage earlier onset of sexual behavior in daughters.

Another possibility is that girls who experience father absence may undergo early personality changes that orient them toward early and unstable bonds with men.

One study weakness is that it could not identify possible genetic causes for the findings, say the study authors. For example, fathers whose inherited temperaments predispose them toward aggression, disruption and resistance to control may be more likely to abandon their families. Daughters who inherit such traits may be more likely to engage in early sexual activity.

In the United States, this work was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. In New Zealand, this work was supported by the Health Research Council, National Child Health Research Foundation, the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board.

- Health Behavior News Service

Articles in The Science of Mental Health are written by the originating institution.

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