Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Stigma and Teenage Mothers

By Kyla Ellis-Sloan
Teenage pregnancy and parenthood are often cited as causes of a number of social problems in the UK. For example, it is pointed out that teenage pregnancy carries health risks for mother and baby and that teenage parenting leads to poverty and low educational outcomes. Consequently, teenage parenthood (and particularly motherhood) is considered to be a significant concern for policy makers in the UK. The previous Labour government responded to these concerns by implementing the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. This aimed to reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancy and to support those who became teenage parents. In 2011 Sarah Teather (then Minister for Children and Families under the current government) stated that the prevention of teenage pregnancy remained a priority for the coalition but policies would be now implemented through an integrated localised approach rather than a centrally led and funded strategy.
Interestingly, these concerns and policy responses have emerged despite considerable debate as to the causes and consequences of teenage pregnancy. For instance, educational failure and poverty are argued to be causes rather than consequences of teenage pregnancy (see for example Arai 2009 and Duncan et al 2010). Furthermore, academics point out the significance of socio-economic status on poor outcomes. In other words, teenage pregnancy and parenthood is not inevitably nor inherently detrimental to mother and child. Nonetheless this body of work remains overshadowed by the negative associations noted above. Furthermore, dominant representations of teenage parenthood position the teenage mother herself as a social problem. This stems from long held and oft repeated assumptions that becoming a teenage mother brings with it an entitlement to housing and welfare benefits. Pregnancy is therefore often seen as a choice motivated by greed, immorality or laziness. It should then be of little surprise that there is a stigma attached to teenage motherhood.

Experiences of stigma became particularly apparent during an ethnographic study with young mothers. The research was conducted over a year at three separate teenage parent support groups and examined decisions made by young women as they become teenage mothers. In-depth interviews and observations at support group meetings were used to uncover motives, influences and constraints on key decisions such as those around contraception use. The research also focused on young mother’s interactions with support services and so considered decisions relating to education and employment following childbirth. These methods also, however, elicited reports of negative assumptions, hurtful judgements and sometimes ill treatment based on the women’s age and linked to the stigma attached to youthful parenting.

Drawing on Erving Goffman’s work (1963), stigma is defined here as being a characteristic or trait which brings an individual into disrepute. Stigma is applied to people who don’t meet the norms and values of society or who are believed to have behaved inappropriately. So, a pregnancy marks a teenager out as being ‘prematurely’ sexually active. The continuation of that pregnancy, when considered in conjunction with negative understandings of teenage pregnancy, marks teenage mothers out as being wantonly ignorant or even immoral. This article demonstrates that young mothers are keenly aware of the way in which teenage pregnancy and parenthood are publically perceived. The young mothers discussed in this article try to avoid this stigma by presenting their lives and decisions in ways which challenge dominant assumptions. For instance, they emphasise how they were not at fault for their pregnancies but have nonetheless taken responsibility and become good mothers.

The impact of stigma on teenage mothers and their families is an important field of study.  In a recent article, The Daily Mail drew on data from the Office of National Statistics to highlight stigma as a potential factor in the reported decline of teenage pregnancy (Chorley and Doughty 2014). Whilst it is possible that this is a contributing factor, we do not know whether stigma has been at the heart of declines which have been evident for some time. Moreover, I would urge caution in welcoming this outcome of the stigmatising of teenage motherhood. We know that in previous decades, shame attached to unplanned or unwanted pregnancy (for instance in the case of illegitimacy) often led women to extreme and horrific decisions about their own and their babies lives. I am not suggesting that this is likely to reoccur, not least because of the advent of contraception and abortion, but we do need to consider the implications for women driven to abortion through shame. Furthermore, we also know that stigma has important consequences for women who do become young mothers. For instance, we know that good quality ante-natal care is important to the well-being of both mother and baby. Where this has been accessed, many health risks associated with teenage pregnancy are reduced if not eliminated (Macintyre and Cunningham-Burley 1993; Irvine et al 1997; Botting et al 1998; Kaufman 1999). Yet stigma can deter young mothers from accessing support services during and after pregnancy. This brings into question whether stigma, rather than being a teenage mother per se, is at the heart of some of the poor health outcomes of teenage pregnancy. Stigma should not, therefore, be applauded as a way to reduce teenage pregnancy and parenthood. Indeed, this article recommends that greater efforts need to be made to challenge misconceptions surrounding young motherhood and thus reduce stigma.

This piece is based on the article by Kyla Ellis-Sloan published in the February 2014 issue of Sociological Research Online: Teenage Mothers, Stigma and their 'Presentation of Self'.


ARAI, L. (2009) Teenage Pregnancy: The making and unmaking of a problem. Bristol, Policy Press.

BOTTING, B., M. Rosato, et al. (1998) Teenage Mothers and the Health of Their Children,  Population Trends 93: 19-28.

DUNCAN, S., R. Edwards, et al. (2010) What's the Problem with Teenage Parents? In: S. Duncan, R. Edwards and C. Alexander (eds) Teenage Parenthood: What's the problem? London, The Tufnell Press.

GOFFMAN, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity Harmondsworth: Penguin.

IRVINE, H., T. Bradley, et al. (1997) The Implications of Teenage Pregnancy and Motherhood for Primary Health Care: Unresolved issues, British Journal of General Practice 47: 323-326.

KAUFMAN, M. (1999) Day-to-Day Ethical Issues in the Care of Young Parents and Their Children in: J. Wong and D. Checkland (eds) Teen Pregnancy and Parenting: Social Ethical Issues. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

MACINTYRE, S. and S. Cunningham-Burley (1993). Teenage Pregnancy as a Social Problem: A view from the United Kingdom, in: D. Rhode and A. Lawson (eds) The Politics of Pregnancy: Adolescent Sexuality and Public Policy. New Haven, Yale University Press.


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