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Families Matter: A Research Synthesis of Family Influences on Adolescent Pregnancy

Original article by: Brent C. Miller

The author reviews the research literature concerning the influence of the family on adolescent pregnancy and pregnancy risk. The review focuses mostly on parent/child relationships although some attention is given to family contextual and biological influences. In most of the empirical studies reviewed, adolescent reports of sexual behavior and contraceptive use were used as the outcome measures although in a few studies, pregnancy or birth was used.

Parent/child connectedness, including closeness, warmth, and attachment, was the most consistent predictor of teen pregnancy outcomes across the studies reviewed. Teens who are close to their parents are less likely to engage in sexual intercourse and more likely to use contraception.

Parental control/regulation (e.g., monitoring, supervision, rules) was also found to be an important influence, with the majority of researchers reporting that greater control/regulation is related to better teen pregnancy outcomes (e.g., reduced sexual intercourse). In some studies, however, no relationships between control/regulation and pregnancy outcomes were found. Some researchers have also found that very strict monitoring is associated with increased risk behaviors. Further research is needed to clarify the relationship between parental control and adolescent pregnancy.

The literature on the effects of parent/child communication on teen pregnancy outcomes has been inconsistent. Many studies have reported an inverse correlation between communication and pregnancy outcomes (i.e., more communication is associated with less risk of teen pregnancy). However, an almost equal number of studies have reported no relationship, and several studies have even reported a positive relationship (i.e., more parental communication is associated with a greater risk of teen pregnancy).

There are several possible explanations for the discrepancies. For example, many studies survey parents at one point in time, and it is difficult to determine which comes first, parents talking to their teens about sex or teens having sex. Similarly, the studies define communication differently and use different survey items to assess communication.

Parental connectedness, parental control/regulation, parent/child communication, and parental values sometimes have a combined influence on teen pregnancy outcomes. For example, parental communication of values toward sex and abstinence may be most effective when the relationship between parent and child is a close one.

There are many family contextual and biological variables that affect teen pregnancy outcomes too. Generally, teens who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, have parents of low socio-economic status, live with a single parent, have a history of family violence and abuse, or have older siblings who are sexually active or have given birth are at greater risk for pregnancy. Biological influences include hormone levels, dopamine receptor genes, and age of events such as first menstrual period and first pregnancy.

Based on his review, the author concludes that parents, through connectedness, control/regulation, and communication of values, play an important role in decreasing the risk of pregnancy in their teens. Because there are numerous influences on teen pregnancy from multiple sources, parents cannot determine whether their adolescents become pregnant, but they can influence their adolescents' behavior and the likelihood that they will become pregnant.

Miller, B. (1998). Families Matter: A Research Synthesis of Family Influences on Adolescent Pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy