Adolescent parents and their relationships with parents and peers
How relationships with whānau and friends affect adolescent parents and the way they parent.
By Hilary Nobilo, Brainwave Trust Aotearoa
Adolescence can be exciting and stressful all at the same time. Rangatahi are no longer children, but they’re also not yet adults. As they adapt to the many changes they face during these years, the type of relationships they have with their whānau and peers will play an important part in how they develop. Most rangatahi who become parents and have strong support from whānau, friends and others close to them will do well in their parenting role.[i]
Developmental needs of rangatahi
The period of adolescence can span up to a decade. Adolescence begins with the start of puberty, which may be as early as 8 or 9 years old, and ends in the early- to mid-20s when they transition into adult roles and responsibilities. The early, middle and late stages of adolescence reflect different developmental needs and capabilities. There is likely to be a considerable difference in the developmental needs and capabilities of a 14-year-old teen parent compared with a 19-year-old parent.
A developmental need of rangatahi is to gradually learn to be less emotionally dependent on their parents. They are also learning to take more responsibility for themselves as they move towards becoming young adults. These years are a learning curve for them as they build these skills, and young people who become parents are faced with additional challenges as they take on their new role. They need to learn to nurture, care for and take responsibility for pēpi. Some will also be learning to manage a household and finances for the first time, and all of this may be expected of them before they’re developmentally ready.[ii] They now have to focus their attention on pēpi at a time when they would usually be focusing on developing their own maturity.[iii]
Younger rangatahi in particular are unlikely to be cognitively and emotionally ready for parenthood and, like most new parents of any age, may know little about how to parent well.[iv] Support from their own parents, friends and others close to them can make a big difference to how they cope, not only as parents but also in understanding and meeting their own developmental needs.
Messages from the past
New parents carry messages from how they were parented into the way they parent their own tamariki.[v] The way young people were parented can affect the feelings they have towards pēpi, the ways they interact with and respond to them, and their attitudes towards child-rearing.[vi] However, they may not always be consciously aware that some of their feelings and behaviours are actually influenced by their own early experiences.
There may be parts of their past that are important to them, and that they want to repeat with their own tamariki. There may also be experiences that they don’t want to repeat, and so they want to parent in different ways. Support people can help rangatahi to understand what babies need to grow well, and to understand their particular baby. A lot of support and practice may be needed if this doesn’t match the young person’s own experiences. For example, a young parent may think their child’s tantrum is ‘naughty’ behaviour if they don’t understand that their tamaiti hasn’t yet learnt appropriate ways to manage and express their strong feelings.
The balancing act for whānau
Parents of rangatahi may feel like they’re performing a balancing act to meet the young parent’s needs. They need to offer guidance and support while also encouraging them to become more independent.[vii] It’s a bit like learning to drive a car. Initially, a learner driver needs an experienced adult alongside, sometimes giving explicit instructions. As the learner becomes more skilled at driving, less guidance is needed. Rangatahi who have whānau who are warm, loving and communicate well are likely to interact with their pēpi in similar ways and to have a more positive attitude towards their parenting.[viii]
Some rangatahi live with their pēpi in their whānau home. Those who do are more likely to continue their education and may find it easier to adjust to being a parent.[ix] Rangatahi who have a supportive mother who shares the care of pēpi and models good caregiving tend to be more confident in their parenting abilities.[x] Whānau may be able to provide extra help if they feel pēpi is not receiving ‘good enough’ care or is unsafe.
Lack of whānau support
While not all young people have good support from their whānau and community, those who do may be in a stronger position to parent well and may have healthier tamariki than those who don’t have this support.[xi]
Some rangatahi who had difficult or risky childhoods, such as experiencing abuse or neglect, may see their whānau as a negative influence. They may distance themselves in an attempt to break the cycle of the harmful parenting they experienced.[xii] Sometimes tension can occur and whānau may even disown their pregnant rangatahi.
When there is little or no support from friends and whānau or relationships involve a lot of conflict, young people are more likely to experience depression or parenting stress, which can then affect how their pēpi develops.[xiii] High levels of whānau conflict can also increase the risk that rangatahi will abuse their own pēpi.[xiv]
Whānau supporters have a particularly important role when there is little whānau support. They can encourage rangatahi to have positive interactions with pēpi, teach positive parenting skills and help rangatahi with strategies for problem-solving. This support is not only helpful for the young parent, but will also have a positive impact on the emotional health of pēpi.[xv] Support workers will need to use the same skills that are effective in parenting rangatahi: a mix of warmth, good communication and reasonable expectations.[xvi]
The safety of pēpi is of greatest importance. Rangatahi need to be sure that anyone else caring for their pēpi will keep them safe. Looking after pēpi can be relatively easy when they’re asleep and looking adorable, but carers need to know how to respond to a crying or unsettled baby or what to do if there’s a toileting accident or sickness. Support workers could help young parents to think about who might be in their network that is able to provide care for pēpi when they need a break.
The importance of friends
The roles and responsibilities of being a parent may be an additional challenge for rangatahi as they work through their own developmental needs. Rangatahi need to focus on their education, spend time with their friends and explore different identities as they gain a sense of who they are and who they want to be.[xvii] Friends are extremely important to them. They spend more time with each other and less time with their parents. Peer relationships can help them learn about themselves, build a sense of identity and develop their values and beliefs.[xviii]
The peer group may also play a part in a young person’s pregnancy. Many rangatahi are influenced by what their friends are doing; they want to fit in. If sexual activity and unprotected sex is common among a group of close friends, rangatahi who are part of the group are more likely to also be sexually active and not use contraception.[xix] Rangatahi who use alcohol are also more likely to be sexually active[xx] and to have unplanned pregnancies[xxi] — see Adolescents and alcohol. Those who have difficulties at school or who have dropped out of school are also more likely to become pregnant.[xxii]
Friends can be important providers of emotional support for a young parent.[xxiii] However, rangatahi who become parents may lose some of their close friends and may feel judged by their wider peer group.[xxiv] After the birth of their pēpi, they’re no longer able to socialise in the same way. It’s not so easy to just ‘up and go’, and it’s hard to go home to a pēpi who wakes in the night after you’ve been to a party. They may also feel they don’t fit in with their peers any longer.[xxv] If most of their friends are not parents, it can be particularly difficult for them to adjust to their parenting role.[xxvi]
Rejection by their peers or feeling their friends don’t approve of them can hit hard. During adolescence there are changes to areas of the brain that process emotions,[xxvii] and young people become more sensitive than they were as children to how they think others see them.[xxviii] Feeling rejected can also increase their risk for depression.[xxix] Support people may be able to link them with other young parents in their community, which may help ease their feelings of isolation.
In addition to becoming parents and learning about the needs of their pēpi, rangatahi still need to address their own developmental needs, and peers, parents, whānau and support people play a big part in how they do this.[xxx]
- Young people’s own early experiences can influence the way they parent pēpi.
- Parents, whānau and friends play an important role in supporting young parents.
- With good support, many rangatahi will parent well.
- Younger rangatahi, in particular, may not be developmentally ready for parenthood and may need higher levels of support.
An insight into adolescence
Our own set of scales: Risk and protective factors
Re-thinking teen drinking
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Dhayanandhan, B., Bohr, Y., & Connolly, J. (2015). Developmental task attainment and child-abuse potential in at-risk adolescent mothers. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24, 1987–1998.
diFilipo, D., & Grose-Fifer, J. (2016). An event-related potential study of social information processing in adolescents. PLoS One, 11(5), 1–14. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4871529/(external link)
Dijkstra, R. K., & Veenstra, R. (2011). Peer relations. In B. Brown & M. Prinstein (Eds.), Encyclopedia of adolescence (Vol. 2, pp. 255–259). New York: Academic Press.
Easterbrooks, M. A., Chaudhuri, J. H., Bartlett, J. D., & Copeman, A. (2011). Resilience in parenting among young mothers: Family and ecological risks and opportunities. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 42–50.
Hans, S. L., & Thullen, M. J. (2009). The relational context of adolescent motherhood. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health (3rd ed., pp. 214–230). New York: The Guilford Press.
Matua Raki. (2017). Bridging the gap: Young people and substance use. Retrieved from https://www.matuaraki.org.nz/resources/bridging-the-gap-young-people-and-substance-use/711(external link)
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[i] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[ii] Hans & Thullen, 2009
[iii] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[iv] Dhayanandhan, Bohr, & Connolly, 2015
[v] Australian Childhood Foundation, 2012
[vi] Easterbrooks, Chaudhuri, Bartlett, & Copeman, 2011
[vii] Hans & Thullen, 2009
[viii] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[ix] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[x] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xi] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xii] Easterbrooks et al., 2011
[xiii] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xiv] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xv] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xvi] Steinberg, 2016
[xvii] Steinberg, 2016
[xviii] Dijkstra & Veenstra, 2011
[xix] Mollborn, Domingue, & Boardman, 2014
[xx] Rothman, Wise, Bernstein, & Bernstein, 2009
[xxi] Matua Raki, 2017
[xxii] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xxiii] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xxiv] Hans & Thullen, 2009
[xxv] Hans & Thullen, 2009
[xxvi] Beers & Hollo, 2009
[xxvii] Steinberg, 2016
[xxviii] diFilipo & Grose-Fifer, 2016
[xxix] Bellmore, 2011
[xxx] Steinberg, 2016