Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Adolescent Parenthood

  • Jada WilliamsEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2489-1



Producing and caring for an offspring by a parent who is under the age of 20 years-old.


Adolescent parenthood has been associated with many negative outcomes, such as decreased physical and mental health of the offspring (Pinzon and Jones 2012). Although there have been fluctuations in the rate of teenage pregnancies in the United States, there has been a relatively steady decline in the number of children born to adolescents through the 1990s and 2000s (Pinzon and Jones 2012). This entry will discuss some of the negative outcomes associated with adolescent parenting as well as some of the evolutionary psychological theories behind human mating and parenting. A large portion of evolutionary research on parenting focuses on the paternity uncertainty hypothesis, the mating opportunity cost hypothesis, and parent-offspring conflict theory.

Paternity Uncertainty Hypothesis

Because males can never be certain about whether they are the biological father of their putative offspring, they may engage in behaviors to decrease their uncertainty and/or conserve their resources by decreasing their resource expenditure on their offspring (Trivers 1974). Human female fertilization is internal, indicating that maternity is 100% certain, but paternity is oftentimes in doubt. Facial resemblance and odor recognition are two cues men use to familiarize themselves with the child (Alvergne et al. 2009). Fathers of children whose faces resemble their own reported greater levels of emotional closeness with them than those lacking facial resemblance (Daly and Wilson 1988). Fathers also showed more affection and attachment to children whose smell they can easily recognize. Men invest more resources, time, and affection in children who are genetic offspring than those who are genetically unrelated offspring (i.e., stepchildren). In addition, fathers who have a romantic relationship with the mother and/or cohabitate with the mother are far more likely to invest in parenting than fathers who are not currently romantically involved, or cohabitating, with the mother of their offspring (Daly and Wilson 1988). A number of factors play a role in this dynamic, including the type of romantic involvement the couple had during the pregnancy and after birth, paternal ability to provide and support kin, as well as the father’s level of education, socioeconomic status, relationship with his family of origin, ethnic background, cultural values, moral values, and spirituality (Jones and Pinzon 2012).

Mating Opportunity Cost Hypothesis

The mating opportunity cost hypothesis indicates that males are less likely to take on parental care because, in doing so, they risk missing additional mating opportunities. Although females can acquire many mates, they are not able to reproduce as frequently as males because of the 40-week gestation period of pregnancy (Buss 2012). During these 40 weeks, the pregnant female is not able to reproduce again, but males could seek extra mates to increase their reproductive opportunities. The reproductive success of males is limited to the available number of fertile females that can successfully conceive. Adolescent males are typically not ready to settle with just one female and are very aware of the possibility of potential mates.

Parent-Offspring Conflict Theory

Parent-offspring conflict occurs when parents’ perceived needs of their offspring differ from the offspring’s perceived needs and desires (Trivers 1974). Because of adolescents’ lack of experience and resources, they are less likely to raise a child effectively and correctly. Infants are completely dependent upon their parents for survival, which calls for the parents to consistently be available and prepared. The theory of parent-offspring conflict predicts that each child will generally desire a larger portion of the parent’s resources than the parents want to give (Daly and Wilson 1988). With both the parents and the offspring being young, one would expect conflict between the two to be more frequent than if the parent was of an adult age and mindset. This could lead to negative outcomes for the offspring. For example, a young parent may not have the patience to raise a young child or be willing to sacrifice certain activities or resources – such as developing relations with friends via social gatherings, or spending money on desired but unnecessary items (e.g., jewelry and other convenience items) – that may be necessary to forego when raising a child. Parent-offspring conflict may also arise if a parent decides to secure a new mate. Acquiring a new mate may lead to a decrease in available resources, which could lead to greater competition for these dwindling resources and, therefore, greater conflict. Parent-offspring conflict over the parent’s mating decisions remains a topic that is not often explored empirically (Buss 2012).

Decreased Life Expectancy

Adolescent parents’ offspring often suffer from decreased life expectancy. There are many cases of child neglect and infanticide brought on by the pressures of life that adolescents do not effectively handle in their best judgement. The proportion of births leading to infanticide are highest among women between ages 15 and 19 years-old (Bugos and McCarthy 1984). Teenage mothers show the highest rates of infanticide, more than three times higher than any other age group (Daly and Wilson 1988). Infants of adolescent mothers also have an increased risk of adverse health outcomes including higher incidences of perinatal mortality, low birth weight, preterm birth, developmental disabilities, and poorer developmental outcomes (Jones and Pinzon 2012).

Paternal desertion is also cause for concern regarding the offspring’s health and life expectancy. Child mortality rates significantly increase when the father is not present (Hurtado and Hill 1992). When abandoned by the father, adolescent mothers are left with few choices, including abandoning or giving up the child for adoption, killing the child and investing available resources toward mating, or simply living with it and raising the child alone. Younger and/or unwed mothers are more likely to commit infanticide, devoting their efforts more toward other adaptive problems, such as surviving or attracting men who are willing to invest resources in them (Buss 2012).

Many cases of inadequate care of infants born to adolescent parents can be explained by drug usage, domestic violence, psychological disorders, and potential socioeconomic problems. Research conducted in Sweden illustrated the long-term socioeconomic effects of adolescent parenthood (Vinnerljung et al. 2007). Specifically, adolescent parents possess an increased likelihood of low educational attainment, single living arrangements, and welfare dependency – supporting the view that childbearing during adolescence is a risk factor for poverty in later life.

Violence during pregnancy is most recognized between the ages of 12 and 24 years old. Approximately 61% of the subjects in their study have experienced IPV, with 37.5% reported having experienced it during pregnancy (Mylant and Mann 2008). Studies conducted in urban areas revealed that homicide is the leading cause of death of reproductive aged women (Daly and Wilson 1988).

Infants of adolescent mothers have an increased risk of adverse health outcomes, including higher incidences of perinatal mortality, low birth weight, and developmental disabilities (Jones and Pinzon 2012). In fact, infant mortality rates are significantly greater for infants of adolescent mothers under the age of 15 (Phipps et al. 2002).

Having multiple children during adolescences has also been associated with several negative outcomes. Repeat births have been linked to decreased educational achievement, increased dependence on governmental support, increased infant mortality, and low birth weight (Jones and Pinzon 2012). Research has revealed that a repeat or second pregnancy occurs in 19% of adolescent mothers within 1 year of the first birth. That probability increases to 38% within 2 years of the first birth, with higher rates for those with low socioeconomic status (Partington et al. 2009).

There are also many factors that contribute to improved outcomes of adolescent mothers that are recognizable. Studies have shown that having completed school before becoming pregnant, actively participating in a program for pregnant adolescents, having a sense of control over one’s life, experiencing little social isolation, and limiting the number of children one produces are all factors associated with improved outcomes of adolescent mothers (Jones and Pinzon 2012). Another study showed that although these factors improve an adolescent mother’s success outcome, it did show negative effects concerning the offspring. More than two-thirds of women in that study had completed high school, had regular employment, and were not dependent on the government for income. However, even with these positive effects for the mother, there may still be negative outcomes for the offspring. That same study found the offspring of those adolescent mothers displayed greater rates of difficulties at school and behavioral problems at home than did offspring of adult mothers (Jones and Pinzon 2012).


Ultimately, adolescent parenting can produce many risks for offspring. However, this is not to say that negative outcomes afflict all adolescent parents. Adolescents are still developing, which may impede their progress as a parent. Although there are many negative outcomes for infants of adolescent parents, there are many family factors associated with improved outcomes for both adolescent mothers and their children. These include early childcare for the infant provided by the infant’s family of origin, social and familial support that also allows the adolescent parent to finish school, playful interaction between the infant and father, and stability of marital status for the adolescent mothers (Jones and Pinzon 2012).



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG (outside the USA) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of South Carolina – BeaufortBlufftonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina - BeaufortBlufftonUSA