Psychology, Department of


Date of this Version

June 1993


Published in EARLY ADOLESCENCE: Perspectives on Research, Policy, and Intervention, Edited by Richard M. Lerner. LAWRENCE ERLBAUM ASSOCIATES, 1993. Copyright 1993 Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. Used by permission.


In the United States, adolescent family formation has been considered a major social problem since the late 1970s. The sources of concern are multiple. First, teenage childbearing is associated with risks for the mother and her child, including health problems, reduced life chances, and a greater likelihood of living in poverty. Second, a large and increasing proportion of births to teenagers are nonmarital; this appears to compound these risks. Third, the rate of teenage childbearing in the United States far exceeds those in other Western, industrialized countries (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1986). The high rate of adolescent pregnancy in the United States results in close to half a million births annually (Pittman & Adams, 1988). These births have huge social as well as personal costs: In 1988, annual public spending to support families begun with an adolescent birth approached $20 billion (Center for Population Options, 1989).

Until recently, little attention was given to early adolescent childbearing, probably because births to girls under age 15 represent a relatively small proportion of teenage births. Social concern increased, however, following reports that the prevalence of sexual activity is increasing in this age group (e.g., Hofferth, Kahn, & Baldwin, 1987). Because young adolescents are especially poor contraceptors, increases in sexual activity are likely to result in higher pregnancy and birth rates for this group.

The prior inattention to young adolescent reproductive behavior has resulted in a paucity of data concerning sexuality and childbearing in youngsters under age 15. This chapter explores the available information on this topic. Initially, data on early adolescent reproductive behavior is reviewed, including findings on sexual activity, contraceptive use, pregnancy, and births, as well as the consequences of early adolescent childbearing. Next, some of the developmental and contextual factors that may contribute to early adolescent family formation are explored. Finally, recommendations for research and policy are discussed. Where possible, existing data on young adolescents are cited. Because most studies have not considered adolescents under age 15 as a separate group, however, it is necessary at times to extrapolate from data on older teenagers.