Policy should support fathers in young-parent-families

1 April 2005

The UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe, children born to teen mums are among the most vulnerable of all children – and in African Caribbean cultures, early pregnancy is still very common. Now researchers have identified a ‘protective factor’ in the children born to these young mothers: their relationships with their biological fathers. This is something policy-makers do well to take note of: ‘child–father relationships are particularly important for children from ‘high risk’ families’ says Professor Judy Dunn of the Institute of Psychiatry in London.

Dunn found that among these children later adjustment was linked with the amount of contact they had had with their non-resident fathers. This is quite an unusual finding, since in most separated family research, it is the quality rather than the amount of father-child contact that shows up as important.

The younger a young father is at the time his baby is born, the less likely he is to remain in contact – and be available as a potential ‘buffer’ for his child in times of stress. At Bristol University, researcher David Quinton and his colleagues discovered that where the young mother and father were both aged 17 or under, only 2% of young dads were involved with the child nine months after the birth. As men’s ages rose, so did their involvement, regardless of the age of the young mother. For women in the youngest age group, the proportions of involved men grew to 43% for men between the ages of 18–21 and 100% for men aged 22 and over.

Was the father’s age the real predictor of his later involvement? Not necessarily. Fathers were much less likely to be involved after the birth if their baby’s mother lived with her parents during the pregnancy – and of course the very young mothers were more likely to have been living with their own parents (or with one of them): 63% of the youngest group of mums lived‘ at home’ while only 13% of those aged 22 or over did so.

Teenage pregnancy policy makers take note: doing what we can to support the father-child relationship in teen mother families may be of real value and importance to their children. Supporting a young couple to live together as a ‘new family’ will help some. For others, this would not be advisable – but steps can still be taken to optimise the presence of the young fathers in their children’s lives.

References:

Dunn J, Cheng H, O’Connor TG & Bridges L (2004) ‘Children’s perspectives on their relationships with their nonresident fathers: influences, outcomes and implications’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines 45(3):553-566

Quinton D, Pollock S & Golding J (2002) The Transition to Fatherhood in
Young Men is available on the ESRC database REGARD at http://www.regard.ac.uk

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