Psychological Profiles of Pregnant Adolescents

Teenage pregnancy is neither the result of an accident nor that of destiny.

With the exception of rape or incestuous relationships, it is very rare that an adolescent becomes pregnant by ignorance, naivety or inability to use a contraceptive method. Often, another logical explanation can be found, if the young woman is allowed to express herself freely. But to do so, an ‘alliance’ must rapidly be formed with her to create the climate of confidence and complicity necessary to best manage all the problems that can arise during such an early pregnancy. An attempt should be made to unravel the events that led to this situation. In certain cases, it can be useful to view these pregnancies in an ethnopsychological context: indeed, sexuality and procreation are strongly linked in African and Australian societies, while the two are totally independent in Western cultures.

We have been able to identify a certain number of behaviors that correspond to rather particular profiles. For example, some adolescent pregnancies can be defined as ‘cultural’ and are fully approved by the ‘community’. They correspond to a ‘verification’ of the integrity of the body and sexual organs.

Furthermore, the pregnancy reassures the young woman of her capacity to procreate and gives her access to the maternal function. Childbearing increases one’s social standing in numerous traditional societies (African, Gypsy and Maghrebian). Pregnancy constitutes a rite of passage between childhood and the world of adults. It corresponds to the passage of reproductive power from one generation to another. A close association exists among fertility, sexuality and social bonding. Indeed, it is a young woman’s reproductive function that is the center of rituals: social recognition of the first menstrual cycles, marriage and deflowering, with subsequent pregnancy and childbirth definitively acknowledging the passage to adulthood. As we will see below, these pregnancies, programmed and anticipated by the couple, the family and clan, evolve normally and the majority of them proceed without any complications. In addition, the risk of abuse of the newborn in this setting is low.

Completely different are the pregnancy and desire for a child that correspond to the search for an object to help overcome a childhood deprivation. This pregnancy produces a child and the young woman becomes a mother; that is to say, she achieves access to adulthood. In France, this status is accorded by law.

Attaining recognition as a mother allows her to identify with her mother and often to concretize a latent conflict. All studies have shown that many minor mothers had difficult childhoods and poor relationships with their parents. This pregnancy is thus a corporal ‘aggression’ with dual intent: to attack her childhood to purposefully annihilate it and to attack her mother by pushing her towards old age. These pregnancies are also qualified as ‘miserable’, with the infant being used to compensate for the depressive anxieties and sense of abandonment of the adolescent mother. Physical violence, deprivation and negligent parenting during early childhood appear to be strongly associated with early parenthood. As for the origin of many problems of adolescence, poor self-esteem is associated with early pregnancies.

Among risk factors identified by numerous studies are dropping out of school, aggressiveness, and abusive consumption of substances ranging from food to hard drugs. In contrast, a history of sexual abuse during childhood does not appear to be a risk factor for early parenthood.

The last profile of teenagers whose pregnancies seem to be the expression of aggressiveness directed against their own bodies is the ‘risk-taking’ or ‘violent’ pregnancy. This behavior can be considered as an ordeal, a test of fire, whose main objective is to expose the body to danger. If boys choose behaviors bearing social risk, such as speeding or delinquency, girls more readily turn towards direct attack on their bodies, for example, attempted suicides or eating disorders.

Pregnancy clearly is a means of attacking the body: attempted suicide is frequently observed shortly before or after the pregnancy, giving the former a different meaning. In general, these impulsive pregnancies occur in the framework of unprotected and high-risk sex and can be considered to be intentionally destructive acts. While pregnancy is an accomplished desire, a savored satisfaction and a shared pleasure for the adult woman, it is none of these things for the teenager; for her it is all isolation, anxiety and anger.

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Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD