Diana Zuckerman, PhD and Jessica Becker
It is well-known that teen pregnancy puts girls at risk for a lifetime of poverty, but a new study shows that teen mothers are also at high risk of being abused by their boyfriends or husbands in the months after their baby is born. Shockingly, 41% of all new mothers under 18 at a University of Texas medical center reported being abused by their husband, ex-husband, boyfriend or ex-boyfriend at some point during the two years after giving birth.1
The study found that many of these new mothers reported being slapped, hit, kicked or physically hurt by a husband or boyfriend. The worst time for the young mothers was in the first three months after childbirth, when 21% reported being abused by their male partners, compared to 13% of young mothers 18-to-24 months after childbirth. Although the percentage of the girls that were abused decreased over time, the severity of abuse increased: 40% of teens who were abused during the first three months of motherhood called the abuse severe, whereas 62% of those abused in the 18-24 month period labeled the abuse as severe.
The 570 girls in the study — average age 16.8 years — were approximately equally divided among Mexican Americans, African Americans, and whites. About one-third reported being married (legally or under common law). Fifteen percent were high school graduates or held a GED, 15% had previously given birth, and 14% were employed during the last three months of pregnancy.
The timing of the abuse varied among the mothers by race: the highest rates of abuse were during the first three months for Mexican Americans (23%) and African Americans (24%), whereas the highest rates of abuse for whites were 18 months after childbirth (22%). The frequency of assaults did not vary much over time, with 16%-22% of those who were abused by their partners reporting that assaults were frequent.
The abuse did not necessarily start after the baby was born; in fact, girls who were abused while pregnant were at higher risk than were other girls. Of the 60 girls who were victims of physical abuse during pregnancy, 43% also were harmed during the first three months after childbirth. Of those who weren’t hurt during pregnancy, 19% were harmed during those first three months.
Subsequent studies suggest that being abused and having babies at a young age forms a vicious cycle. For instance, a study of 973 sexually active adolescent girls found that abuse by an intimate partner was associated with higher levels of becoming pregnant again within 24 months.2 It may be that repeat pregnancies among adolescent mothers in violent relationships happen because the young women find it very difficult to refuse sexual activity or have conversations with their abusive partners about contraception.3
These studies have important implications for parents or adults who work with teen mothers and their boyfriends or husbands. Since teen parenthood is assumed to be difficult, parents, teachers, health professionals, or youth workers wouldn’t necessarily suspect that violence is causing the stress or other warning signs they notice among new teen parents. The research indicates how important it is to ask teen parents what is going on in their lives, to ask about and watch for signs of physical abuse, and to be available to talk about issues other than those specific to parenthood.
1. Samantha Harrykissoon, M.P.H., Vaughn Rickert, Psy.D. & Constance Wiemann, Ph.D. Prevalence and Patterns of Intimate Partner Violence Among Adolescent Mothers During the Postpartum Period. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. April 2002
2. Roberts T, Auinger P, Klein J. Intimate Partner Abuse and The Reproductive Health of Sexually Active Female Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2005, 36
3. Raneri L, Wiemann C. Social Ecological Predictors of Repeat Adolescent Pregnancy. Perspectives On Sexual and Reproductive Health. March 2007, 39(1)