In one of the few projects where researchers were pleased to be “completely wrong” in their hypothesis, the team found the theoretical “double-risk” adolescent girls faced when giving birth to a premature baby didn’t eventuate.
Despite all the relative advantages of their circumstances the quantitative data suggested adult women reported higher levels of psychological distress before leaving hospital than their child peers.
“I think perhaps it came down to expectations,” said Associate Professor Liz Jones from Griffith’s School of Applied Psychology.
“Adult mothers often try and have everything planned down to the finest detail and when things don’t go to plan (like most of parenthood) they can become very distressed.
“Adolescent mothers are far less distressed; pre-term birth is just another in a number of challenges they have to face. Our quantitative data found little difference in the levels of distress experienced by adolescent mothers of pre-term or full-term infants,” she said.
What does change very quickly is the experience of parenthood once the mothers leave the hospital. Adolescent parents are suddenly face-to-face with all the challenges their comparative lack of resources force on them.
Whether it is negotiating social security or public transport, the biggest challenge facing adolescent mothers was the social stigma and unwanted moralising of members of the public and sometimes professional support workers.
“The girls often found people were incredibly rude to them and because they’re forced to use more public services they’re forced to have more frequent contact with people they perceived were negatively judging them,” said Associate Professor Jones.
“There are some implications in this for nursing educators in how they train nurses to interact with adolescent mums. Nurses often develop a clear idea of what is a good mum and bad mum and a ‘good mum’ is often the mums who turn up to nursery a lot.
“Adolescents who struggle with transport and sometimes don’t feel like spending an hour and a half on a bus and train getting to nursery become ‘bad mums’.”
Conversely adult mums who were better able to negotiate the hospital and social security system elicited generally positive support from the public, staff and other parents.
The findings offer lessons for the public and health professionals as the stereotypes of adolescent parenting rarely match reality.