The Experiences of Mothers Aged Under 20: Analysis of Data From the Growing up in Scotland Study

Analysis of Growing Up in Scotland data on the circumstances of first-time mothers in Scotland who were aged under 20 at the time of the child’s birth. Data collected up to the child’s sixth birthday were used to compare these circumstances with those of mothers who were aged 20 to 24 and aged 25 or older at the time of their child’s birth.

7 Summary And Conclusion

7.1 The policies and initiatives which support parents in Scotland and the social policy frameworks which inform them seek to ensure that all children have the best possible start in life. In doing so, these policies aim to address inequality in many guises - of income, health, opportunity and experience. In order to address such inequality, it is also necessary to understand it.

7.2 The findings from this report confirm much that is already known about the circumstances and experiences of mothers aged under 20 compared with older mothers. For example, the significant socio-economic disadvantage they face - in terms of lower qualifications, lower employment levels and lower income. However, these findings go beyond this existing knowledge providing further insight into perhaps lesser known differences - and similarities - between younger and older mothers including between mothers aged under 20 at the child's birth and those who are just a little older - in their early twenties. Many of these differences and similarities - particularly those between mothers in the two younger age groups - are important to acknowledge in order to provide the right support for our youngest parents to ensure that the inequality they and their children face is addressed. These findings are timely given the Scottish Government's commitment to the publication of a teenage pregnancy and young parents strategy in Spring 2015 and will be crucial in informing the development of that strategy.

7.3 There is much that is positive about these findings. Most mothers under 20 - and those in their early twenties - have strong social networks; feeling close to their friends and family and believing they get the support they need from these sources. Although many younger mothers are single when their child is young, over time they begin to form relationships and many are married by the time their child starts school. In cases where the child's father is not resident, the vast majority are in regular contact, seeing or speaking to the child at least once a week. Young mothers have generally positive pregnancies and births - the majority report good health during their pregnancy, have natural births and perceive the birth to have been better or much better than they expected. Their general health otherwise is also good, and the majority also report good physical and mental wellbeing. Providing the right support for younger mothers is difficult, but it is encouraging that, whilst they are more likely to have negative views than older mothers, most mothers under 20 have a positive attitude towards seeking and receiving support with parenting.

7.4 Our findings do, however, clearly illustrate the socio-economic disadvantage faced by mothers who are under 20 when their first child is born and this fundamental disadvantage underlies many of the other differences shown in this report. In addition, the report shows that whilst mothers in their early twenties are relatively more advantaged than those aged under 20, they are nevertheless significantly disadvantaged when compared with mothers aged 25 or older. Addressing these issues would therefore have particular impact in reducing inequality more broadly between younger and older parents. Indeed, in a range of research using GUS data (Bradshaw, 2010, 2011; Bromley and Cunningham-Burley, 2011; Parkes and Wight, 2011; Parkes et al, 2012) maternal age has rarely emerged as a factor independently associated with child outcomes. Those findings suggest, instead, that child outcomes are influenced more by the behaviours, experiences and circumstances of parents than by their age. As such, younger mothers who exhibit protective behaviours - such as frequent reading to their child and a healthy lifestyle - and who provide a secure and stable environment, have similar chances of raising children with positive outcomes as older mothers who do the same. The key difference is that their more challenging starting point - a pregnancy which is often unplanned, an unstable relationship, lack of educational qualifications, and a peer group who largely don't have children - makes it considerably more difficult for mothers under 20 to achieve the security and stability necessary to develop and support positive child outcomes.

7.5 In many cases the child arrives before young mothers are able to complete school or further education qualifications - this is particularly the case for those aged under 20. In following these mothers forward, it is clear that few have, or take, the opportunity to pick up their pursuit of qualifications in the six years following the child's birth. Yet education is an important factor which can contribute to resolving the other socio-economic differences - lower employment and lower income - and is a key factor which influences a range of child outcomes - particularly in relation to cognitive development (see Bradshaw, 2011). With better qualifications (or training) come more employment opportunities and higher income. Other GUS research (Barnes et al, 2010) has shown worklessness and low 'average work intensity' (a measure of the amount of work parents do across a defined period) to be important factors associated with risk of children experiencing persistent poverty. The recently introduced education and training policies - Opportunities for All and the Post-16 Transitions Framework - already acknowledge the need to recognise the higher risk of disengagement among young parents. Additional support to allow young parents the opportunity to continue their education or training would benefit them, and their children, in many positive ways.

7.6 The lower education qualifications of mothers aged under 20 may explain, in part, their lower employment levels. It may also account for lower levels of employment amongst those in their early twenties, when compared with mothers aged 25 or older. However, it is unlikely to account for all of the difference. Employment levels of mothers aged under 20 could be raised by improved opportunities for education and training, but widening the availability of and access to affordable childcare is also important. It is clear that teenage parents - and those in their early twenties - are significantly more dependent on informal sources of care - particularly the child's grandparents - than are older mothers. In many cases, these informal sources may not provide the care necessary to allow the mother to work - not least because grandparents of children with younger mothers tend to be younger themselves, and are therefore more likely than older grandparents to be in employment. Such issues will gain more prominence as the children in the younger cohort get older, the recent changes to eligibility for income support affect mothers of those children, and other benefit changes introduced in 2013 take effect. A key factor which will affect how easy or difficult young mothers find it to secure and sustain employment will be the availability of suitable childcare and suitably flexible jobs.

7.7 Mothers aged under 20 and those in their early twenties tended to have worse health than older mothers. In measures of both general health and mental wellbeing they rated themselves more poorly than mothers aged over 25. It is notable that mothers in their early twenties reported the poorest health on a number of these items. These are differences which appear to persist over time. This appears contradictory to what may be expected; being younger in age, we probably expect mothers aged under 25 to have better health. However, it appears that perhaps their poorer health behaviours - younger mothers, and particularly mothers aged under 20, were more likely to smoke, including during pregnancy - and their greater socio-economic disadvantage - repeatedly shown elsewhere to be associated with poorer health on a range of measures - counteract their youthfulness.

7.8 Parental physical and mental health and health behaviours are known to be associated with child outcomes (Parkes et al, 2012; Marryat and Martin, 2010). Those parents with better health themselves, and who practice better health behaviours - such as not smoking, better diet, more physical activity - are more likely to have children with better health and health behaviours. Thus smoking cessation programmes aimed at teenagers, and perhaps specifically at pregnant mothers aged under 20, would be beneficial for improving the health of mothers and their children. This is perhaps one area where the proposed increase in the quantity and quality of education about motherhood within the Curriculum for Excellence could focus. Indeed, mothers in their early twenties, with significantly higher smoking rates than those aged 25 or older, may also benefit from some targeted intervention in this respect.

7.9 The Parenting Strategy commits the Scottish Government to providing better support to all parents. In particular, it emphasises the need to move towards a culture where parents feel encouraged to seek support. It is notable, from the findings in this report, how wary teenage parents appear to be of formal support services and their reluctance to use them. Teenage parents were less likely to attend antenatal classes, to seek advice on child health, to have used resources like play@home, ChildSmile, and were more likely to prefer informal sources for information and advice, on a one-to-one basis. These trends have significant implications for the delivery of parenting support for young mothers. It is also worth highlighting that mothers in their early twenties, whilst being less wary of professional support and more confident about who to ask than those aged under 20, are nevertheless less sure than older mothers of seeking and receiving parenting support than older mothers. They were also similarly as likely as mothers aged under 20 to feel that there was not enough support and advice being offered.

7.10 There have already been a number of interventions delivered in Scotland aimed at improving the parenting capacity of teenagers. It is important that the experiences and outcomes from these interventions are shared and reflected upon, along with the findings here. This will ensure that as a national approach to increased parenting support is adopted, the specific perceptions of and attitudes towards support amongst teenage parents are better understood and their needs more widely met.

7.11 Yet mothers aged under 20 are not the only group who emerge disadvantaged in this analysis. Across many of the domains of health, parenting and social life considered here, the circumstances, behaviours and experiences of mothers aged 20-24, whilst often being relatively positive when compared with those aged under 20, are still more negative than for older mothers. Their poorer general and mental health and health behaviours, including during pregnancy, are of particular note alongside their lower use of parenting support - such as ante-natal classes - and more negative attitude towards such support. Socio-economic circumstances and social networks are also less stable amongst these mothers than for those aged 25 or older. Therefore some consideration must also be given to enhancing the support available to new mothers in this slightly older age group.


Email: Liz Levy

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