In 2019, 171,674 adolescents under the age of 20 gave birth in the United States and one third of these adolescents identified as Hispanic or Latinx (Martin et al., 2021
). This transition into parenthood requires adolescents to take on these parenting roles while congruently navigating adolescent romantic relationships (Mollborn & Jacobs, 2015
), relationships with non-residential coparents (Mollborn & Lovegrove, 2011
), as well as relationships with their own parents (Perez‐Brena et al., 2015
) and friends (Humberstone, 2019
). Despite our understanding that adolescents must navigate multiple relationships, there is limited research aimed at understanding the multilayered experience of adolescent parents’ intersecting identities (self and socially prescribed roles and categories) as they navigate diverse social roles (e.g., romantic partner, parent, daughter) in relation to other social categorizations (e.g., gender, age, ethnicity/race). The little work that exists has shown how ethnic/racial identity and parent status inform adolescent fathers’ adjustment (Cedeño et al., 2021
), and how youth face stigma from school staff and peers due to their parenting status (Bermea et al., 2018
). This limited research showcases the way these intersecting social identities inform the opportunities and resources allocated to adolescent parents that ultimately inform their future success; however, few studies have aimed to assess how multiple salient identities inform one another and, in particular, how age is an important social positioning factor that informs the assumptions, constraints, and experiences of adolescent parents. As national trends in adolescent pregnancy have consistently declined since 1991 (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2017
), adolescent parents face increased stigma and marginalization (Bermea et al., 2018
), and it is important to understand the processes that create these promotive or inhibiting environments. Informed by the integrative model of youth development (García Coll et al., 1996
), we aimed to understand the multiple and intersecting social identities that adolescent parents manage and the manner in which these identities inform adolescents’ experiences of supports and constraints.
The integrative model of youth development (García Coll et al., 1996
) was created to counteract deficit perspectives that were historically presented when discussing the adjustment of ethnic minority youth and youth belonging to other marginalized populations. Informed by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work (1991
), García Coll et al., 1996
posit that individuals inhabit multiple simultaneous and intersecting identities. These intersecting identities situate people in different levels of power and marginalization which are created through overlapping systems of marginalization (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, etc.) enforced within macro (e.g., education, financial, justice systems) and micro (e.g., teacher-child interactions) contexts by imposing constraints on individuals’ behaviors and access to resources (Crenshaw, 1991
). Depending on the level of imposed constraints and resource accessibility, an environment can be inhibiting or promotive of successful adjustment (García Coll et al., 1996
). However, inhibiting environments can be counteracted by adaptive family (e.g., diverse parenting styles) and cultural systems (e.g., cultural values and norms) to create resilience factors that support positive and, often, unique developmental outcomes. When looking at U.S. Latinx families for example, some adaptive cultural tools could include familism values that promote high family involvement and cohesion, or respect for elders’ values (Knight et al., 2010
). These cultural values are embodied in adaptive family dynamics such as high instrumental support (e.g., childcare), co-residence, and involvement with extended family (Sarkisian et al., 2006
). Latinx families might also display “no-nonsense” parenting tactics that are embodied by high warmth and high control, especially those living in lower income and higher risk neighborhoods (Halgunseth et al., 2006
; White et al., 2013
Intersecting Identities and Age
Previous researchers have noted social positioning factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and disability as important identities that elicit societal reactions and place individuals in different levels of power and marginalization (Crenshaw, 1991
; García Coll et al., 1996
). Recently, age/stage of development has received more attention as an important social position or identity (Calasanti & King, 2015
; Pain & Hopkins, 2010
). For example, age is a changing social identity that informs individuals’ roles, responsibilities, and rights (e.g., norms and responsibilities for an adolescent vs. middle adult). Much of this work has emerged from research with elderly individuals and their experiences in losing agency as they enter late adulthood (e.g., loss of the right to drive; Calasanti & King, 2015
; Pain & Hopkins, 2010
). However, youth might also experience constrained agency as they have not aged into certain privileges (i.e., often due to legal age laws), such as the ability to drive or work (Manian, 2017
). Although some of these restrictions might be developmentally appropriate (e.g., legal age for employment) and healthy for youth, some might be inflexible and restrictive for adolescents who do not follow traditional developmental pathways (e.g., living arrangements for teen coparents). Further, because of their stage of development, youth might face stigmas and stereotypes regarding their cognitive abilities (e.g., decision-making), egocentrism, intentions, maturity, and physical abilities (Arnett, 1999
; Garstka et al., 2004
). Adolescents, for example, might face ageist
stereotypes that characterize them all as egocentric, risk-focused, and immature, and these stereotypes influence how they are treated within society and within their families. Often these stereotypes intersect with other social identities, such as gender. For example, gendered socialization practices inform the social contexts that boys (e.g., peer, work) and girls (e.g., family) are increasingly expected, or allowed, to inhabit when entering adolescence (Rafaelli & Ontai, 2004
). Therefore, age is a dimension of one’s social identity that informs access to resources, agency, and exposure to age-based stereotypes, discrimination, and socialization experiences.
The Intersecting Experiences of Adolescent Parenthood
By including age as a key social identity and ageism as a potential marginalizing system for adolescent parents, we can identify unique ways in which this group might face marginalization. For example, adolescent parents have shared that they are subject to prejudice and discrimination due to their “early” transition into parenthood (Bermea et al., 2018
). Cultural scripts regarding gender and family dynamics (Knight et al., 2010
; Raffaelli & Ontai, 2004
) influence the norms and expectations of what it means to be a good mother/father and a good daughter/son. For example, social trends and expectations of when
an individual becomes a parent (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2017
) and traditional conceptualization of what
makes a good mother (e.g., selfless, responsive, warm; Barclay et al., 1997
) or father (e.g., provider; Cabrera et al., 2000
) inform the social pressures youth face to embody social scripts of being a good mother/father/adolescent. This social pressure might be more difficult for adolescent parents because they become parents almost a decade before the majority population (i.e., average age of 26 for college educated; 24 for non-college educated; Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2017
) and experience decreased group belonging and increased stigma. Further, by breaking the social script of becoming parents early in life, youth face discriminatory messages from social and school systems. For example, in a qualitative study of 83 adolescent parents, participants reported receiving explicit discriminatory messages from school staff and peers, along with experiencing oppressive school policies based on their parental status (Bermea et al., 2018
Second, adolescent parents residing in the U.S. are legal dependents of their parental figures and do not hold the same autonomy and privileges as adults regarding their parenting choices, sexual reproductive health, and personal rights (Manian, 2017
). Therefore, adolescent parents are subject to additional constraints on their behavior. Because of their underage status, most adolescents are required to live with their parent or legal guardian (Manian, 2017
) and are required to attend some form of schooling (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007
). For example, all U.S. states require students to attend school until age 16, and 21 states require students to remain in school until they graduate or until they reach age 18. These legal requirements, coupled with driving limits and employment laws, inform the level of agency in which adolescents transition into adult roles (e.g., parenting role).
These legal, residential, and school attendance requirements create both promotive and inhibitive environments that influence adolescents’ parenting behaviors and adjustment. In support of this statement, adolescent parents have reported that their primary sources of support are (in order of importance): residential parents (henceforth referenced as grandparents), their child’s other biological parent, professional service providers (e.g., school staff and mentors), friends, and extended family (Gee & Rhodes, 2003
; Nitz et al., 1995
). These individuals provide emotional and instrumental support; however, they have also been described as sources of stress and gatekeeping, especially for fathers. Specifically, non-residential adolescent fathers reported experiencing more grandparent gatekeeping, compared to mothers, that physically (e.g., limiting time with a child) or emotionally (e.g., putting down a parents’ behavior) inhibited their involvement with their child (Krishnakumar & Black, 2003
). As a result, although adolescent mothers wanted the father involved with the child, their reduced agency due to their age and economic dependence prevented such involvement. Turning to the role of schools, legal requirements to attend school might provide access to additional sources of support (e.g., teachers, mentors), while also exposing youth to discriminatory messages from other, non-supportive adults and peers (Bermea et al., 2018
). In other words, youth’s age and legal requirements might provide access to certain social resources, but also expose them to additional constraints. Taken together, assumptions about youths’ abilities, maturity level, and intentions based on their stage of development, coupled with the constraints imposed on adolescents due to their age can impact adolescent parents’ ability to achieve their parenting and personal behaviors and goals.
The current study used the integrative model of youth development (García Coll et al., 1996
) to understand how adolescent parents experience marginalization and support based on their adolescent and parenting status. Our study focused on this stage of development because age is seen as a changing social position factor that informs individuals’ roles (e.g., student vs. worker), responsibilities, rights (e.g., agency; Calasanti & King, 2015
; Pain & Hopkins, 2010
), and perceptions of abilities and intentions (Arnett, 1999
; Garstka et al., 2004
). Similarly, parenting, imposes social pressures on individuals as it is marked by culturally informed definitions of what it means to be a “good” mother or father (Barclay et al., 1997
; Cabrera et al., 2000
). Our use of multiple groups allowed us to triangulate experiences and perspectives to understand how different groups conceptualized the adolescent parenting role and the way they support or constrain adolescents’ transition into this new role. These multiple perspectives allowed us to identify several forms of support and constraints that were salient for all the groups (e.g., dependent parenting and large coparenting teams), and some that were invisible to one group but salient to another (e.g., when gender roles were most salient to school staff, experiences of discrimination were most salient to adolescents). They also allowed us to identify areas where each group experienced the same behavior differently because of their implicit stereotypes or assumptions about adolescents or based on the power dynamics enacted in an experience (e.g., grandparent’s well-meaning advice was perceived as coercive to adolescents). Thus, the use of multiple reporters in the focus groups painted a richly complex experience of intersecting social identities/roles and the promotive and inhibitive environments that inform adolescents’ ability to navigate these identities/roles.
Findings from the data provide important implications for both research and practice. Concerning research implications, we first turn to the way our findings support the tenet of the integrative model and the notion that age is an important social positioning factor. The integrative model of youth development (García Coll et al., 1996
) focuses on the importance of understanding how social identities/roles intersect, along with understanding how social systems create promotive and/or inhibitive environments that influence development and adjustment (García Coll et al., 1996
). Two social categories (i.e., age, gender) and three social roles (parent, student, child/family member) emerged within the data. In most cases, these social identities were described in relation to one another, and often certain identities superseded other identities (e.g., parent superseded daughter, student, and adolescent) or certain identity combinations created unique contexts, expectations, and outcomes (e.g., gendered parenting expectations). Of note, contrary to the other social identities that emerged, no one explicitly mentioned gender as a salient social identity by itself. However, it informed how youth were perceived in their social roles (i.e., parent, student). Thus, gender impacted the social construction of other identities. These findings support the idea that adolescent parents are managing various intersecting identities that create unique social roles and expectations, and diverse levels of marginalization. Further, the manner in which these intersecting identities informed adjustment was identified through various supports and imposed constraints that created a promotive and/or inhibitive environment for the adolescent. These supports and constraints were represented through the multigenerational familial contexts that adolescents navigated (i.e., dependent parenting, coparenting teams), stereotypes and discriminatory experiences that marginalized them, or assumptions that informed why adult support networks (e.g., parents, school staff) imposed additional social demands (i.e., balancing parenting and school, high expectations, grandparental control, gatekeeping, imposed gender roles) onto them. The results presented in this study support past research (Bermea et al., 2018
) which suggests adolescent parents face stigma by school staff and non-parenting adolescents. However, our results extend this work by showing that even supportive adult networks, such as school staff who directly serve school-age parents, hold implicit biases that constrict adolescent parents.
Both grandparents and school staff, hold important power positions over the youth in two important contexts: home and school. Therefore, their implicit expectations and assumptions of adolescent parents have real world implications that may lead to reducing resources (e.g., threatening to kick a student out), constraining behaviors (e.g., imposing curfews that impact father involvement), and advice being interpreted as directives. Assumptions and stereotypes about adolescents’ intentions and maturity further led these adults to, often, invalidate youth’s opinions and requests; thus, reducing youth’s potential voice and sense of empowerment in their own development and parental adjustment. Boys appeared to have been affected most by these assumptions and stereotypes, as gendered expectations of fathers being breadwinners were linked to grandparents encouraging boys to prioritize work over school, and sometimes barring fathers from being involved with their children until they proved themselves responsible (e.g., a provider). These demands, informed by gendered expectations and assumptions, sometimes led to fathers’ dropping out of school. Being aware of these implicit biases and assumptions, and how they create promotive/inhibiting contexts will help inform trainings directed at these adult support networks, especially practitioner trainings.
Across these qualitative themes, age or being young was identified as a salient identity/social role that adolescents inhabited. Further, the role of being a student and child/family member were partially informed by the participants’ age as adolescents are expected to attend school (e.g., legally or because of social scripts) and the role of being a child/family member was often related to participants’ need to live with parents and behave according to their parents’ rules. In addition, the developmental period of adolescence was a prevalent factor in the way many of the “social demand and resources” themes were described through the legally required contexts in which adolescents resided, stereotypes that adults held about adolescents, and social expectation of what adolescents should accomplish. The prevalent role of an adolescent’s age in the delineation of social roles and social demands supports the notion that age is an important social positioning factor that intersects with other identities to create a unique developmental context, which sometimes leads to stressful social demands for adolescent parents. Although the participants described these social demands as stressors, many of these experiences were also protective. The duality of these experiences as a stressor and a protective factor are important as they highlight the ambivalence created by transitioning into parenthood at an earlier age than most parents. For example, the legal requirement of living within the familial home (or another legal guardian) and attending school created a context where adolescent parents interacted with several supportive adults. These adults provided advice (even if it was unwanted at times), and monetary and instrumental support, while also constraining behaviors and access to resources.
The grandparents intended to impose some of the demands described above upon youth to support them through the transition to parenthood, and with the intention to avoid becoming negative stereotypes. The themes of parenting control and high expectations/responsibilities described multiple ways in which grandparents imposed high demands on youth with the intention to help adolescents achieve their academic potential and embrace their parenting role. These strategies might be reflective of a no-nonsense parenting style, which is common among Latinx parents and parents residing in low income and high-risk neighborhoods (Halgunseth et al., 2006
; White et al., 2013
). Previous research suggests that parents use this no-nonsense parenting style to help children and adolescents succeed in response to, or in anticipation of, environmental challenges (White et al., 2013
). Within this study, it is possible that grandparents were utilizing a similar no-nonsense parenting style to help adolescent parents succeed in integrating and achieving the multiple, and often conflicting, tasks of transitioning out of adolescence and into parenthood. As noted within our final theme (i.e., maturity and growth), grandparents and adolescents describe that the challenges related to these transitions led adolescents to mature and embrace their parenting role – possibly because of this no-nonsense parenting. However, future research should explore the role of grandparents’ parenting behaviors on adolescent parents’ successful academic and parental adjustment to verify this perceived causal relation.
These findings support additional tenets from the integrative model (García Coll et al., 1996
), which suggest that families and cultures develop unique adaptive tools (e.g., diverse parenting styles, cultural values) in response to environmental stressors. In line with recent work examining these adaptive processes (Perez-Brena et al., 2018
), the data highlight how adaptive tools can be both protective and onerous, depending on the outcome of interest. However, future research should explore the nuances of parenting and coparenting within adolescent-headed families to understand elements that are both stressors and protective factors to increase our understanding of such factors and better inform intervention designs and clinical practice.
The information gleaned from these focus groups/interviews also provides other important implications for practice. For example, the qualitative codes and multiple voices represented in this study support previous research regarding the significant role grandparents play in coparenting with adolescents (Gee & Rhodes, 2003
). Such information highlights the importance of incorporating an intergenerational component to allow grandparents to participate in services aimed for pregnant or parenting adolescents. These services should include opportunities for family members to communicate their parenting goals and intentions and alert participants to imbalanced power dynamics and their implications. Incorporating intergenerational components into these services might help decrease situations where misinterpretation and miscommunication among the coparenting team creates stress and conflict. Currently, coparenting programs have been created to help mothers and fathers negotiate such parenting goals; however, we do not know of any program that accounts for intergenerational coparenting. Such services would be beneficial for adolescents and their parents as it would allow them to receive individualized supports as they transition into their new roles, while helping them continue to foster a positive coparenting alliance. Participants also highlighted the stress and social demands caused by managing multiple adolescent and parenting identities. These multiple identities might lead to feelings of role overload by the adolescent parents. Programs would benefit from highlighting the importance of integrating self-care techniques to reduce parenting stress and role overload. Despite these stressors, many sources of family and cultural resilience (e.g., large coparenting teams, strong family support, shared high expectations) were noted, and practitioners should find ways to foster and validate these sources of resilience to empower adolescents and their families as they pursue their personal and family goals.
Limitations and Future Directions
Despite the importance of this study in examining intersecting identities among adolescent parents, we do acknowledge some limitations of our research. First, our sample was comprised of adolescent parents who were highly involved in an intervention program, had graduated from high school, and held positive relationships with their parents/guardians. Thus, the narratives from this sample might represent only one type of adolescent parent experience. Future research would benefit from examining the experiences of a variety of adolescent parents who follow different family and life course paths.
Second, our sample consisted of families who resided in the U.S. and identified as Latinx. Although ethnic-homogenous designs are considered strong research practice because they allow researchers to identify within-group heterogeneity and develop a deeper, contextualized, understanding of human development (Fuller & García Coll, 2010
); our ethnic-homogenous sample might be a reason why culture and ethnicity did not emerge as salient identities in the focus groups. Only one person mentioned culture explicitly—a school staff member. Therefore, cultural factors might not have been salient from an insider’s perspective, but they were salient from an outsider’s perspective. This is another reason why collecting data from multiple groups can help provide an opportunity to gather insider and outsider perspectives on a given topic (Rogoff, 2003
). Further our sample was primarily comprised of Mexican-origin, English speaking Latinx families, which is representative of the region in which data were collected, but did not represent the diversity of national origin, acculturation, and generational status that exists within the U.S. Latinx population. Thus, additional research is needed to represent a wider array of experiences of Latinx adolescent parents. Future research should also replicate this study in other contexts to understand if our findings are generalizable to other U.S. and global populations. For example, the fact that Latinx families endorse higher family support and obligation values (Knight et al., 2010
) might have led these adolescents to experience more support from family members during this transition into parenthood compared to other non-Latinx families.
Third, we conducted these focus groups with adolescent parents who had already graduated; thus, the retrospective nature of these qualitative responses might include perception or recollection biases. Perceived experiences are valid, as they are often most salient to the individual and thus recalled by the individual; however, future research using quantitative data and observational-ethnographic data would provide additional insights and another form of multi-level reporting found in qualitative data (e.g., qual-to-qual coding). Further, although our focus groups led to the identification of themes around intersecting identities that were important for our research, we did not set out to explore this topic in the focus groups/interviews. The fact that these themes emerged amongst the interviews and focus groups, speak to the salience of these experiences and challenges to adolescents and their support network. Future research would benefit from including explicit questions focused on the adolescent parents’ identities, perhaps within one-on-one interview that could elicit more rich data and assumed confidentiality. Lastly, it is important to note that, as with any qualitative coding, coder biases might have influenced theme identification within our results. Although our coders utilized multiple techniques to decrease potential biases (e.g., multiple coders, inter-coder agreement, and multiple rounds of review), biases might still have occurred. Future research would benefit from additional examinations that either confirm or supplement the results.
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