For many women, thoughts of pregnancy bring on feelings of excitement, elation, and joy, but to others, pregnancy is associated with uncertainty, fear, and anxiety.
And for teenage girls, these negative feelings are compounded greatly, as they are thrust into adulthood and forced to make decisions they feel unprepared to make. For more information see Adolescence Developmental Psychology.
Pregnant teenagers require impartial advice, which unfortunately, is often a daunting task to find. When a teenager discovers she is pregnant, emotions run high. She might feel scared, confused, unsure of herself, and frightened of what her parents might think.
But with the help of counselors and therapists, pregnant teenagers are able to consider all options available to them, and receive proper care if they decide to continue their pregnancies.
The Counselor's Role
An unintended pregnancy further complicates the already confusing physical and mental changes of adolescence. Teenagers crave more and more independence throughout adolescence, and place more importance on socializing with friends and establishing an identity.
But childbirth brings heavy responsibilities to a teen whose biggest concern before the pregnancy might have been planning for her next weekend.
Now the teen must worry about how to break the news to her parents, and what she should do about the pregnancy, all while simultaneously dealing with new financial pressures, criticism from peers and teachers, and concerns about finishing school.
According to “Adolescent Pregnancy: A Challenge for Counselors,” published in The Personnel and Guidance Journal, adolescence brings a maturational crisis on the teenager that teens must resolve before advancing to adulthood.
But the addition of a pregnancy to the already complicated adolescent development process only further increases the risk of stress and anxiety.
The article, written by researchers Carolyn D. Foster and Gary M. Miller, describes how counselors must help the pregnant teenager navigate different crises during pregnancy.
After dealing with the shock of discovering a pregnancy, a teenager seeks out the guidance of a counselor to plan the next stage. Society as a whole does not look favorably on unplanned pregnancies, so the teen might feel worried and confused about what to do next.
Because the teenager might feel guilty or anxious about the pregnancy, the counselor must focus on assisting the teen through the mental and emotional distress she will feel, while also providing practical advice regarding the pregnancy.
For example, Foster and Miller say counselors must refrain from interjecting their own viewpoints, and support the teen through whatever decision she makes. In this capacity, the counselor becomes a supportive source of advice to the teen.
The counselor works with the teen to develop a plan to inform the teen's significant others, including parents. A teenager might consider this one of the most frightening steps of the pregnancy. Some parents might react with anger and frustration, while others might display disappointment.
The counselor conducts role-playing exercises with the teen, taking the role of the parent. In order to provide additional support for the teenager, the counselor also might suggest bringing the parents into the counseling setting.
After informing the parents, the teen should then come to a decision about what to do about the pregnancy. A teen has three choices regarding the pregnancy: she can choose to terminate the pregnancy; become a mother; or give up the child for adoption. For more information see Teen Pregnancy Support.
The counselor must provide impartial and accurate facts about each of these options in a nonjudgmental environment. If the teen decides to carry out the pregnancy, the counselor should begin discussing school and available support services.
Being pregnant and in high school is often a traumatic and frightening experience for teenagers. A pregnant teenager might attend school until the time of delivery, but some teens find the difficulties of carrying a child while also working toward an education too much to handle.
At school, they face the opinions of their peers and teachers, who might single them out and isolate them. Unfortunately, many pregnant teenagers drop out of school and don't ever return. According to the CDC, only 50% of teenage mothers obtain their high school diplomas by age 22.
Without the help of a counselor, a teenager might feel lost and confused about what steps to take to ensure a healthy pregnancy. To lessen the amount of stress in their lives, some teenagers develop unhealthy coping strategies to deal with the pressure.
How Teenagers Cope with Pregnancies
Sometimes when faced with an intimidating task, a teenager shuts down and ignores the problem.
For pregnant teenagers, this kind of coping has detrimental health effects for both the mother and the developing baby. Mothers who don't receive proper prenatal care are three times more likely to have low-birth weight babies, according to womenshealth.gov.
In the study, “Coping Styles of Pregnant Adolescents,” published in Public Health Nursing, different coping styles are analyzed for their frequency of use and effectiveness. Conducted by researchers Karen Myors and colleagues, the study explains that pregnancy introduces stresses to teenagers that they might feel unprepared to handle.
Myors found that pregnant teenage girls often use optimistic, emotive, and evasive forms of coping to deal with the pressures surrounding pregnancy. The study asked them which coping styles they used, and allowed them to select more than one.
In the study of 71 pregnant teenagers, 78.3% said they “told [themselves] not to worry because everything would work out fine” when feeling stressed (about the pregnancy) (optimistic), and 68.1% of the sample said they sometimes “tried to put the problem out of [their] minds and think of something else” (evasive). A further 72.9% of the girls said they “worried about the problem” or “got mad and let off steam” (emotive).
A teenager who tries to cope emotively might become extremely upset at herself and even act out in anger because of her situation. Sometimes this takes the form of screaming or hitting to get her mind off of the pregnancy.
Evasive coping is similar in that the teenager attempts to distance herself from the true source of her stress. Instead of meeting the problem head-on, the teenager might shut off from the rest of the world by listening to music in her room, or might even use drugs or alcohol to avoid facing the issue.
Teenagers in the study report that even after using evasive and emotive methods of coping, their stress levels often remain high. But by using an optimistic form of coping, their fears are often temporarily put to rest.
Myors states that while the optimistic approach of coping is often successful in reducing stress, it suggests that the teens don't have a thorough grasp of what is happening to them, and what the outcome of the pregnancy might entail.
For example, consider a 17-year-old girl who has just discovered she is pregnant with her first child. At first, she panics, unsure of who she should talk to or confide in. After discussing the situation with her parents and deciding to keep the child, the teen begins to think motherhood won't be so bad.
In fact, she becomes excited about the situation, thinking to herself that everything will work out fine, and that she doesn't really have to worry about it for a few more months.
She begins to glorify the idea of motherhood, envisioning the experience as more fun than work. She might fantasize about dressing the child up, taking the child out shopping with friends, and playing games with the baby.
But the reality of the situation is that parenthood is much harder work than she believes. While she glamorizes thoughts of motherhood, she forgets that babies require constant attention, eating into the social life the teen mother takes for granted.
The teen forgets that soon she must worry about changing the babies diapers, feeding the baby, cleaning up after spills and messes the baby makes, and waking up at unusual hours to calm the crying child.
This form of optimistic coping, while possibly efficient during the time of stress, is also unrealistic. In order to paint a more realistic picture of motherhood, Myors suggests counselors need to work with pregnant teenagers on problem-solving techniques and long-term planning abilities to ensure the healthy development of the children.
Giving Teens Proper Parenting Tools
Many teenagers don't know what they'll be doing within the next 24 hours, so for pregnant teens, the need to plan months – if not years – in advance seems daunting.
The adolescent brain is still growing through the teenage years, and many teens are unprepared to predict long-term outcomes. But some counselors believe that “previewing,” a form of counseling that allows teenagers to practice mothering techniques before their children are born, helps teens to overcome their cognitive deficits.
According to “Adolescent Pregnancy: An Intervention Challenge,” published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, previewing encourages pregnant teenagers to analyze potential future scenarios with the child.
In the article, researcher Paul V. Trad describes how previewing gives teenagers a realistic view of how childbirth will affect their lives, adapting to the changes and meeting them head-on.
During previewing, the counselor first determines the teenager’s expectations about the pregnancy. He or she might do this by first asking the teenager if she is able to describe the physical changes on her body that pregnancy imposes.
This first exercise allows the counselor to develop a relationship with the teen, providing the counselor with an insight about how realistically the pregnant girl views the pregnancy. The teenager writes down her expectations of childbirth, and later compares it with the realities of childbirth.
The counselor helps her by rehearsing “enactment” exercises, which might include video footage of proper parenting techniques. These enactment exercises help the teen develop an accurate view of what mothering will require of her.
During enactment exercises, the counselor introduces the pregnant teenager to the behaviors of babies, increasing the teen's understanding of the child's needs.
These include introducing the pregnant teenager to verbal cues like “baby talk,” and techniques like establishing eye contact with the child, and proper cradling techniques. The counselor then asks the teenager how she will use these techniques with her child, and how the techniques affect the child’s development.
Previewing continues after the birth of the child to encourage the mother to plan for the ongoing emotional and behavioral development of the child. By envisioning outcomes of development, the mother will know when predict the baby will display certain behaviors, such as crawling, and talking.
Helping Pregnant Teens
While support services exist for pregnant teens, many studies suggest more work must be done to accurately meet the physical and mental health needs of pregnant adolescents.