Focus on the Infant while Understanding Teenage Parents

Irene SullivanIf you’ve worked with, defended, advocated for or made decisions about at-risk youth, you’ve surely run into the difficult problem of teenagers becoming parents themselves.

As a juvenile judge in Florida, I remember becoming frustrated at the apparent immature, selfish, unrealistic and irresponsible behavior displayed by these young moms and dads in dealing with life’s most important task: raising a child.

But, you know what? I often forgot about the baby. In my haste to modify probation and curfew to allow, in factencourage, these young parents to accept an equal responsibility for their infant or toddler, I often ruled without considering the newborn’s needs. We all need to be educated about teen parents, never-married parents (without a relationship) and the significance of infant attachment as it relates to the regulation of emotions, behaviors and attention spans.

Two plenary sessions at the recent annual conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago this June provided a lot of helpful information to anyone who deals with teen or never-married parents. Plenty of research on attachment confirms that the 0-3 baby and toddler need stability; routine; a home with the same sounds, smells and touches; one or two primary caregivers to bond to, trust and connect with, and peace.

So, as juvenile judge, what was I thinking of when I encouraged a teenage mom, 16, and dad, 17, to “split the baby” between them. Mom would get four nights a week; three. Since Mom went to school and Dad worked full time, and they couldn’t agree, they both found their own day care provider. One night a week during the time they had custody of the baby, each of them attended night school, so grandparents on each side picked up the baby. They attended two different churches on Saturday and Sunday, with different child-care centers. I counted at least ten caregivers in about five different places each week! Not good for the baby’s continued brain development and ability to grow emotionally.  Yet it was something I thought would encourage parental responsibility. Often these cases don’t get to family court, so a juvenile judge may be making rulings that affect a child’s mental and emotional development.  We need more training, I believe.

We also need to be a little more understanding of the way the teen parents react to their newborn.

According to Mindy F. Mitnick, Ed.M., M.A., a licensed psychologist from Minneapolis, and presenter at the conference, in many ways these teenagers are behaving just like adult “never- married parents” who struggle to share parenting with people they barely know except for that one-night stand, the tryst in the back seat, or the encounter after too much to drink. Speaking at the 49th Annual Conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in Chicago, Dr. Mitnick outlined the foundations for a healthy co-parenting relationship. I learned why emotionally immature teenagers have such difficulties as young parents, and why equally shared parenting for teenagers who live apart may be harmful to their child.

“Relationship 101,” Dr. Mitnick said, “begins with trust, mutual support, healthy partners, and a balance of power. People who’ve been married, have an established relationship, and then get divorced, can work hard to build back the relationship they had in the beginning.” Never-married people lack this foundation and have little or no experience to build upon.

Now, then, apply this to teenagers– teenagers with raging hormones, developing brains, poor impulse control and often little or no parental role models—and it’s easy to see the depth of the problem. Then, to complicate matters, consider the infant or toddler’s needs in connection with the developing brain and attachment needs. Maybe grandparent takeovers aren’t such a bad idea?

According to Dr. Mitnick, unmarried fathers were less likely to be involved in decision-making, they reported interference from the mother and were distrustful.  Unmarried mothers tended to use negative gate-keeping practices, limited the fathers’ access, especially overnights, disputed parenting time sharing and prevented fathers from decision-making roles. Add to these factors the inability to pay child support, and grandparent concerns or takeovers, and teenage co-parenting becomes an impossible dream.

Finally, it’s a sign of progress to get teen parents to agree, especially if the child’s attachment’s needs are met. All those who work with juveniles would benefit from the types of inquiry Dr. Mitnick made. She left the audience with helpful questions along “the spectrum” of relationships between unmarried parents that might be a guide for counselors, mentors or decision makers:

  • Was the birth “planned” by one or both parties?
  • Did both parents attend prenatal appointments and birthing classes?
  • Was the father present at the birth? If not, why not?
  • Was the father allowed to parent the infant?
  • Do either have prior parenting experience?
  • Do either have appropriate extended family support?
  • Are there other children who relate to this child?
  • Where do the parents fall on the spectrum of conflict: origin, intensity, duration?

Nothing good comes from a father’s absence, Dr. Mitnick concluded. Communication, mutual respect, flexibility and shared child raising values are the keys to building trust, she said.

So, if you find yourselves involved with teenage parents, the utmost patience, time and energy is going to be required to help them build a relationship built on trust, especially if they haven’t experienced trust in many of their childhood relationships. And don’t forget the baby. The children deserve nothing less.


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