by Ann Quigley
Fathers who leave their families may increase their daughters' risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy, suggest the results of long-term studies in the United States and in New Zealand.
The association between father absence and early teenage sexual activity and pregnancy has long been noted, but many researchers have attributed it to factors associated with divorce including poverty, family conflict and erosion of parental monitoring. But the new findings suggest a more direct link between a father's absence and his daughter's early teenage sexual activity and pregnancy.
"These findings may support social policies that encourage fathers to form and remain in families with their children," unless there is violence or a high degree of conflict, says study author Bruce J. Ellis of the Department of Psychology at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Among Western industrialized countries, the United States and New Zealand have the highest and second-highest rates of teenage pregnancy, past research has shown. Teenage childbearing is associated with a host of problems, including lower educational and career achievements, health problems and inadequate social support for parenting.
"Given these costs to adolescents and their children, it is critical to identify life experiences and pathways that place girls at increased risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy," Ellis says.
Ellis and colleagues analyzed data from two long-term studies that followed the progress of 242 girls in the United States and 520 girls in New Zealand for their entire childhoods, from before kindergarten to approximately age 18. Based on multiple interviews and questionnaires administered over the years to both parents and children, the data covered everything from family demographics to parenting styles and child behavioral problems to childhood academic performance.
The researchers defined absence of the biological or adoptive birth father at or before the child reached age 5 as early onset of father absence, while late onset of father absence was defined as occurring when the child was between 6 and 13.
The researchers found that father absence places daughters at special risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. While the researchers said these findings need to be replicated in non-Western, "the striking similarity in results across the United States and New Zealand samples underscores the robustness and generalizability of the findings," Ellis says.
The study results are published in the current issue of the journal Child Development.