Research - teenage pregnancy studies
Adolescent females between the ages of 15 and 19 years reared
in homes without fathers are significantly more likely to
engage in premarital sex than adolescent females reared in
homes with both a mother and a father.
--Source: Billy, John O. G., Karin L. Brewster and William
R. Grady. "Contextual Effects on the Sexual Behavior
of Adolescent Women." Journal of Marriage and Family
A survey of 720 teenage girls found:
97% of the girls said that having parents they could talk
to could help reduce teen pregnancy
93% said having loving parents reduced the risk
76% said that their fathers were very or somewhat influential
on their decision to have sex
--Source: Clements, Mark. Parade. February 2, 1997.
Children in single parent families are more likely to get
pregnant as teenagers than their peers who grow up with two
--Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National
Center for Health Statistics. National Health Interview Survey.
Hyattsville, MD 1988.
A white teenage girl from an advantaged background is five
times more likely to become a teen mother if she grows up
in a single-mother household than if she grows up in a household
with both biological parents.
--Source: Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. "Facing the Challenges
of Fragmented Families." The Philanthropy Roundtable
9.1 (1995): 21.
A longitudinal study carried out on a cohort of teenagers
and taking into account factors such as poverty, race and
class shows clearly the link between fatherless-ness and teenage
Does Father Absence Place Daughters at Special Risk
for Early Sexual Activity and Teenage Pregnancy?
Bruce J. Ellis
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
John E. Bates
Kenneth A. Dodge
David M. Fergusson
Christchurch School of Medicine, New Zealand
L John Horwood
Christchurch School of Medicine, New Zealand
Gregory S. Pettit
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Child Development, in press
To be published in May/June issue, 2003
The impact of father absence on early sexual
activity and teenage pregnancy was investigated in longitudinal
studies in the USA (N = 242) and New Zealand (N = 520), in
which community samples of girls were followed prospectively
throughout childhood. Greater exposure to father absence was
strongly associated with elevated risk for early sexual activity
and adolescent pregnancy. This elevated risk was either not
explained (in the USA study) or only partly explained (in
the New Zealand study) by familial, ecological, and personal
disadvantages associated with father absence. After controlling
for covariates, there was stronger and more consistent evidence
of effects of father absence on early sexual activity and
teenage pregnancy than on other behavioral or mental health
problems or academic achievement. Effects of father absence
are discussed in terms of lifecourse adversity, evolutionary
psychology, social learning, and behavior genetic models.
In modern Western societies, adolescent girls face a biosocial
dilemma. On the one hand, the biological capacity to reproduce
ordinarily develops in early adolescence; on the other hand,
girls who realize this capacity prior to adulthood often experience
a variety of negative life outcomes. Specifically, adolescent
childbearing is associated with lower educational and occupational
attainment, more mental and physical health problems, inadequate
social support networks for parenting, and increased risk
of abuse and neglect for children born to teen mothers (e.g.,
Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989; Konner
& Shostak, 1986; Woodward & Fergusson, 1999). Despite
these consequences, the United States and New Zealand have
the first and second highest rates of teenage pregnancy among
Western industrialized countries: Approximately 10% of girls
in the United States and 7% of girls in New Zealand between
the ages of 15 and 19 years become pregnant each year, with
around half of these pregnancies culminating in a live birth
(Cheesbrough, Ingham, & Massey, 1999; Dickson, Sporle,
Rimene, & Paul, 2000). 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.
Many studies have identified the absence of the biological
father from the home as a major risk factor for both early
sexual activity (e.g., Day, 1992; Kiernan & Hobcraft,
1997; Newcomber & Udry, 1987) and teenage pregnancy (e.g.,
Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Geronimus & Korenman, 1992;
McLanahan, 1999). This finding is consistent with lifecourse
adversity models of early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy,
which posit that a life history of familial and ecological
stress provokes earlier onset of sexual activity and reproduction
(e.g., Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991; Coley &
Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Fergusson & Woodward, 2000a; Robbins,
Kaplan, & Martin, 1985; Scaramella, Conger, Simons, &
Whitbeck, 1998). Lifecourse adversity models, however, do
not attribute any special causal significance to father absence.
Instead, these models conceptualize father absence as just
one of many factors that can undermine the quality of family
environments. According to lifecourse adversity models, it
is not father absence per se but a variety of other stressors
associated with father absence (e.g., divorce, poverty, conflictual
family relationships, erosion of parental monitoring and control)
that foster early sexual activity and pregnancy in daughters
(see Belsky, et al., 1991, p. 658; Chisholm, 1999, p. 162;
McLanahan, 1999, p. 119; Robbins et al., 1985, p. 568; Silverstein
& Auerbach, 1999, p. 403).
In addition to the effects of lifecourse adversity, underlying
personality traits may account for the relation between father
absence and early sexual outcomes in daughters. Specifically,
certain personality traits that predispose girls toward early
sexual activity and teenage pregnancy may covary with father
absence. Differences between children in externalizing behavior
problems–those behaviors considered to be aggressive,
disruptive, or oppositional–derive in part from individual
differences in temperamental characteristics such as negative
emotionality and resistance to control (Bates, Pettit, Dodge,
& Ridge, 1998; Rothbart & Bates, 1998). Children who
display externalizing behavioral problems early in life are
at elevated risk for a variety of negative psychosocial outcomes
in adolescence, including early sexual activity and teenage
pregnancy (e.g., Bardone, Moffitt, Caspi, Dickson, & Silva,
1996; Quinton, Pickles, Maughan, & Rutter, 1993; Woodward
& Fergusson, 1999). Moreover, individuals who have a history
of externalizing disorders are not only at increased risk
of becoming single parents or absent parents (e.g., Emery,
Waldron, Kitzmann, & Aaron, 1999; Sampson & Laub,
1990) but also may transmit a genetic disposition toward externalizing
behavioral problems and associated personality characteristics
to their children (Rhee & Waldman, 2002; personality characteristics
associated with both sexual risk-taking and other forms of
delinquent behavior in adolescence are discussed in Kotchick,
Shaffer, Forehand, & Miller, 2001). Thus, girls from father-absent
homes may be at elevated risk for early sexual activity and
teenage pregnancy because of higher genetic loading for externalizing
In contrast to the lifecourse adversity and personality trait
models, evolutionary models suggest that early onset of father
absence places daughters at special risk for early sexual
activity and adolescent pregnancy. Specifically, evolutionary
psychologists have hypothesized that the developmental pathways
underlying variation in daughters’ reproductive strategies
are especially sensitive to the father’s role in the
family and mothers’ sexual attitudes and behavior in
early childhood (Draper & Harpending, 1982, 1988; see
also Ellis, McFadyen-Ketchum, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates,
1999). Consistent with Hetherington’s (1972) work on
the effects of early father absence on personality development
in adolescent daughters, the evolutionary model suggests that
girls detect and internally encode information about parental
reproductive strategies during approximately the first five
years of life as a basis for calibrating the development of
motivational systems, which will make certain types of sexual
behavior more or less likely in adolescence. The model thus
posits a direct effect of quality of early paternal investment
(e.g., father presence vs. absence, quality of paternal caregiving,
father-mother relationships) on early onset of sexual and
In light of these theoretical considerations, the current
research examined the following set of questions:
1. Is earlier onset of biological father absence associated
with increasing risk of early sexual activity and teenage
pregnancy in daughters?
Despite voluminous research on father absence, very few studies
have examined the relation between timing of onset of father
absence and daughters’ sexual outcomes. In a small observational
study, Hetherington (1972) found that adolescent girls from
early father-absent homes (divorced before age 5) tended to
initiate more contact with, and seek more attention from,
adult males than did girls from late father-absent homes (divorced
after age 5). In a large retrospective survey, however, McLanahan
(1999) did not find statistically significant relations between
timing of onset of father absence and rates of teenage childbearing
in daughters. The current research is the first to prospectively
measure timing of onset of father absence throughout early
and middle childhood and then test for its effects on early
sexual activity and pregnancy in adolescence.
2. Does earlier onset of biological father absence uniquely
increase risk for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy
in daughters, independent of both early externalizing behavior
problems and familial and ecological stressors that covary
with father absence? That is, does more exposure to father
absence place daughters at special risk for early sexual outcomes–regardless
of whether girls are rich or poor, black or white, cooperative
or defiant in kindergarten, born to teenage or adult mothers,
grow up in violent or safe neighborhoods, experience many
or few stressful life events, have warm-supportive or harsh-rejecting
parents, are exposed to functional or dysfunctional marriages,
are closely or loosely monitored by parents, and so forth?
A number of studies have found that father absence uniquely
predicts early sexual activity (Day, 1992; Devine, Long, &
Forehand, 1993; Miller et al., 1997; Upchurch, Aneshensel,
Sucoff, & Levy-Storms, 1999) and adolescent pregnancy
or childbearing (Hogan & Kitigawa, 1985; Robbins et al.,
1985), after controlling for such confounding variables as
race, socioeconomic status, neighborhood danger, and parental
monitoring and control. All of these studies, however, began
when daughters were already in early to late adolescence and
thus were unable to assess familial and ecological stressors
prior to daughters’ risk for involvement in sexual activity.
The current research is the first to prospectively assess
lifecourse adversity throughout early and middle childhood,
and then control for its effects when testing for the relation
between timing of father absence and rates of early sexual
activity and adolescent pregnancy.
3. Does earlier onset of biological father absence discriminantly
increase risk for early onset of sexual activity and teenage
pregnancy–but not for adolescent behavioral and mental
health problems more generally –independent of early
externalizing problems and lifecourse adversity? In other
words, is greater exposure to father absence a general risk
factor for the development of psychopathology, or is it specific
to sexual development?
To our knowledge, only Newcomer and Udry (1987) have explicitly
addressed this question. In a short-term longitudinal study
of white adolescents, Newcomer and Udry found that the effect
of father absence on a composite measure of age-graded minor
delinquencies (e.g., smoking, drinking alcohol, cheating on
a test) was statistically significant and about equal in magnitude
to the effect of father absence on onset of first sexual intercourse
in girls. Newcomber and Udry, however, did not control for
potentially confounding third variables (e.g., race, socioeconomic
status, mother’s age at first birth) that could account
for the correlation between father absence and delinquency.
The current research examined the unique effects of timing
of father absence on a variety of psychosocial and educational
outcomes, after controlling for the effects of child conduct
problems and familial and ecological stressors during childhood.
This set of questions was investigated in two independent
longitudinal studies in the United States and New Zealand.
In the American study, a community sample of girls was followed
prospectively from the summer prior to kindergarten through
to the 12th grade. In the New Zealand study, a birth cohort
of girls was followed prospectively from infancy through to
Method: United States
The United States data were collected as part of the ongoing
Child Development Project, a multi-site longitudinal study
of socialization factors in children's and adolescents' adjustment
(see Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1990; Pettit, Bates, &
Dodge, 1997). Participating families were initially recruited
from three geographical areas (Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee,
and Bloomington, Indiana). At the time of kindergarten pre-registration
in the Summers of 1987 (cohort 1) and 1988 (cohort 2), parents
of matriculating children were solicited at random (in person
at the child's school or by mail) to become involved in the
study. About 75% agreed. A total of 585 families agreed to
participate in the study. Of these 585 families, 281 of the
children were girls. The analyses reported in this article
are based on this female subsample, which was demographically
diverse and representative of the geographic regions (81%
white, 17% African-American, 2% other; 28% lived with a single
mother at the beginning of the study). The Hollingshead (1975)
Four-Factor Index of Social Status was computed from demographic
information provided by the parents of the girls. The mean
family score on the index at the beginning of the study was
38.85 (SD = 14.0), indicating a predominantly middle class
sample. Data on girls’ early externalizing behavioral
problems and on familial and ecological stressors were collected
in Years 1-9 of the study (ages 5-13). Data on adolescent
sexual activity, pregnancy, internalizing and externalizing
behavioral problems, academic performance, and violence were
collected in Years 10-13 of the study (ages 14-17). At the
completion of the study in Year 13, the average age of the
girls was 17.3 years (SD = .34). Of the original 281 girls,
242 (86%) participated in the Years 10-13 data collections.
This subset was generally representative of the original sample
(16% African-American; 25% from single-mother homes; mean
SES = 39.45; ). Other analyses have shown that attrition has
not significantly biased the sample on either initial child
adjustment or family socialization variables (see Pettit,
Bates, & Dodge, 1997; Pettit, Bates, Dodge, & Meece,
1999). Nonetheless, there was a slight but statistically non-significant
trend for the 242 girls in the current analyses to under-represent
girls from socially disadvantaged backgrounds (low SES, African-American,
Following recruitment, mothers were interviewed at home in
the summer prior to daughters' entry into kindergarten (see
Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994), when most children were
5 years of age. The 90-min audiorecorded interview included
both open-ended and structured questions about each of two
eras in the child's life (a period from 12 months of age up
to 12 months ago and the past 12 months). Questions concerned
the child's development and childcare history, family stressors,
parental behavior, exposure to socializing factors, and current
functioning. Reliability was assessed through independent
ratings of 41 randomly selected families made by a second
coder who sat in with the interviewer. Additional home interviews
with the mothers were conducted in Years 7 and 9 of the study
(when daughters were approximately ages 11 and 13). Questions
concerned family changes and adjustment, child’s involvement
in after-school care settings, parenting practices, and neighborhood
characteristics over the past year.
In addition, mothers annually completed child behavior-problem
questionnaires and provided family demographic data. Behavior-problem
questionnaires were also completed by daughters in Years 11-13
of the study (app. ages 15-17). Daughters answered questions
about sexual behavior and pregnancy at this time. Also at
this time, research staff requested permission to view the
participants’ academic records.
To determine timing of onset of father absence, household
composition data were collected during Years 1-9 of the study
(ages 5-13). Because Hetherington (1972) and Draper and Harpending
(1982) suggest that the first five years of life constitute
a sensitive period for the effects of father absence on daughters’
sexual development, early onset of father absence was defined
in this study as absence of the “birth father”
(either the biological father or an adoptive father present
from birth) from the home at or before age 5. This cut-off
was also chosen to allow comparison with past studies, which
have commonly defined early father absence as occurring in
the first five years (e.g., Bereczkei & Csanaky, 1996;
Blain & Barkow, 1988; Hetherington, 1972). Girls were
thus classified as early father-absent if they were either
born into single-mother families or born into intact two-parent
families but subsequently experienced birth father absence
at or before age 5. Late onset of father absence was defined
as birth father presence in the home through age 5, but subsequent
absence of the birth father from the home beginning sometime
during ages 6-13. We chose age 13 as the cut-off for late
father absence in order to complete measurement of father
absence prior to the onset of first pregnancy in daughters.
Father presence was defined as birth father presence in the
home through age 13. Classification of girls into the father
present/absent groups was based solely on birth father status
and did not take stepfathers into account (33% = early father-absent;
12% = late father-absent; 55% = father-present).
Early sexual activity. In Year 12 (age 16), girls were asked
whether they had ever had sexual intercourse. Girls who responded
“No” were coded as “0” for early sexual
activity (60%); girls who responded “Yes” were
coded as “1” for early sexual activity (40%).
The age 16 cut-off has been commonly used in past studies
to demarcate “early” onset of sexual activity
(e.g., Fergusson & Woodward, 2000b; Kiernan & Hobcraft,
1997; Paul, Fitzjohn, Herbison, & Dickson, 2000).
Adolescent pregnancy. In Years 10-13 (ages 14-17), girls were
asked annually whether they had become pregnant in the last
year. Girls who reported no pregnancies over this time period
were coded as “0” for adolescent pregnancy (85%);
girls who reported at least one pregnancy over this time period
were coded as “1” for adolescent pregnancy (15%).
To assess the extent to which associations between timing
of father absence and adolescent sexual outcomes could be
explained by the effects of early externalizing problems and
familial and ecological stressors, the following 10 variables
were included as covariates in the analysis. The measures
of familial and ecological stress were chosen as covariates
on the basis of past research indicating (a) covariation with
father absence and (b) prediction to early sexual activity
and adolescent pregnancy (see reviews by Kotchick et al.,
2001; Miller, Benson, & Galbraith, 2001). The covariates
were measured repeatedly and prospectively from the beginning
of each study through to age 13.
Externalizing behavior problems (early childhood). During
Years 1-2 of the study (ages 5-6), mothers completed the Child
Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach, 1991). The 33-item externalizing
problems score, which has been reported to have excellent
psychometric properties (Achenbach, 1991), was used to index
daughters’ early externalizing problems. A composite
externalizing behavioral problems score was computed by averaging
over Years 1 and 2 (? = .81; M = 10.63; SD = 6.47).
Mother’s age at first birth. Mothers reported how old
they were when they first gave birth to a child (M = 23.23;
SD = 4.82).
Race. Race coded as a dummy variable: 0 = Caucasian (83%);
1 = non-Caucasian (17%). Of the 42 non-Caucasian participants,
38 were African-American.
Socioeconomic status. SES was computed on the basis of mothers'
and fathers' occupation and years of education (Hollingshead,
1975; full description in Dodge et al., 1994). Because the
rank-ordering of SES between families was highly stable over
time, a composite childhood SES score was computed by averaging
SES scores from Year 1 (age 5) and Year 9 (age 13) (?= .84;
M = 38.11; SD = 12.78).
Family life stress (early childhood). Family life stress was
assessed during the Year 1 interview on the basis of questions
concerning changes and adjustments in the home and their perceived
impact on the child during each era (see Dodge et al., 1994).
Interviewers completed ratings of the extent of stressful,
challenging events faced by the child and family (1 = "minimum
challenge," 5 = "severe frequent challenges").
The rating from the two eras were averaged to yield a score
for family life stressors (? = .64; proportion agreement between
independent raters of the same protocol = .79; M = 3.04, SD
Dyadic adjustment (early childhood). During the Year 1 interview,
mothers were asked to recall each era and answer questions
concerning the kinds of family strife and violence the child
was exposed to (see Ellis et al., 1999). Interviewers then
completed ratings of the severity of conflict within the parental
dyad (1 = "rarely even shout," 5 = "physical
fights, more than once"). The rating from the two eras
were averaged to yield an overall score (? = .74; interrater
agreement = .80; M = 2.19, SD = 1.03). Mothers were also asked
questions concerning levels of help and emotional support
from their partners during each era (see Ellis et al., 1999).
Interviewers then completed ratings of level of supportiveness
in the parental dyad, and the ratings from the two eras were
averaged to yield an overall score (? = .88; interrater agreement
= .86; M = 2.37, SD = .57). A composite measure of dyadic
adjustment was computed by standardizing and then averaging
the measures of “severity of conflict within the parental
dyad” (reverse-scored) and “supportiveness in
the parental dyad” (? across the two measures = .55).
Harshness of discipline (early childhood). During the Year
1 interview, mothers were asked about their use of discipline
practices and whether the child had ever been harmed by an
adult during each era (see Dodge et al., 1994). Interviewers
then completed ratings of the degree of restrictive discipline
received by the child (1 = "nonrestrictive, mostly prosocial
guidance," 5 = "severe, strict, often physical")
and whether the target child had been severely harmed (1 =
"definitely not," 5 = "authorities involved").
These four ratings (two ratings for each of two life eras)
were averaged to derive the early childhood harshness of discipline
score (? = .81; interrater agreement = .78; M = 2.05, SD =
Harshness of discipline (pre-adolescence). Harshness of discipline
was also assessed during the Years 7 and 9 interviews. Using
a 4-point scale (1 = never; 4 = frequently), mothers rated
how often they used each of 6 harsh disciplinary tactics (e.g.,
"scold," "slap or hit with hand," "use
belt/paddle"). A composite harshness of discipline measure
was computed by averaging the Year 7 (? = .67) and Year 9
(? = .67) measures (? across the 2 measures = .77; M = 2.06;
SD = .42).
Parental monitoring (pre-adolescence). Parental monitoring
was assessed during the Years 7 and 9 home interviews with
the mothers. Although the two measures had slightly different
content, both employed 5-point frequency scales and focused
on parents’ awareness of their children’s activities
and companions. A composite measure of parental monitoring
was computed by standardizing and then averaging the Year
7 (? = .73; M = 4.65, SD = .34; see Pettit et al., 1999) and
Year 9 (? = .67; M = 4.32, SD = .45; see Pettit, Laird, Dodge,
Bates, & Criss, 2001) measures (? across the two measures
Neighborhood danger (pre-adolescence). Neighborhood danger
was assessed during the Years 7 and 9 home interviews with
the mother. During the Year 7 interview, mothers responded
to a set of 6 items (adapted from the Self-Care Checklist;
see Posner & Vandell, 1994) describing their general appraisal
of neighborhood and family safety. Items were rated on a 6-point
scale (very safe to very unsafe) and averaged to form an overall
neighborhood safety score (? = .90; M = 2.01, SD = .86). In
addition, immediately following the Year 7 and Year 9 interviews,
the interviewer completed a 4-point rating of overall neighborhood
safety (very safe to very unsafe; Ms = 1.82 [SD = .85] and
1.71 [SD = .77], respectively). A composite measure of neighborhood
danger was computed by standardizing and then averaging the
mother-report and two interviewer-report measures (? across
the 3 measures = .78).
To assess the extent to which timing of father absence discriminantly
predicted early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy (but
not other behavioral and mental health problems), the following
educational and psychosocial outcome variables were investigated.
These outcomes were measured concurrently with assessment
of timing of sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy from
ages 14 to 18.
High school grade-point average (GPA). Data on high school
GPA were drawn from archival school records (grades 9-11).
Staff members examined each child’s file and noted the
grades earned in math, language, science, and social studies.
Conventional grade conversions were used (i.e., A = 4, B =3,
C = 2, D = 1, E = 0). A composite GPA was calculated for each
child by averaging the grades received across the four subjects
across the three years (? = .89; M = 2.50, SD = .96).
Violent acts (adolescence). Data on violent acts were collected
in Years 12 and 13 (app. ages 16-17). Girls in each year reported
how often they had performed each of 7 violent acts in the
last 12 months (e.g., "How many times have you been physically
cruel to someone else [causing harm]?" "How many
times have you started a fight with someone else, where you
hurt that person?" "How many times have you used
a weapon that can cause serious physical harm to others [like
a bat, brick, broken bottle, knife, or gun]?"). Girls
who reported no violent acts in either year were coded as
“0” for violent acts (76%); girls who reported
at least one violent act in either year were coded as “1”
for violent acts (24%).
Externalizing behavior problems (adolescence). Self-report
and mother-reports of externalizing behavior problems were
assessed in Years 11-13 (ages 15-17) using the Youth Self-Report
(YSR) and Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), respectively (Achenbach,
1991). The highly reliable externalizing problems score (30
and 33 items in the YSR and CBCL, respectively) was used to
index daughters’ adolescent externalizing problems.
A composite self-report externalizing behavioral problems
score was computed by averaging self-reports over Years 11-13
(? across the three scores = .87; M = 10.72; SD = 6.29) and
a composite mother-report externalizing behavioral problems
score was computed by averaging mother-reports over Years
11-13 (? across the three scores = .90; M = 7.91; SD = 7.39).
The composite self-report and mother-report externalizing
scores were moderately correlated, r (241) = .52, p < .001.
To facilitate comparison with rates of early sexual activity
and teenage pregnancy, both self- and mother-reports of both
externalizing behavior problems were dichotomized (bottom
85% = 0; top 15% = 1).
Internalizing behavior problems (adolescence). Self-report
and mother-reports of internalizing behavior problems–those
behaviors considered to be anxious, withdrawn, or depressed–were
also assessed in Years 11-13 using the YSR and CBCL (Achenbach,
1991). The highly reliable internalizing problems score (32
items in both the YSR and CBCL) was used to index daughters’
adolescent internalizing problems. A composite self-report
internalizing behavioral problems score was computed by averaging
self-reports over Years 11-13 (? across the three scores =
.86; M = 11.39; SD = 7.40) and a composite mother-report internalizing
behavioral problems score was computed by averaging mother-reports
over Years 11-13 (? across the three scores = .84; M = 7.18;
SD = 5.98). The composite self-report and mother-report internalizing
scores were moderately correlated, r (241) = .46, p < .001.
Again, to facilitate comparison with rates of early sexual
activity and teenage pregnancy, both self- and mother-reports
of both internalizing behavior problems were dichotomized
(bottom 85% = 0; top 15% = 1).
Method: New Zealand
The New Zealand data were collected as part of the Christchurch
Health and Development Study (CHDS). The CHDS is an ongoing
longitudinal study of an unselected birth cohort of 1,265
children (635 males, 630 females) born in the Christchurch
(New Zealand) urban region during a four month period in mid-1977
(Fergusson & Horwood, 2001; Fergusson, Horwood, Shannon,
& Lawton, 1989). The current research is based on this
female subsample, which was demographically diverse and representative
of the geographic region (13% Maori/Polynesian, 25% father
unemployed or in low skill occupation, 8% living with a single
mother at birth). The girls and their families have been studied
at birth, 4 months, 1 year, and at annual intervals to age
16 years, and again at ages 18 and 21 years. In the vast majority
of cases (typically > 95%) follow-up assessments have been
conducted within 4 weeks of the sample member’s birthday.
Data have been collected from a combination of sources including:
parental interviews (birth-16 years); self-report (8-21 years);
psychometric testing (8-13 years); teacher reports (6-13 years);
medical records (birth-21 years) and Police records (13-21
years). In general terms the aims of the study have been to
build up a running record of the life history, social circumstances,
health, and development of a large cohort of New Zealand children
growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. In particular, the study
has gathered a wealth of information on family composition,
social and family functioning in childhood, and psychosocial
outcomes in adolescence.
The present analyses are based on the sample of 520 female
cohort members for whom information on the timing of father
absence and adolescent outcome measures was available. This
sample represented 83% of the original cohort of 630 females
and was generally representative of the original sample (13%
Maori/Polynesian, 23% father unemployed or in low skill occupation,
and 7% living with a single mother at birth). Comparison of
the analysis sample of 520 females with the remaining 110
sample members from the original female cohort on a range
of socio-demographic measures collected at birth suggested
very slight but statistically significant (p<.05) tendencies
for the analysis sample to under-represent girls from socially
disadvantaged backgrounds (low paternal occupational status,
low maternal education). This raises the issue of the extent
to which study findings could be influenced by the effects
of sample selection bias. To examine this issue, all analysis
were repeated using the data weighting method described by
Carlin, Wolfe, Coffey, and Patton (1999) to adjust for possible
selection effects resulting from the pattern of sample attrition.
These analyses produced essentially identical results to those
based on the unweighted data, suggesting that the small biases
detected in the sample are unlikely to affect study conclusions.
Since the two sets of results were mutually consistent, in
the interests of simplicity, the results reported here are
based on the unweighted sample data.
Timing of Onset of Father Absence
Comprehensive data were gathered on family composition at
annual intervals to age 13 years, including information on
the relationship between the daughter and any adult males
in the home. Classification of girls into the three father
absent/present groups (early father-absent, late father-absent,
and father-present) was based on the same coding procedures
used in the USA sample (16% = early father-absent; 11% = late
father-absent; 73% = father-present).
Early sexual activity. At each assessment from age 14-16 years,
sample members were questioned concerning their sexual behavior,
including their experience of consensual sexual intercourse
since the previous assessment. At age 18 sample members were
again questioned concerning their previous experience of sexual
intercourse, and those who reported such experience were asked
to report their age at first experience of consensual intercourse.
Young women were classified as having engaged in early sexual
activity if they had ever reported involvement in consensual
sexual intercourse prior to age 16 years. Overall, 33% of
the sample reported early sexual activity.
Adolescent pregnancy. At age 14 years, the mothers of female
sample members were asked whether their daughter had ever
been pregnant. From age 15 onwards, sample members themselves
were questioned about any pregnancies since the previous assessment
and, in particular, the timing and outcome of these pregnancies.
Young women were classified as having an adolescent pregnancy
if they had ever been reported as being pregnant prior to
age 18 years. Overall, 8% of young women had been pregnant
before age 18.
To assess the extent to which associations between timing
of father absence and adolescent sexual outcomes could be
explained by the effects of child conduct problems and familial
and ecological stressors, we included the following 10 variables
as covariates in the analysis.
Early conduct problems (6 years). When sample members were
aged 6 years, maternal and teacher reports of the child’s
tendencies to conduct disordered and oppositional behaviors
were obtained using the 9-item mother- and teacher-report
versions of the Rutter Behavior Rating Scale (Rutter, Tizard,
& Whitmore, 1970). For the purposes of the present analysis
the maternal and teacher reports were summed to produce an
overall scale measure reflecting the extent to which the child
was reported to be exhibiting conduct problems at age 6 years
(? = .83; M = 20.44; SD = 3.21).
Maternal age at first childbirth. The mother’s age at
first childbirth was assessed during the initial parental
interview at the time of the survey child’s birth. The
mean age at first childbirth was 23.7 years (SD = 4.2).
Race. The sample member’s ethnicity was coded as a dummy
variable: 0 = European New Zealander (87%); 1 = Maori/Polynesian
Maternal education. The mother’s education level was
assessed at the time of the survey child’s birth and
coded into a three level classification: no formal educational
qualifications (50.0% of the sample); high school qualifications
(28.3%); post-secondary certificate or degree (21.7%). Higher
scores indicated higher levels of educational achievement.
Father’s occupational status. Father’s occupational
status was classified at the time of the survey child’s
birth using the Elley-Irving (1976) scale of occupational
status for New Zealand. This scale classifies families into
six groups on the basis of paternal occupation. In the present
analysis, the Elley-Irving coding was reduced to a 3-level
classification as follows: Levels 1, 2 (professional, managerial:
22.5% of the sample); Levels 3, 4 (clerical, technical, skilled:
54.4%); Levels 5, 6 (semiskilled, unskilled, unemployed: 23.1%).
This variable was reverse-scored, so that higher scores represent
higher occupational status.
Family living standards (0-10 years). At each assessment from
age 1-10 years, a measure of the quality of the family’s
standard of living was obtained on the basis of an interviewer
rating of family living standards. Ratings were made on a
5-point scale (1 = family obviously poor/very poor ; 5 = family
obviously affluent and well-to-do). These ratings were averaged
over the 10 year period to provide an overall measure of the
quality of family living standards during this period (??across
the 10 ratings = .92; M = 2.16; SD = .45).
Family life stress (0-10 years). At each assessment up to
age 10 years, parents were questioned about the occurrence
of adverse family life events during the preceding year using
a 20-item life events inventory based on the Holmes and Rahe
(1967) Social Readjustment Rating Scale. For each year, a
life events score was calculated for the family based on a
count of the number of adverse events reported. To provide
an overall measure of the family’s exposure to adverse
life stress over the period from birth to 10 years, the annual
life events scores were summed over the 10 year period (??across
the 10 ratings = .80; mean number of adverse life events =
20.80; SD = 12.22).
Marital conflict (0-10 years). Parents were questioned at
annual intervals to age 10 years using three items that described
the quality of the marital relationship over the previous
12 months. For each item, a count of the number of positive
reports over the 10 year period was calculated, and the resulting
count measures were combined to produce a scale measure of
the extent to which sample members were exposed to parental
conflict in the period from birth to age 10 years (Fergusson,
Horwood, & Lynskey, 1992) (??= .66; M = 4.24; SD = 8.98).
Early mother-child interaction (3 years). To provide an assessment
of the quality of early mother-child interactions, when sample
members were aged 3 years, mothers were assessed on the 10-item
maternal emotional responsiveness and 5-item maternal punitiveness
subscales of the HOME (Home Observation for Measurement of
the Environment) Inventory (Bradley & Caldwell, 1977;
Elardo & Bradley, 1977). Each item is scored 0 or 1 to
indicate the absence or presence of the target behavior. The
emotional responsiveness scale provides an index of the frequency
with which the mother makes positive emotional responses to
her child and was scored so that a high score indicates more
positive responses (?? = .69; M = 8.44; SD = 1.41). The punitiveness
scale provides an index of the frequency with the which the
mother is observed to make punitive responses to her child’s
behavior and was scored so that a high score implies more
punitive responses (?? = .71; M = .82; SD = .80).
At ages 15 and 16 years, sample members were interviewed by
trained survey interviewers on a comprehensive mental health
interview that examined various aspects of the young person’s
psychosocial adjustment over the preceding 12 months. A parallel
interview was administered to parents. At age 18 years a similar
interview was administered to sample members that assessed
the individual’s mental health, psychosocial adjustment,
and educational achievement over the period from 16-18 years.
Using this information, the following additional outcome measures
School qualifications. School Certificate is a national series
of examinations that is undertaken by the vast majority of
New Zealand students in their third year of high school. Students
may sit examinations in any number of subjects (typically
4 or 5), and performance in each subject is graded from A
to E, with a grade of C or better implying a ‘pass’
in that subject. For the purposes of the present analysis
a young woman was classified as having left school without
qualifications if she had left school by age 18 years without
at least one pass grade in School Certificate: 16.5% of the
sample met this criterion.
Mood disorder. At ages 15 and 16 years information on the
young person’s experience of depressive symptomatology
was obtained using items from the child and parent versions
of the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (Costello,
Edelbrock, Kalas, Kessler, & Klaric, 1982). This information
was used to classify young people according to DSM-III-R (American
Psychiatric Association, 1987) symptom criteria for major
depression (Fergusson, Horwood, & Lynskey, 1993). At age
18 years, the assessment of depressive symptomatology was
based on DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) criteria
for major depression assessed using items from the Composite
International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI, World Health Organization,
1993). For the purposes of the present analysis, young women
were classified as having a mood disorder over the period
14-18 years if they met the relevant DSM criteria for major
depression on the basis of self- or parent-report at any time
during the four year period: 37.3% of the sample met this
Anxiety disorder. Parallel to the assessment of major depression,
at ages 15 and 16 sample members and their parents were also
questioned about the young person’s history of anxiety
symptomatology in the previous 12 months using items from
the DISC. This information was used to classify young people
on DSM-III-R criteria for the following anxiety disorders:
separation anxiety; overanxious disorder; generalized anxiety
disorder; social phobia; simple phobia; agoraphobia; and panic
disorder. As part of the age 18 interview, items from the
CIDI were used to assess DSM-IV symptom criteria for the following
anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder; social phobia;
specific phobia; agoraphobia; and panic disorder. For the
purposes of the present analysis, young women were classified
as having an anxiety disorder if they met DSM criteria for
any of the above disorders over the four year period: 44.6%
of the sample met this criterion.
Suicide attempts. At ages 15, 16, and 18 years, sample members
were questioned about their experience of suicidal thoughts
since the previous assessment. Those reporting suicidal thoughts
were further questioned about any suicide attempts and the
frequency, nature and outcome of any such attempt(s). Overall,
7.1% of the sample reported making at least one suicide attempt
during the four year period. All respondents who reported
suicidal behavior and/or other mental health problems were
offered assistance in obtaining a referral to an appropriate
Violent offending. At ages 15 and 16 years the young person’s
involvement in criminal offending over the previous year was
assessed using the Self Report Early Delinquency inventory
(SRED, Moffitt & Silva, 1988). Similar questioning was
conducted at age 18 using the Self Report Delinquency Inventory
(SRDI, Elliott & Huizinga, 1989). Using these data, young
women were classified as being violent offenders if they reported
committing any violent offence (including physical assault,
getting into fights, using a weapon or strong arm tactics
to commit a robbery, threatening behavior and related offenses)
over the four year period: 13.7% of the sample reported committing
a violent offence.
Conduct disorder. At ages 15 and 16 years, sample members
were assessed on DSM-III-R symptom criteria for conduct disorder
based on self and parent reports on the SRED (Fergusson et
al., 1993). At age 18 DSM-IV criteria for conduct disorder
were derived from items in the SRDI. Young women were classified
as conduct disordered if they met DSM criteria for conduct
disorder on the basis of self or parental report at any time
during the four year period: 7.5% of the sample met this criterion.
As described above, there were a total of 16 dependent variables
(DVs) to be analysed: early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy,
and 6 other measures of psychosocial adjustment and educational
achievement in each of the two samples. With one exception
(GPA in the USA sample) all outcomes were dichotomous. Analysis
of the associations between father absence and the DVs was
conducted in several stages.
Prior to conducting the primary data analysis, preliminary
analyses were carried out to test the linearity of the associations
between the 3-level timing of onset of father absence measure
and the DVs. For the 15 dichotomous DVs, these tests were
conducted using the Mantel-Haenszel Chi-square test of linearity.
Comparison of the Mantel-Haenszel results with the alternative
Pearson’s Chi-square test of independence showed that,
in all cases, the linear model appeared to provide the best
fitting and most parsimonious representation of the association.
For the measure of GPA, similar tests of linearity were conducted
within an analysis of variance framework. These tests also
suggested that a linear model most accurately represented
the association. We thus concluded that the relations between
timing of onset of father absence and all outcome measures
were essentially linear. In all subsequent analyses, therefore,
father absence was treated as a continuous (linear) variable,
which was coded so that higher scores indicated earlier onset
of father absence (0= father presence, 1= late onset of father
absence, 2= early onset of father absence).
Treating father absence in this manner is conceptually similar
to analyzing age at onset of father absence. Although age
at onset might be a more appropriate metric for analysis,
detailed information on this variable was available only in
the New Zealand sample. Thus, for consistency we have used
the same 3-level classification of timing of onset of father
absence across the two samples. However, further analysis
of the NZ data indicated that age at onset of father absence
correlated in excess of .97 with the current 3-level measure.
This suggests that similar conclusions would be drawn if more
accurate assessments of the timing of father absence were
available in both samples.
The principal data analyses were based on a series of regression
analyses examining the relations between the timing of father
absence and the 16 DVs before and after adjustment for child,
family, and ecological factors. For binary DVs these analyses
were conducted using logistic regression methods in which
the log odds of the DV was modelled as a linear function of
the timing of father absence and covariates (where applicable).
The full covariate adjusted model fitted to the data was of
logit[pr(Yi)] = B0i + B1iX1 + ?BjiZj
where logit[pr(Yi)] was the log odds of the ith DV, X1 was
the continuous measure of timing of father absence, and Zj
were the set of child, family and ecological covariates. The
parameter B1i represents the effect of father absence on the
log odds of the ith DV. A measure of effect size is provided
by the odds ratio (OR) between the timing of father absence
and the DV. The OR represents the multiplicative effect of
a one-unit shift in the 3-level father absence variable. The
corresponding analyses for the continuous DV (GPA) were based
on standard linear regression, and the measure of effect size
is provided by the standardised regression coefficient (beta)
for the timing of father absence measure.
To illustrate the extent of the association between the timing
of father absence and the binary outcome measures after adjustment
for covariates, estimates of the adjusted rates for each outcome
were computed using the parameters of the fitted logistic
regression models. The adjusted rates were computed using
the method described by Lee (1981) and can be interpreted
as the hypothetical rates of each outcome that would have
been observed had all sample members experienced their existing
mix of covariate factors but varied in their exposure to father
Do rates of early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy
differed according to timing of onset of father absence? We
expected a dose-response relationship in which early father-absent
girls would have the highest rates of early sexual activity
and teenage pregnancy, followed by late father-absent girls,
followed by father-present girls.
Figure 1 shows rates of early sexual activity and teenage
pregnancy in both the USA and New Zealand (NZ) samples according
to timing of father absence: early father absence (beginning
ages 0-5), late father absence (beginning ages 6-13), and
father presence (from ages 0-13). For each father-absent/present
group, the solid lines in the figure show the percentage of
girls who had sexual intercourse by age 16 and the percentage
of girls who experienced an adolescent pregnancy. Logistic
regression of the data in Figure 1 showed that earlier onset
of father absence was associated with a corresponding increase
in girls’ rates of both early sexual activity (USA sample:
N = 227, B [SE = .16] = .70, ?2 = 20.51, p < .0001, OR
= 2.01; NZ sample: N = 520, B [SE = .12] = .76, ?2 = 38.04,
p < .0001, OR = 2.14) and adolescent pregnancy (USA sample:
N = 242, B [SE = .23] = 1.15, ?2 = 24.97, p < .0001, OR
= 3.15; NZ sample: N = 520, B [SE = .19] = 1.16, ?2 = 38.28,
p < .0001, OR = 3.19) in both samples. As expected, early
father-absent girls had the highest rates of both early sexual
activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by late father-absent
girls, followed by father-present girls (Figure 1). For example,
adolescent pregnancy rates were approximately 7-times higher
in the USA sample and 8-times higher in the NZ sample among
early father-absent girls than among father-present girls.
In addition, there was remarkable similarity between the USA
and NZ samples in both the ordering of results across groups
and the base rates for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy
within each group (despite the overall base rates being higher
in the USA sample).
Although the results in Figure 1 indicate that earlier onset
of father absence was associated with increased risk of early
sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, it is possible that
these associations are due to contextual factors that correlate
with both the timing of father absence and early sexual activity
and adolescent pregnancy. To examine this issue, Table 1 displays
mean levels of child conduct problems and familial and ecological
stressors in relation to (a) the timing of father absence,
(b) occurrence of early sexual activity, and (c) occurrence
of an adolescent pregnancy. For ease of data presentation,
all measures (except for race and mother's age at 1st birth)
have been expressed in standardized form. Mean differences
were tested using the F statistic.
Table 1 clearly demonstrates the presence of a pervasive relationship
between earlier timing of father absence and more exposure
to familial and ecological stressors. Across both samples,
girls whose birth fathers were absent from an earlier age
were more likely to come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds
characterized by young motherhood, minority racial status,
lower socioeconomic status, more family life stress, poor
parental relationships (i.e., low dyadic adjustment, high
marital conflict), and low quality parental investment (i.e.,
harsh discipline, lack of parental monitoring, low maternal
emotional responsiveness). The strong pattern of covariation
between timing of father absence and girls’ exposure
to familial and ecological stressors was strikingly similar
across the two samples (Table 1).
Table 1 also clearly demonstrates, in both the USA and NZ
samples, that early conduct problems and exposure to familial
and ecological stressors during childhood were associated
with precocious sexual outcomes. That is, girls who displayed
early conduct problems, who were from socially disadvantaged
backgrounds characterized by young motherhood, minority racial
status, lower socioeconomic status, and more family life stress,
who were exposed to dysfunctional parental relationships,
and who received low quality parental investment were more
likely to engage in early sexual activity and become pregnant
as adolescents (Table 1). The overall pattern of relations
between girls’ early behavioral, familial, and ecological
characteristics and their subsequent involvement in early
sexual and reproductive activity was again very similar across
the two samples (Table 1).
Next we examined whether timing of father absence contributed
to subsequent risk of early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy,
even after controlling for early child conduct problems and
familial and ecological stressors. That is, we examined whether
father absence constituted an independent path to early sexual
and reproductive activity.
The results presented in Figure 1 and Table 1 indicate that,
although father absence was associated with elevated risk
of early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, the behavioral,
familial, and ecological profiles of father-absent girls were
comparatively disadvantaged. Moreover, early conduct problems
and exposure to familial and ecological stressors consistently
predicted early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy.
Thus, girls' behavioral, familial, and ecological profiles
could potentially account for the relations between timing
of father absence and subsequent sexual outcomes.
To address this issue, we conducted logistic regressions to
estimate the strength of the association between timing of
father absence and rates of early sexual activity and adolescent
pregnancy after adjustment for child conduct problems and
familial and ecological stressors. Ten covariates were simultaneously
controlled for in the analyses. These covariates are listed
in the first column of Table 1 (see upper section of table
for covariates in the USA study and lower section of table
for covariates in NZ study).
As shown by the broken lines in Figure 1, after statistical
adjustment for all covariates, there continued to be a linear
logistic association between earlier onset of father absence
and higher rates of both early sexual activity (USA sample:
N = 197, B [SE = .23] = .72, ?2 = 9.54, p = .002, OR = 2.04;
NZ sample: N = 466, B [SE = .17] = .45, ?2 = 6.75, p = .009,
OR = 1.57) and adolescent pregnancy (USA sample: N = 207,
B [SE = .33] = .1.07, ?2 = 10.45, p = .001, OR = 2.91; NZ
sample: N = 466, B [SE = .26] = .74, ?2 = 7.89, p = .005,
OR = 2.09) in both samples. Thus, even after simultaneously
controlling for all covariates, early father-absent girls
continued to have the highest rates of both early sexual activity
and adolescent pregnancy, followed by late father-absent girls,
followed by father-present girls (Figure 1). For example,
after covariate adjustment, adolescent pregnancy rates were
approximately 5-times higher in the USA sample and 3-times
higher in the NZ sample among early father-absent girls than
among father-present girls (Figure 1).
There was one notable difference between the USA and NZ samples.
Whereas the effects of father absence on sexual activity and
adolescent pregnancy remained largely unchanged after covariate
adjustment in the USA sample, these effects were substantively
reduced after covariate adjustment in the NZ sample (as shown
in Figure 1). To examine which covariates caused this reduction,
additional logistic regression analyses were conducted in
the NZ sample in which father absence was entered into the
equation simultaneously with each covariate. This enabled
us to calculate the degree to which individual covariates
caused a reduction in the effect of father absence (as indicated
by change in the odds ratio) on early sexual activity and
adolescent pregnancy. For early sexual activity, the following
covariates each caused a reduction in the odds ratio at least
10%: mothers’ age at first birth, family life stress,
father’s occupational status, maternal education, and
marital conflict. Similarly, for adolescent pregnancy, reductions
in the odds ratio of at least 10% were caused by family living
standards, family life stress, father’s occupational
status, maternal education, maternal punitiveness, and marital
Finally, to examine which group of covariates uniquely predicted
early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy after controlling
for timing of father absence, we reran the logistic regression
analyses using forward stepwise procedures, forcing the entry
of the father absence variable into the equation on the first
step, and then allowing free entry of all covariates into
the equation on subsequent steps. In the USA sample, in prediction
of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, only
early childhood externalizing problems entered the equation
after controlling for timing of father absence. None of the
measures of familial or ecological stress, therefore, predicted
early sexual outcomes after controlling for timing of father
absence and early externalizing problems. In the NZ sample,
in prediction of both early sexual activity and adolescent
pregnancy, both maternal education and family life stress
entered the equation after controlling for timing of father
absence. In addition, father’s occupational status entered
the equation for predicting early sexual activity.
Next we examined whether father absence discriminantly increased
risk for adolescent sexual outcomes but not for behavioral
and mental health problems in general. To address this question,
we conducted the same regression analyses that were carried
out in the preceding section, but different outcome variables
were substituted for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy.
The outcome measures examined in the USA sample included externalizing
behavioral problems (ages 15-17; mother-report and child-report),
internalizing behavior problems (ages 15-17; mother-report
and child-report), violent acts (ages 16-17) , and high school
GPA. The outcome measures examined in the NZ sample included
DSM-III-R diagnoses for conduct disorder, mood disorder, and
anxiety disorder (all ages 14-18), violent offending (ages
14-18), attempted suicide (ages 14-18), and failure to attain
at least one pass in School Certificate before leaving high
school. As in the previous analyses, the effect of timing
of onset of father absence on each outcome variable was examined
before and after adjustment for all covariates listed in Table
The key analysis concerns the effect of timing of father absence
after adjustment for covariates. As shown in Table 2 (adjusted
rates in parentheses), after statistical adjustment for all
covariates, there were no substantively meaningful linear
relations between timing of father absence and any of the
measures of behavioral problems (all p values > .33) in
the USA sample, as indicated by both the low odds ratios (range:
1.05-1.35) and relatively flat rates of behavioral problems
across the three father absent/present groups. In addition,
after statistical adjustment for all covariates, there was
not a substantively meaningful relation between father absence
and high school GPA (N = 177, ? = -.11, t = -1.43, p = .16).
As noted in the Method, the four measures of externalizing
and internalizing behavior problems were dichotomized (to
facilitate comparison with other outcome variables). Because
dichotomization attenuates the power to detect relations with
other variables (MacCallum, Zhang, Preacher, & Rucker,
2002), we also ran the analyses using standard linear regression
with continuous measures of the four dependent variables (as
described in the Method). After controlling for the full set
of covariates, the effects of timing of onset of father absence
on both mother- and daughter-reported externalizing and internalizing
behavior problems remained uniformly small and statistically
non-significant (N = 203; ?s range from .01 to .16; all ps
The pattern of results was somewhat different for the NZ sample.
As shown in Table 3 (adjusted rates in parentheses), after
statistical adjustment for all covariates, there was a pattern
of modest associations between father absence and the measures
of behavioral and mental health problems, as indicated by
both the odds ratios (range: 1.36-1.59) and the modest decline
in rates of these outcome variables across the three father
absent/present groups. Most of these associations obtained
at least marginal statistical significance.
In sum, in the USA sample, after statistically controlling
for all covariates, timing of onset of father absence remained
strongly associated with early sexual activity and teenage
pregnancy but not with other behavioral problems and academic
performance. Although the direction of the effects indicated
that earlier onset of father absence was associated with more
behavioral and academic problems in the USA sample, the size
of the effects were very small and did not approach statistical
significance. By contrast, in the NZ sample, after statistically
controlling for all covariates, there was still a pattern
of at least trend associations between timing of father absence
and the measures of adolescent adjustment, with odds ratios
ranging from 1.36 to 2.09. Although early sexual activity
and teenage pregnancy occupied the upper end of this range,
and although the odds ratio for teenage pregnancy was substantially
higher than for any other variable (+.50 or greater), there
was not a clear divide between the effects of father absence
on early sexual activity and other behavioral and mental health
outcomes. Specifically, after covariate adjustment, the odds
ratio for early sexual activity (1.57) was about the same
as for conduct disorder (1.59), violent offending (1.56),
and no school qualifications (1.50).
Does father absence uniquely and discriminantly increase daughters'
risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy, independent
of early externalizing behavior problems and exposure to familial
and ecological stressors during childhood? In addressing this
question, the current research had a number of important strengths.
First, the use of a cross-national research design enabled
us to replicate key findings across diverse samples in different
countries. Second, in conducting two studies, we were able
to carry out independent tests of the hypotheses using somewhat
different measures and methods. The striking similarity in
results across the United States and New Zealand samples underscores
the robustness and generalizability of the findings. Nonetheless,
it will be important to replicate these findings in non-Western
samples (see Waynforth, 2002). Third, the longitudinal nature
of the research–in which girls were prospectively studied
throughout their entire childhoods–enabled us to examine
child and family variables that preceded risk for involvement
in sexual activity and pregnancy in adolescence. Finally,
the use of multiple informants, in which antecedent child
and family data were collected from mothers and adolescent
sexual outcome data were collected from daughters, makes it
less likely that the current findings are an artifact of method
Although the current research cannot demonstrate causation,
three converging lines of evidence suggest that the answer
to this question is “Yes.” First, in both the
USA and NZ samples, there was a dose-response relationship
between timing of onset of father absence and early sexual
outcomes: early father-absent girls had the highest rates
of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed
by late father-absent girls, followed by father-present girls.
This dose-response relationship suggests that past research,
which has consistently treated father absence as a dichotomous
“yes-no” variable, has underestimated the impact
of father absence on daughters’ sexual outcomes. This
issue may be especially relevant to predicting rates of teenage
pregnancy, which were 7-to-8 times higher among early father-absent
girls, but only 2-to-3 times higher among later father-absent
girls, than among father-present girls.
Second, in both the USA and NZ samples, father absence constituted
a unique and independent path to early sexual activity and
adolescent pregnancy. Although measures of early conduct problems
and lifecourse adversity covaried with both timing of father
absence and adolescent sexual outcomes, these measures either
did not account for (in the USA sample) or only partially
accounted for (in the NZ sample) the links between father
absence and early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. The
relations between father absence and teenage pregnancy were
particularly robust. For example, after controlling for all
of the covariates, early father-absent girls were still about
5-times more likely in the USA sample and 3-times more likely
in the NZ sample to experience an adolescent pregnancy than
were father-present girls. In total, these data suggest that
father absence may impact daughters’ sexual development
through processes that operate independently of lifecourse
adversity and go beyond mere continuation of early conduct
Third, in the USA sample, father absence was discriminantly
associated with early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy.
This association was specific to sexual outcomes and, after
controlling for early conduct problems and familial and ecological
stressors, did not extend to academic, behavioral, or mental
health problems more generally. In the NZ sample, however,
the picture was less clear. After covariate adjustment, there
was still a pattern of at least trend associations between
timing of father absence and the measures of adolescent adjustment,
with early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy occupying
the upper end of this range of associations. Considering the
USA and NZ findings together, after controlling for measures
of early conduct problems and lifecourse adversity, the effects
of father absence on sex and pregnancy (1) were generally
stronger than were the effects of father absence on other
outcome variables and (2) clearly replicated across the two
studies whereas other effects of father absence were more
equivocal and replicated only in the sense of being in the
same direction. In sum, after covariate adjustment, there
was stronger and more consistent evidence of effects of father
absence on early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy than
on other behavioral or mental health problems or academic
It is worth reiterating that all of these conclusions are
based on the linear model, which provided the best fitting
and most parsimonious representation of the associations between
father absence and the outcome variables. Power would have
been low, however, to detect non-linearity in the USA sample
(given the use of dichotomous dependent variables and the
relatively small sample size in the late father-absent group).
The base rates shown in Table 2 indicate non-linear trends
in the USA data, with late father-absent girls displaying
higher rates of internalizing problems (both child- and mother-reports)
and externalizing problems (child-reports only) than did either
early father-absent or father-present girls. These non-linear
trends did not replicate in the NZ data (see Table 3). Nonetheless,
the possiblity that late father absence places daughters at
special risk for some outcome variables deserves further consideration
in future research with larger sample sizes.
Implications for the Lifecourse Adversity Model
In the literature on early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy,
the lifecourse adversity model occupies a dominant position.
It proposes that a life history of familial and ecological
stress–poverty, exposure to violence, inadequate parental
guidance and supervision, lack of educational and career opportunities–serves
to make early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy more
likely (e.g., Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998; Rindfuss &
St. John, 1983). The lifecourse adversity model has gained
wide acceptance through consistent empirical support: Rates
of teenage pregnancy have been found to positively covary
with family stress, conflict, and disruptions (e.g., Fergusson
& Woodward, 2000a; Hanson, Myers, & Ginsburg, 1987;
Robbins et al., 1985); with low parental warmth/support, lack
of parental control and monitoring, and maternal punitive
behavior (e.g., Fergusson & Woodward, 2000a; Hansen et
al., 1987; Scaramella et al., 1998; reviewed in Miller et
al., 2001); with low socioeconomic status (e.g., Fergusson
& Woodward, 2000a; Geronimus & Korenman, 1992; Robbins
et al., 1985); with high neighborhood mortality rates (Geronimus,
1996; Wilson & Daly, 1997); and with minority racial/ethnic
status (Cheesbrough et al., 1999; Dickson et al., 2000). The
results presented in Table 1 are fully consistent with this
body of research.
As discussed in the Introduction, the lifecourse adversity
model has incorporated father absence as one of many stressors
that can influence sexual outcomes. Indeed, as shown in Table
1, timing of father absence significantly covaried with all
of the measures of familial and ecological stress in both
the USA and NZ studies. Proponents of the lifecourse adversity
model have recurrently stated that father absence predicts
early sexual outcomes because it covaries with these stressors
(see references in Introduction).
The current research suggests that the opposite interpretation
is equally plausible: Measures of lifecourse adversity may
predict early sexual outcomes primarily because they covary
with timing of father absence. In the USA sample, father absence
predicted early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy after
controlling for early conduct problems and all of the measures
of familial and ecological stress; however, none of the measures
of familial and ecological stress predicted either early sexual
activity or adolescent pregnancy after controlling for timing
of father absence and early conduct problems. The results
in the NZ sample were more equivocal: both father absence
and some measures of familial and ecological stress (i.e.,
maternal education and family life stress) independently predicted
early sexual outcomes.
Given that the lifecourse adversity model does not appear
to account for the current results, the question then becomes:
What are the psychological mechanisms and processes that account
for the relations between increasing exposure to father absence
and greater risk for early sexual activity and adolescent
pregnancy? From a social learning perspective, increasing
duration of father absence is associated with increasing exposure
of daughters to their mothers’ dating and repartnering
behaviors, and these exposures may encourage earlier onset
of sexual behavior in daughters, with consequent increased
risk of teenage pregnancy. As Thornton and Camburn (1987,
p. 325) suggest, “We expect that many children know
whether their parents are sexually active after a marital
dissolution and that formerly married parents who continue
to be sexually active serve as behavioral models for their
maturing children, thus increasing the children’s levels
of permissiveness.” The social learning model thus posits
that the effect of father absence on daughters’ sexual
outcomes will be mediated by mothers’ dating and repartnering
behaviors. This hypothesis deserves careful consideration
in future research.
Another possibility is that mothers’ dating and repartnering
behaviors do not fully mediate the relation between father
absence and precocious sexual outcomes in daughters. Rather,
as discussed earlier, quality of paternal investment may have
a direct effect on daughters’ sexuality. The current
evolutionary model posits that the motivational systems underlying
variation in timing of sexual and reproductive behavior are
especially sensitive to the father’s role in the family
in early childhood. According to Draper and Harpending (1982,
1988), girls whose early family experiences are characterized
by father absence tend to develop sexual psychologies that
are consistent with the expectation that male parental investment
is unreliable and unimportant; these girls are hypothesized
to develop in a manner that accelerates onset of sexual activity
and reproduction, reduces reticence in forming sexual relationships,
and orients the individual toward relatively unstable pairbonds
(see also Ellis et al., 1999; Ellis & Garber, 2000). This
evolutionary model posits an early sensitive period (approximately
the first five years of life) for the effects of father absence
on daughters’ sexual development. Although the current
results–that earlier onset of father absence was associated
with greater risk for early sexual activity and teenage pregnancy–are
consistent with the sensitive period hypothesis, they do not
clearly support it because timing of father absence was confounded
with length of father absence in the current research. In
total, the current results are equally consistent with either
a sensitive period or linear dose-response interpretation.
Perhaps the major weakness of the current research design
was that it was not genetically informative. As noted in the
Introduction, one plausible behavior genetic explanation for
the current findings is that, through genetic transmission,
mothers and/or fathers who have a history of externalizing
disorders not only tend to have daughters who experience externalizing
behavioral problems (including increased rates of early sexual
activity and teen pregnancy), but also tend to disproportionately
expose their daughters to father absence and accompanying
maternal dating and repartnering behaviors because externalizing
disorders predict divorce. A second plausible behavior genetic
explanation is that mothers who experience early age of first
sex and pregnancy not only tend to have daughters who experience
early age of first sex and pregnancy (through genetic transmission;
see Dunne et al., 1997; Rodgers, Rowe, & Buster, 1999),
but also tend to disproportionately expose their daughters
to father absence and maternal dating and repartnering because
young mothers are less likely to form stable relationships
with the fathers of their children (e.g., Amato, 1996; Bennett,
Bloom, & Miller, 1995).
Consistent with these behavior genetic models, in the current
research both early childhood conduct problems in daughters
and earlier age at first birth in mothers generally predicted
early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy in daughters.
Importantly, though, controlling for both early conduct problems
and mothers’ age at first birth (along with the other
covariates) either did not account for (in the USA sample)
or only partially accounted for (in the NZ sample) the relations
between father absence and elevated rates of early sexual
activity and adolescent pregnancy. Although these results
do not rule out the possibility that common genetic influences
underlie the covariation between father absence and precocious
sexual outcomes (see especially Comings, Muhleman, Johnson,
& MacMurray, 2002), they do make it less likely that the
current findings can be accounted for by the specific genetic
pathways outlined above.
Over the last 25 years the field of developmental psychology
has experienced a fundamental shift away from a “social
address” perspective, in which variables such as father
absence and social class were studied without explicitly considering
how they influenced child functioning, to a “developmental
process” perspective, in which intervening pathways
and mechanisms have become of fundamental interest (discussed
in Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983). Critiques of the father
absence literature (reviewed in Phares, 1996) partly motivated
this change. A widely held assumption is that it is not father
absence per se that is harmful to children but the stress
associated with divorce, family conflict, loss of a second
parent, loss of an adult male income, and so on. The current
research suggests that, in relation to daughters’ sexual
development, the social address of father absence is important
in its own right and not just as a proxy for its many correlates.
This does not imply that process is unimportant, but rather
that relevant processes are likely to be father-driven (e.g.,
father-daughter processes, father-mother relationships, exposure
to stepfathers) (see Ellis et al., 1999).
In conclusion, father absence was an overriding risk factor
for early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy. Conversely,
father presence was a major protective factor against early
sexual outcomes, even if other risk factors were present.
These findings may support social policies that encourage
fathers to form and remain in families with their children
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Bruce J. Ellis, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury;
John E. Bates, Department of Psychology, Indiana University;
Kenneth A. Dodge, Center for Child and Family Policy, Duke
University; David M. Fergusson and L John Horwood, Department
of Psychological Medicine, Christchurch School of Medicine;
Gregory S. Pettit, Department of Human Development and Family
Studies, Auburn University; Lianne Woodward, Department of
Education, University of Canterbury.
In the United States, this work was supported by National
Institute of Mental Health grants MH28018 and MH42498 and
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant
HD30572. In New Zealand, this work was supported by the Health
Research Council, National Child Health Research Foundation,
the Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, and the New Zealand
Lottery Grants Board. We thank Jay Belsky, Ronald Dahl, and
Satoshi Kanazawa for comments on earlier drafts of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed
to Bruce Ellis, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury,
Private Bag 4800, Christchurch, New Zealand. Electronic mail
may be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.