Understanding the Needs of Young Parents and the Best Approaches for Serving Them

CFRP Policy Brief | B.040.0719

July 2019 
PDF Version

Becoming a parent is a challenging transition for any new parent, but it can be especially difficult for young parents—those between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. To better understand the unique needs and challenges of this population, CFRP conducted a series of focus groups in three locations throughout Texas with young mothers, young fathers, and service providers who work with young parents. Our findings show that young fathers and young mothers struggle to balance school, work, and family life, and that they need mentors to help usher them into adulthood and parenthood. Young parents need mental and emotional support, as well as support in their relationships with their partner, parents, and peers. Young fathers specifically need assistance in developing expectations about their new role as father, especially because many lacked father figures growing up. Additionally, information sharing and service delivery to young parents can be more effective by addressing gender biases and age assumptions about this group of parents. These findings can help service providers better align their services with the needs of young parents and understand what approaches work best in serving this population.

Introduction

Parents play an important role in the lives of their children, families, and their communities. The transition into parenthood may be a challenging time for any new parent, but it can be particularly difficult for young parents between ages 18 and 24 years old.1,2 In contrast to older parents, young parents are at an important nexus in their life where they are transitioning from being a child to an adult, a student to having a career, and a single person to a parent. Parents often struggle during this transition to overcome financial instability3 and to maintain strong co-parenting relationships.4 They are also still developing emotionally and figuring out their goals in life.5 Although there are many services already available for parents under the age of 18, services for young adult parents are scarce.6 This transitional phase in a young parent’s life can be an important turning point in their ability to successfully contribute to their family financially and emotionally. This period of time is also a critical window of opportunity for service providers to provide support for young parents that can help usher them into adulthood and parenthood simultaneously.

Despite the strong influence that parents have in their children’s lives, there is limited research about how services and programs can best support young parents, especially young fathers.7,8 To learn more about this population, the Annie E. Casey Foundation partnered with the Child and Family Research Partnership (CFRP) at the University of Texas at Austin to conduct focus groups with young fathers, young mothers, and services providers in Texas to develop a better understanding of 1) the unique needs of young parents and 2) the best approaches to serving them. The present brief summarizes the unique needs and challenges of parents aged 18 to 24 years old, highlights the different challenges that young mothers and young fathers face, and identifies best practices for serving this population.

Methodology

CFRP conducted a series of focus groups in Austin, Houston, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area throughout June 2019. In each location, CFRP held three one-hour focus groups—one with young fathers, one with young mothers, and one with service providers who work with young parents. The goal of the focus groups was to better understand the unique needs of young parents and the best strategies to serve them. The focus groups were held in various locations to collect different opinions across the state. The number of participants in each focus group is shown in Table 1.

 

Table 1. Focus Group Participants

 

Young Fathers

Young Mothers

Service Providers

Houston 

5

11

3

Austin

2

7

6

Dallas/Fort Worth 

3

13

8

 

Our primary objective was to talk directly with young fathers and young mothers about their experiences. The goal in interviewing young fathers and young mothers separately was to learn about barriers that may be specific to each group and to assess how serving fathers may differ from serving mothers. The focus groups were guided by an interview outline, but they were semi-structured and allowed the participants’ responses to shape the discussions. We spoke with a total of 10 young fathers and 31 young mothers in all of the focus groups. Additionally, we interviewed 17 service providers in total. Our intention was for the service providers to provide a complementary perspective that would paint a fuller picture of young parents’ experiences, and to gain insight into how providers are currently serving young parents.

To recruit participants for the focus groups, we first targeted key service providers. CFRP drew on its existing relationships with state and local agencies for participation in all three locations. We emailed service providers directly asking them to participate in our focus groups and also asked them to share a flyer with other service providers who may be interested and eligible for the focus groups. We also shared the flyer with state and local agencies who included the details in newsletters and emailed the flyer to other agencies. CFRP also assisted the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in hosting a Regional Fatherhood Summit in all three locations. We contacted service providers who registered for the summit in each area to see if they would be willing to participate in the focus group. We also used these relationships to help recruit parents for the focus groups, asking service providers to invite young parents who receive their services. Additionally, we used Facebook ads to boost participation among young parents. At each location, we allowed partners to participate in separate focus groups if they wished (i.e. both parents could participate separately in the mother focus group and the father group).

The young fathers who participated in the focus groups ranged in age from 19 to 23, and the young mothers ranged from 18 to 25. The average age for both young fathers and young mothers was 21 years old. The participating parents had between one and four children, with two children being the average. Three of the young fathers were single, and seven were partnered. Eleven of the young mothers were single, two did not share their relationship status, and 18 had partners; however, their current partners were not necessarily the biological fathers of their children. The vast majority of the young parents were Hispanic or African-American. The service providers who participated in the focus groups work for various organizations in Texas whose services include housing, counseling, workforce development, domestic violence and sexual assault, child abuse and neglect prevention, home visiting, early childcare and education, fatherhood classes, and case management for teen parents in high school.

All nine focus groups were recorded, transcribed, and coded according to key themes and subtopics, informed by a review of the literature on the unique needs of young parents.

Key Findings

Our findings highlight the unique challenges of young parents and the key areas where young mothers and young fathers face different barriers. Our aim is for these findings to help pave the way for service providers to better understand the best strategies to serve young parents. The sections below highlight the following key points in serving young parents:

  1. Most young fathers need help learning what it means to be a father because they lacked father figures growing up.
  2. Most young parents struggle to balance school, work, and their family roles. Young parents often assume traditional gender roles—in general, fathers are more engaged in financially providing for the family, whereas mothers are more focused on child-rearing.
  3. Young parents need mentorship to navigate adult situations because they are at the nexus of so many transitions at once.
  4. Young parents need support in their interpersonal relationships, especially in co-parenting. Young mothers feel more pressure to grow up quickly, feel as though they cannot ask their parents for help, rely more on social networks, and feel more socially isolated. Young fathers, on the contrary, do not necessarily feel as much pressure to grow up quickly and do not feel as reluctant to ask their parents for help. They are also less engaged in building social networks and discuss stress and mental health less often.
  5. Information sharing and service delivery to young parents can be more effective when considering the differences in how young mothers and young fathers access and use services. Young mothers are more proactive in finding parenting resources and programs than young fathers. Young fathers are more difficult to recruit and retain in parenting programs. Implicit biases among service providers could further contribute to the way fathers access information—mostly through their child’s mother.

Learn more in the full brief here (PDF).

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