On deviancy and teenage pregnancy

We have some old friends staying with us right now with their granddaughter, who is almost one year old. We’ll call our friends the Sullivans, their daughter Hannah, and their granddaughter Beth. Here is the startling story of the Beth’s birth:

Hannah was 18, and a senior in high school. The Sullivans thought she might be sexually active, and offered to provide her with birth control, but she declined saying she was not having sex with her boyfriend.

And then Hannah started…gaining weight…most prominently in her tummy area. The Sullivans started wondering between themselves whether Hannah was pregnant or not. They dropped hints, tried to bring up the possibility obliquely. But Hannah did not seem to pick up on their hints, and never showed any sign of being pregnant. Except that her tummy grew a bit more every month.

Finally Mrs. Sullivan asked Hannah point-blank if she was pregnant. Hannah looked her mother in the eye and said no. Now, Mrs. Sullivan knew that Hannah had a tendency to lie. But she just didn’t think that Hannah could lie about something so big so completely. So she took her word for it.

Hannah was in a car accident, and the police officer asked her if she was pregnant, saying that if she was, he had to take her directly to the hospital. Hannah told the police officer no, she was not pregnant.

Hannah’s friends asked if she was pregnant, and she told every friend who asked, that no she was not pregnant.

You probably get the gist of where this story is going.

So the Sullivans went on vacation.  They drove three days to visit extended family, and on the day they arrived they got a phone call from Hannah in the hospital: “Mom, I had  baby.”  It had been Hannah’s plan that she would have the baby during the Sullivans’ well-timed trip, and that she would give it up for adoption before they came back.  But after the birth, she changed her mind.

The moral of this story: What incredible fortitude!  What strength and will!  Hannah is an amazing, powerful young woman.  When her determination is pointed in a supportive, meaningful direction, watch out world!

Many children and teenagers have this kind of willpower.  But adults, for whatever reason, aren’t able to see it in that light very often.  Far more commonly, adults label these children and teenagers as rebellious or deviant or liars.  Young people in these places are rarely praised for this gift and power they have of determination and strength – and so they are far more likely to see it as a negative personal trait that they should try and rid themselves of, rather than a gift and a responsibility that they can train and use.

Next time a child or a teenager you know does something that you are tempted to label as “rebellious” or “deviant” or even “bad,” stop for a minute.  How can you change your perception of this action, so that you can see where something good inside the child or teenager was misled or poorly utilized to get to this point.  Then speak to the good rather than the bad, and suggest how that positive quality could be used differently next time.

And remember Hannah and the will behind her decision and her ability to stay behind that decision through incredible difficulties over many months.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. I’m sorry, but I think you are giving a positive light to this situation where she or the baby could have been harmed. The car accident could have caused a miscarriage or internal injuries, the lack of prenatal care could have led to a premie….

    Her will was great…but also stubborn, there’s a difference between the ox pulling to get the load across the bridge and the donkey that’s pulling a wagon around in circles and thinks it’s going somewhere new…

  2. Yep, you’re right I’m giving a positive light to this story, UU. There are, of course, negative aspects to it. I’m not suggesting it’s all positive.

    Your points are exactly the reaction that most adults have when faced with Hannah: the car accident, the lack of prenatal care. There are other places where Hannah messed up: the lack of planning (like ending up with a baby at the hospital and no car seat to drive her home in), disrespecting her parents’ time by expecting them to turn around after a long drive and make the return trip immediately (when she could have saved them the drive at all by telling them she was in labor before they even left home), extreme disregard of the prospective adoptive parents’ feelings (changing her mind after Beth’s birth).

    I could go on. The point is that it’s easy to criticize in a situation like this, and far more difficult and productive to praise where and when you can.

    Criticizing the donkey in your parable won’t show it how to go in a line and won’t give it pride in it’s considerable pulling ability.

    Teenagers pull in circles far too often because they want to do things their own way – rather than their parents’ way. Telling them that their way is “wrong” or “bad” or even “not as good” often merely proves to them that they are doing it their own way, and they value that over most everything else. It is much more effective for everyone involved for parents and adults generally to praise the good (“You’re pulling an amazing load there! Wow!”) because that points out to the teenager where they are doing something their own way, and doing it well.

  3. Karen, I think you’ve finally lost your mind. There is nothing praiseworthy about that story at all. Not one word of it.

    I’m certainly in favor of independence for teenagers–they have to go out on their own at some point; but there is a proper time and proper place for independence, and a proper time/place for reliance.

    Having a baby is not something that is done independently. Mothers and expectant mother rely on the father, family, medical professionals, books, etc. That’s how it works. My wife and I still ask our parents for help with the kids, and we’re in our 30s, for pete’s sake. Independence for the sake of independence is merely another word for stubbornness, and is NOT praiseworthy. It may be a fact of life with teenagers, but that does NOT mean it’s praiseworthy.

    Don’t get me wrong, the parents should still forgive Hannah for her treachery and support her. But I just don’t see any good in saying, “Good job, Hannah. I especially liked how you showed independence when you refused medical care for your baby and lied to those who love you and care for you. Keep up the good work. More of the same, kiddo.”

  4. Howdy, George. It’s a good thing that I didn’t suggest that any parent say that to their teenager – it would be a terrible thing to say!

    I think you’re missing my point here. Unabashed praise? No, that’s not what I’m suggesting. Going without prenatal care? Certainly not.

    But neither would I never use the word “treachery” when talking about a teenager keeping to herself.

    I think it’s very, very sad that Hannah felt that she had so little support from her family and friends that she risked so much (her own health and the fetus’s health most notably). It would have been far better for everyone involved had Hannah felt that she could reach out and get support from her family and friends at this very vulnerable time in her life. But for whatever reason, that isn’t how she felt.

    Criticizing Hannah’s feelings of being alone will in no way help her or her baby.

    Talking about what Hannah “should have done” will not change what she did do. So move on. And the best way to do that is to pick out the one or two things where Hannah’s choices where, at the very least, notable in a positive way (like her will and stamina) and take note of them.

    Hannah is lucky that her parents choose that route, rather than labeling her actions and pigeon holing her as irresponsible and stubborn.

    Because will and stamina are both personal traits that are critical as a single mother, while irresponsibility and stubbornness are not. Teaching Hannah that she has the traits she needs as a mother will only support her being a good mother, while teaching her that her traits will work against her mothering abilities will only put up roadblocks.

  5. I don’t have Karen’s professional experience, but I do work around youth. To approach them in that negative manner that some commentators might suggest is likely to shut them down. Dealing with a pregnancy is a hard thing, but you know what? Hannah made some hard choices. I’m sorry that she didn’t feel she could turn to her family.

    In addition to the actual act of dealing with the youth, looking for the positive will change your attitude. As much as anything else, attitude that you bring to a situation like this will affect the outcome. If your attitude is negative, even though you are trying to handle the situation positively, your attitude will (likely) show through.

    That’s not to say you can’t offer criticism. Both UU College Student and George had concerns that are valid. I’m sure that Hannah’s family had other concern that were equally valid. Since all of these events occurred in the past, they shouldn’t be the primary concern for the present. They present opportunities for learning and support, but use it as a learning opportunity, not a criticism opportunity.

  6. Hi Karen ~ What a great story. I think it is easy to point out the negatives of the situation (Hannah not getting help, etc.). But I am impressed that you chose to point out Hannah’s positive traits. I agree with Don Hayward on his comment regarding the attitude that you bring to a situation like this. Often times the negative tend to shut teenagers down and alienate them from the people who love them most, when the truth is they need to feel supported by those people.

    I enjoy reading this site each day. So glad we met. ~Jairy

  7. You know, I think there are a lot of parallels in this story to dealing with an impossible two-year-old, but I’m too myopic right now to figure out what they are….

  8. Once again, you’ve surprised me. While reading Hannah’s story, all the normal “adult” thoughts were screaming through my head…”What about prenatal care?! Why is she lying?! What is she thinking?!” Your sudden praise of her strength stopped me dead in my tracks.

    WHAT a powerful reminder that when dealing with teenagers we have to remember that a little bit of understanding… and acknowledgment, can go a long way. I remember as a teen that my mother’s approach to keeping me out of trouble was SO negative that I ALWAYS pulled in the opposite direction. This story will be a strong reminder for me be aware of my reactions when dealing with my 14-year old.

    Yes, Hannah’s actions were terribly irresponsible and the whole situation could have ended up tragically, but one can also imagine that she was incredibly afraid, incredibly lonely, and truly felt that she was making the best choice for her baby. That IS something that should be acknowledged.

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