As expected, the proportion of young fathers in the Finnish general population was found to be rather low (5.3%). Boys who had had psychosocial problems in childhood were more likely to become fathers than their peers. The likelihood was increased for those who were born to a young father themselves and for those who have a mother with a low educational level. A particularly interesting finding is that boys, who had had conduct problems at age eight, had an increased risk of becoming a young father, independently of antisocial behavior in adolescence. On the other hand, boys who had repeatedly committed criminal offenses in adolescence, were more likely to become young fathers, largely regardless of their childhood background.
It is known from a previous study on the same cohort that childhood conduct problems are strongly associated with committing offenses in adolescence [23
]. In this study, criminality did not mediate the association between childhood conduct problems and becoming a young father. It is possible that different components of childhood conduct problems are associated with criminal activity than with becoming a young father [24
]. It may also be that childhood conduct problems and adolescent antisocial behavior are differently related to personality traits such as sensation-seeking or impulsivity, or to contextual factors such as parental monitoring, which are possible mediating factors [25
]. Miller-Johson et al. [15
], whose study showed similar results, suggested that a possible explanatory factor is peer social status. In their study, childhood aggression on one hand and adolescent substance use and deviant peer involvement on the other hand were independent predictors of becoming a young father. The risk of becoming a young father, however, was not increased for boys, who were rejected in their peer group. They hypothesized that boys, who are aggressive in childhood, but not rejected, may become more central members of deviant peer groups and become involved in risky sexual behavior.
The association between self-report of depressive symptoms in childhood and becoming a father was significant before controlling for antisocial behavior in adolescence and close to significant after antisocial behavior was included. This is in contrast with previous studies, which, however, have assessed depressive symptoms in adolescence [8
]. Previous studies, which have used the same sample have shown an association between boys’ self-report of depressive symptoms at age eight and low sense of coherence as well as smoking at age 18 [27
]. These factors may be associated with adolescent risk behavior, but more studies would be needed to confirm the hypothesis.
The finding that sons of young fathers have an increased likelihood of becoming young fathers themselves has also been shown in previous studies [3
]. Very little is known about possible mechanisms. It has been suggested that the association between parent’s and child’s young age at the time of becoming a parent could be explained by socialization, which refers to attitudes and values which are favorable toward early childbearing, lack of social control in the family and family’s financial and/or marital instability, but most studies have focused on mothers and daughters [30
]. In this study, the association became weaker when other family-related factors and childhood psychiatric symptoms were included in the analysis. This suggests that the association between being born to a young father and becoming a young father may be partly explained by adverse childhood environment or psychiatric problems. After all, it may be that in certain communities becoming a father at young age does not break prevailing norms and the intergenerational transmission is explained by cultural factors. An example in Finland is the Laestadian minority, a group of people who belong to a revivalist movement. They are generally opposed to contraception, have high value for family life, high fertility rates and young age at first birth [31
Low maternal educational level was also associated with becoming a young father. It is known that associations between low socioeconomic status of a family affect children’s health and social outcomes through various family- and community level factors such as stressful life situations, poor access to services, health-compromising life style and adverse neighborhood characteristics [32
]. It may be that these factors also increase the likelihood of behavior which leads to becoming a young father. Another possibility is that boys whose mother has a low education have later a low socioeconomic status themselves and are more willing to have a child than for example their peers with higher educational expectations.
The findings of this study have implications in the fields of prevention and parental support. While many boys who become fathers at a young age may be well prepared and have strong social support, there are others who may become fathers unintentionally, lack support and have poor parenting skills. The existing interventions, which aim at supporting young families, are often planned for mothers and do not adequately address the needs of different types of fathers [33
]. The boys who have had a high level of conduct problems or who are involved in antisocial behavior in adolescence, are likely to face particular challenges. It is known that young fathers with a history of conduct problems, are likely to be engaged in interpartner violence [34
], to spend less time with their children [35
] and to have problems in parenting [36
]. It has also been shown that parental conduct problems increase the risk of conduct problems among offspring through both genetic and environmental mechanisms [37
]. The special needs of boys with a history of conduct problems and/or involvement in risk behavior in adolescence, should be taken into account when providing young parents with psychosocial support and when aiming at improved parenting skills.
It is probable that postponing the timing of becoming a father is sometimes beneficial. When planning sexual health education programs, which aim at reducing adolescents’ risky sexual behavior and unintended pregnancies, it is important, first of all, to acknowledge that boys in general may have different needs than girls [33
]. In addition, it should be noted that boys, who score high on sensation-seeking and impulsive decision-making, may need interventions different from conventional classroom curricula based on rational decision-making [26
]. It should also be studied whether there are any barriers to use of contraception or sexual health services for boys with antisocial tendencies. Early prevention would be preferable, but not much is known about effective methods. In a review on prevention programs of early pregnancy it was shown that girls from disadvantaged families who have participated childhood or youth interventions focusing for example on social and educational support, social skills training or community activities, are less likely to become pregnant in adolescence [39
]. However, no statistically significant association has been shown between the participation of boys and their partners’ pregnancies [39
]. It is not either known if the prevention or early intervention of conduct problems would decrease the number of young fathers.
There are some limitations in this study. It is possible that the number of young fathers in the sample is underestimated, because not all of them may be registered in the Population Information System. However, this number is likely to be small. In a nationwide Finnish study on autism (FIPS-A, which includes around 5,000 autistic children and 20,000 controls) [40
], 98.3% of the children born in 1987–2005 had a registered father. On the other hand, there are probably registered fathers, who are not in reality the biological ones, but there is no official estimate of this figure. Psychiatric symptoms were measured only once. Furthermore, there was no information on other childhood factors such as participants’ cultural background, their religious orientation or stressful life events. Nor was it known whether they were in a permanent relationship and whether becoming a father was a wanted and planned event. Information on criminal offenses should be interpreted with caution, because it is possible that some of the boys had become fathers before committing crimes and reverse causality cannot be ruled out. However, most boys (63%) became fathers after they had turned 20
years. In addition, it is likely that at least those who have committed more than five offenses have started committing them before becoming a father. It would have been interesting to see whether the childhood factors predict differently becoming a father in adolescence versus young adulthood, but the number of young fathers was too small for this kind of analysis.