Young, Single Moms: Empirical Considerations for Empowering Interventions

By Leah B. Mazzola

As a program designed specifically considering the needs of at-risk and high-risk young people, understanding the challenges facing young, single moms is imperative to our work.  Tailoring empowering programs for this or any audience requires base knowledge of the literature for relevant findings to guide intervention.  Fair warning, the following literature review is a scholarly read however, it offers a peek inside support for an empowerment model for our work with high-risk, young single mothers.  That’s how we roll. Nothing without science. Knowing the risks and challenges allows us to collaborate effectively with our young people to equip them to persevere and achieve despite the obstacles.  As an aside, the author was a single mother from age 19-26 and experienced these challenges first-hand.  The statistics say overcoming and thriving as a single mother and raising a thriving child in a single mother household is difficult, not impossible. We thrive through challenge and equip our young people to do the same.

The Numbers

Studies across disciplines show single moms face a greater number of chronic, severe, and long-term stressors than partnered peers (Broussard, Joseph, & Thompson, 2012; Heath & Orthner, 1999; McLanahan, 1983; McLanahan, 1984; Turner, 2007).  Challenging stressors include individual and social factors such as worry, insecurity, financial strain, discrimination, stigmatization, and child-related limitations on education and employment (Broussard et al. 2012; D’Ercole, 1988; Turner, 2007).  According to a recent US Census Bureau (2011a) report, 46.9% of single mother households with children under 18 live in poverty in contrast to 28.2% of single father households, and 11.6% of married-couple families.  This places single mothers at four times more likely to live in poverty than married-couples and almost twice as likely as male counterparts.

According the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) (2014), teen pregnancy rates in the United States for ages 15 to 19 are the highest in the industrialized world, two-thirds of young, single mothers are poor, only 40% of teen moms finish high school, and less than 2% of those bearing children before 18 finish college before 30.  A thorough search of the literature and web returns hundreds of articles and studies evidencing these and other consequences of single motherhood with an onslaught of prevention resources.  However, a search for mediating strategies to improve outcomes for existing single mothers who currently make up 41% of all births in the United States returns dismal results (CDC, 2013).  Single parent families are a reality of today’s society and difficulties facing single mother households specifically, warrants empirical study into contributors, effective coping, and mediating strategies to improve outcomes for a large population of effected mothers and children.


The current literature demonstrates perceived self-efficacy (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; Jackson & Huang, 2000; Jackson & Scheines, 2005), healthy coping (Broussard, Joseph, & Thompson, 2012; D’Ercole, 1988; Heath & Orthner, 1999), problem-solving strategies (Samuels-Dennis, 2007), perceived social support (Ashton & & Fuehrer, 1993; Cakir, 2010; D’Ercole, 1998; Heath & Orthner, 1999), employment (Ali & Avison, 1997; Gyamfi, Boorks-Gunn, & Jackson, 2001; Samuels-Dennis, 2007), and workplace support (Parker, 1993) do mediate single mother’s distress however, low-income and lack of employment severely increase likelihood of psychological distress (Samuels-Dennis, 2007).  Samuels-Dennis (2007) found “67% of employed single mothers on social assistance, compared with 14.6% of employed single mothers not on social assistance, reported severe depressive symptoms” (pg. 500).  These findings demonstrate the importance of employment status and socioeconomic status for single mothers and children, however, with 46.9% of single mother households living in poverty, improving employment opportunities and income potential for single mothers is clearly unresolved (USCB, 2011a).

Considering the numerous obstacles to single mother’s employment, value, and sense of efficacy in the workforce brings several concepts to the forefront.  Single mothers face various stereotypes relating to poverty, unemployment, and lack of education, unfair stigma, and truly limited flexibility around work and school demands as they often bear all responsibility for childcare and support.  Each of these obstacles are mediated, reinforced, or exacerbated by internal and external forces.  A literature review for potential contributors and mediators to improve outcomes for young, single mothers led to the following primary concepts: femininity, stereotype threat, self-efficacy, attribution of responsibility for solution, and social support.  The following overview addresses relevant historical and current research in these areas and the potential importance of each to single mother outcomes.


 An influx of studies beginning with the feminist movement show sex-role identification (i.e. masculine, feminine, or androgynous) significantly affects individual self-concept, psychological adjustment, coping, and behavior (Bem, 1974; 1975; Blanchard-Fields, Sulsky, & Robinson-Whelen, 1991; Brems & Johnson, 1988; Consentino & Heilbrun, 1964; Gall, 1969; Gray, 1957; Mitchell, 1987; Nezu & Nezu, 1987; Washburn-Ormachea, Hillman, & Sawilowsky, 2004).  The highly popular Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) (1974) highlights twenty stereotypical masculine traits (e.g. ambitious, self-reliant, independent, assertive) as indicating level of masculinity and twenty stereotypical feminine traits (e.g. affectionate, gentle, understanding, sensitive to the needs of others) as indicating level of femininity.  Numerous early studies employing this or similar scales showed high femininity in females correlated with high anxiety, low self-esteem, low social acceptance, and greater susceptibility to social pressure (Bem, 1975, pg. 635, Consentino & Heilbron, 1964; Gall, 1969; Gray, 1957).

Bem (1975) tested the behavioral consequences of sex typing and found subjects identifying as androgynous (i.e. identifying equally with masculine and feminine characteristics) were more adaptable across situations, calling for sex typed responses, engaging in the most appropriate behavior for the scenario regardless of the stereotyped expectation of such behavior.  Bem (1975) also found highly feminine females failed to perform well in either scenario (i.e. masculine or feminine directed) potentially demonstrating greater susceptibility to anxiety and social pressure.

Mitchell (1987) found a significant relationship between “femininity and low internal attribution of responsibility for problem-solving” (pg. 151).  Nezu and Nezu (1987) found subjects high in masculinity (regardless of sex) rated more effective problem-solving ability, were more active than avoiding in stressful situations, and more problem-focused versus emotion-focused in stressful situations.  Brems and Johnson (1988) found subjects high in femininity were more likely to turn against self, whereas subjects high in masculinity were more likely to present positive self-appraisal and greater confidence in problem-solving ability.

Although the sex role research discussed above has since shifted to a gender focus in recent decades, the trends remain the same.  More recent studies show young females are twice as likely as male peers to attempt suicide (Beautrais, 2002), women have higher rates of depression than men (Grigoriadis & Robinson, 2007), girls continue to express lower confidence in abilities than boys (Parajes, 2002), women continue to earn considerably less than men (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2012), women hold the majority of low-wage jobs (Kim, 2000), women continue to perceive themselves as less likely to achieve career goals than men (Von Hippel, Issa, Ma, & Stokes, 2011), and women remain dramatically underrepresented in senior level leadership roles (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011).  The importance of these gender differences follows.

Self-Efficacy and Attribution of Responsibility

Early studies in self-efficacy demonstrate people who believe they can affect change in their own outcomes are more likely to initiate coping behaviors and persist in the face of challenge (Bandura, 1982; Dweck, 1975; Dweck & Reppucci, 1973; Klein, Fencil-Morse, & Seligman, 1976).  Recall Pajares’ (2002) finding that girls continue to show lower confidence in abilities than boys.  Zelden, Britner, and Pajares (2007) interviewed a small group of successful men and women in STEM careers and found women’s sense of self-efficacy was derivative of social persuasion and vicarious experience and men’s from personal mastery.  These results allude to a direct need to adjust society’s perception of single mothers and to empower single mothers to succeed.  Dweck and Reppucci (1973) found persistence and performance from self-efficacy directly related to individual’s attribution of responsibility to self and attributions of success or failure to effort over ability.  Recall Mitchell’s (1987) finding of femininity’s correlation with low attribution of responsibility to self for solution, as “femininity is traditionally associated with greater dependence” (pg. 155).

Brickman et al. (1982) further developed these findings separating attribution of responsibility into two categories, responsibility for the problem and responsibility for the solution.  From this separation came four models of helping and coping based on the degree to which people are perceived responsible for causing their own problems and providing their own solutions.  Through the medical model, potential helpers perceive victims as not responsible for problems or solutions (Brickman et al., 1982).  The potential helper believes the victim is ill and in need of treatment (Brickman et al., 1982).  Through the moral model, the potential helper perceives the victim as responsible for problems and solutions (Brickman et al., 1982).  The potential helper believes the victim simply needs the proper motivation to find solutions (Brickman et al., 1982).  Through the compensatory model, the potential helper perceives the victim as not responsible for the problem yet responsible for the solution (Brickman et al., 1982).  The potential helper perceives the victim as needing empowerment (Brickman et al, 1982).  Through the enlightenment model, the potential helper perceives the victim as responsible for the problem but incapable or unwilling to provide solutions (Brickman et al. 1982).  The potential helper perceives the victim to need discipline (Brickman et al., 1982).  Brickman et al. (1982) found those attributing responsibility for the solution to the actor promoted self-efficacy and positive, long-term change but reduced initiative for outside helpers to assist.  In contrast, models undermining the actor’s ability to find their own solutions led to short-term change dependent on salience of helpers and return to problem behavior when helpers were no longer present (Brickman et al. 1982).

Although Mitchell (1975) found femininity correlates with low attribution of responsibility for solution associated with promoting self-efficacy, Dweck (1975) demonstrated the effectiveness of attribution retraining to improve motivation and performance.  Thus, assessing single mother’s sense of self-efficacy and attribution of problem cause and solution are relevant to an empowerment model promoting improved outcomes.

Stereotype Threat

Steele and Aronson (1995) introduced the term stereotype threat to describe a situation in which one feels at risk of confirming a widely known negative stereotype about one’s group.  Numerous studies have since tested the phenomenon and offer rich empirical support for impaired performance in stereotype relevant contexts regardless of individual ability, along with varying long-term psychological and physiological consequences.  These consequences include decreased motivation, aspiration abandonment, domain dis-identification, reduced sense of self-efficacy, higher anxiety, and blood pressure (Aronson & Inzlicht, 2004; Ben-Zeev, Fein, & Inzlicht, 2003; Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001; Croizet et al. 2004; Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005; Vick, Serry, Blascovich, & Weisbuch, 2008; Woodcock, Hernandez, Estrada, & Schultz, 2012).

Researchers seeking effective intervention strategies to curb stereotype threat found role models offer an effective approach for group-as-target threat scenarios and affirmations offer an effective strategy for self-as-target threats (Bowen, Wegmann, & Webber, 2013; Shapiro, Williams, & Hambarchyan, 2013).  Associating with like others also serves as a buffer to such intergroup bias (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2010).  These interventions seem to offer some insight into methods of fostering positive coping, career, and academic progression for single mothers however, a thorough search of the stereotype threat literature did not reveal any studies investigating the role of stereotype threat in single mothers seeking and securing viable employment.

Social Support

Numerous findings indicate level of social support is a predictor of positive and negative coping strategies and outcomes across age and culture (Auerbach, Bigda-Peyton, Eberhard, Webb, & Ho, 2011; Broussard et al., 2012; Cakir, 2010; Chao, 2012; Cheng & Chan, 2007; D’Ercole, 1988; Green, DeCourville, & Sadava, 2012; Niyonsenga et al. 2012; Respler-Herman, Mowder, Yasik, & Shamah, 2012; Taylor et al. 2000).  Landman-Peeters et al. (2011) found social support holds more relevance for coping in females than males serving as a buffer for depressive symptoms.  This finding supports prior studies demonstrating females turn to social relationships for emotional support in stressful situations more than males with a “tend-and-befriend” versus “fight-or-flight” response (Ashton & Fuehrer, 1993; Landman-Peeters et al. 2011; Taylor et al. 2000).  Consequently, seeking social support is particularly relevant to single mothers as they cope with stressors unique to their situation.


So how do we help? Recall attribution of responsibility to the actor for the problem and solution (you got yourself into it, you can get yourself out) promotes individual self-efficacy, but diminishes the likelihood for outside parties to assist.  We prepare our young, single moms to succeed understanding many will judge them and have no interest in helping them.  We focus first on empowering young single moms through self-efficacy development, self-determination, and self-sufficiency.  We work to build confidence in their ability to achieve, provide, and thrive as the head of their family.  We direct focus toward finding solutions that fit them, learning to use what they have where they are to begin moving to where they want to be.  We instill the importance of building a network of positive social support for the climb to create thriving futures for themselves and the children depending on them.  Again, we know difficult doesn’t mean impossible, but everyone needs someone to inspire and encourage them through the journey.  We’re happy to do so to help mediate outcomes for a large population of young, single moms and children.