Contrary to popular opinion, the intellectual abilities of children born to teen moms do not lag behind those of kids whose mothers were older at the time of birth, a new study finds.

The raw cognitive power associated with kids born to average-aged mothers compared to that of kids with teen moms stems more from social and cultural factors than anything else, the researchers found. Neurological development, in other words, may see differences accumulate over time, but any observable gaps likely stem from external forces rather than internal ones.

Such social forces include household income, absence of a father in the home, mother's educational level, her occupation, mental health, childcare, and parenting behaviors. Also common among teen mothers was low household income. Together with perinatal factors, such as smoking and drinking during pregnancy, and the absence of breastfeeding, these influences put children of teen moms at a greater disadvantage to succeed intellectually.

What the present study attempts to show with this finding is that cognitive development is largely a product of one’s social location. Children who grow up with greater access to health care, solid education, and an overall environment that fosters health and well-being, both physically and mentally, will necessarily find themselves reaching goals put forth by that environment.

Not controlling for these social factors, the researchers found huge discrepancies between the various groups involved with the study. They collected their data from the Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term nationally representative study of almost 19,000 children born between 2000 and 2001 across the U.K. Among these children, one in 20 were born to a mother 18 and younger, and one in five were born to a mom between 19 and 24. The remaining children were split among mothers aged 25 to 29 (28 percent) and 30 to 35 (35 percent). Twelve percent of mothers were over 35.

The team evaluated each child’s verbal, non-verbal, and spatial skills at 5 years old. While verbal skills, including language development, remained slower in children of teen moms — even after accounting for social factors — the remaining two variables showed equal measure. Even verbal setbacks reduced from 11 months to 5 months once researchers took social factors into account.

"Being a teenage mother significantly limits one's ability to gain further education and higher level employment,” the researchers said in a news release, “which may in turn affect child development.”

A separate 2005 study, as part of the National Campaign to End Teen Pregnancy, found similar results. Kindergarten-aged children were evaluated on their reading and math skills and general knowledge. Kids were separated according to their mothers’ age. As expected, the kids whose mothers had them at later ages performed better at each task, successively across mother age, than the children born to teen moms. When the researchers controlled for social factors, however, the differences disappeared.

“Overall, though, these findings indicate that, upon kindergarten entry, children of the youngest teen mothers lagged behind children born to older mothers on language and communication skills," the researchers said.

The campaign, along with the present study, sought to better understand teen pregnancy and the means by which it can be prevented. Education programs and comprehensive support systems, ones that instill in teens of both sexes a full understanding of sexual health and risks, should serve as the primary systems of prevention within a school or community.

“These programs not only can reduce the incidence of too-early childbearing, but they also may improve school-readiness in the next generation” the authors of the campaign’s report concluded, “by enhancing the economic, educational, and marital status of women before they become mothers.”

Source: Morinis J, Carson C, Quigley M. Effect of teenage motherhood on cognitive outcomes in children: a population-based cohort study. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2013.