Contact with non-custodial fathers and children's well being


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Content type
Family Matters article

December 1993


If fathers are important figures in children's lives, then we would expect, to find that children's wellbeing in mother-only families is related to the level of paternal involvement following divorce. A number of Australian and American studies are examined to see if they support this idea. These studies show divergent results. Some studies find that children's wellbeing is higher when frequent contact is maintained with non-custodial parents. Other studies do not. This may be because continued contact with non-resident fathers may be beneficial for children in certain ways, however it may also exacerbate conflict between parents, which is bad for children. To explore this idea further, the author examined data from the American 1987-88 National Survey of Families and Households. He found that the consequences of contact between non-custodial fathers and children depends on the quality of the post-divorce relationship between parents. Given these findings, the author argues that it would be useful to promote policies that allow children to maintain contact with both parents following divorce, but only in the context of a cooperative relationship between ex-spouses. The value of joint custody in enhancing cooperation is discussed.

Although it is usually assumed that mothers are children's primary care givers, fathers also play an important role in children's development. Besides providing economic resources, fathers are also sources of emotional support, practical assistance, information, guidance, and supervision.

A large body of research shows that the support and involvement of both parents is associated with a number of positive child outcomes, including academic achievement, good behaviour, psychological adjustment, a positive self- concept, and social competence. Furthermore, when both parents exercise control and supervision appropriate to children's developmental level, children experience a similar range of benefits (Rollins and Thomas 1979; Maccoby and Martin 1983).

Given the advantages of having two highly involved, supportive parents, the absence of the father from the household, for whatever reason, may be problematic for children. Following divorce, many children experience a decrease in the quantity and quality of contact with non- custodial fathers (Amato 1987; Furstenberg and Nord 1985). And it is well known that many non-custodial fathers fail to pay adequate levels of child support (Seltzer, Schaeffer, and Charng 1989). For most children, this decline in contact and economic support represents a net loss in parental resources.

However, some non-custodial fathers continue to be highly involved in their children's lives, and some become even closer to their children after divorce. Consequently, the loss of parental resources is more severe for some children than for others.


If fathers are important figures in children's lives, then we would expect to find that children's wellbeing in mother- only families is related to the level of paternal involvement following divorce. Several studies in the United States have tested one aspect of this notion by looking at non-custodial fathers' payment of child support. The findings of these studies are quite clear in showing that when fathers comply with child support awards, children have higher academic test scores and fewer behaviour problems (Furstenberg et al. 1987). This effect is independent of the frequency of visitation; in other words, regardless of how often fathers visit, the more child support they pay, the better off are their children. Given the economic hardship experienced by many mother-only families, it is not surprising that the father's economic contribution is beneficial to children.

But what about contact between fathers and children? If fathers provide resources to children above and beyond economic ones, then we would expect the frequency of visits also to be associated with children's wellbeing.

A large number of studies, mostly American, have investigated this idea. Some studies find that children's wellbeing is higher when frequent contact is maintained with non-custodial parents (Guidubaldi et al. 1986; Kline et al. 1989). Studies that support the importance of father contact cite a range of child outcomes, including academic achievement, behaviour problems, psychological adjustment, self-esteem, and social competence. In contrast, other studies either show no relation between the frequency of visits and children's outcomes (Furstenberg et al. 1987; Kurdek and Berg 1983) or find that frequent visitation is associated with increased problems for children (Baydar 1988; Pett 1982). In general, the latter set of studies do not appear to differ from the former in quality or in the types of outcomes investigated.

An example of an Australian study that failed to find beneficial consequences of father involvement following divorce was based on the Children in Families Study, designed by Gay Ochiltree and Don Edgar of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. In an analysis based on these data, I found that the self-esteem of children who lived in continuously intact two-parent families was more positive when they had good relationships with both mothers and fathers (Amato 1986). Similarly, for children who lived with their mothers following divorce, the closeness of the motherPchild relationship (as well as the closeness of the stepfatherPstepchild relationship in cases of remarriage) was related to children's self-esteem. In contrast, however, the quality of the fatherPchild relationship was not related to children's self-esteem.

These findings held for boys and girls, as well as for primary school children and adolescents. At the time, I speculated that the fatherPchild relationship becomes less salient (that is, less central to the sense of self) over time for children who do not live with their fathers.

Nevertheless, it is curious that studies reveal such divergent results. One explanation for this inconsistency is that the studies vary in methodological features, such as the type of sample (clinical, convenience, or random), the age group of children, and the source of data (parent, child, or trained observer). Given this variation, it is not surprising that the results vary from study to study. A different type of explanation is that the impact of contact with non- resident fathers depends on other factors, such as the level of conflict between parents. If interparental conflict moderates the impact of visits, then the results of studies that fail to take this into account may be unstable and misleading.

Interparental conflict is a good candidate for such a moderating factor because quite a few studies have shown that it is linked to children's wellbeing and behaviour (Grych and Fincham 1990). It is not difficult to see why conflict is bad for children. When children are exposed to interparental hostility, they tend to react with negative emotions, such as fear or anger. In addition, children are often drawn into conflict between parents and are forced to take sides, which is not only stressful but results in deteriorations in parentPchild relationships. Furthermore, through modelling verbal or physical aggression, parents convey the idea that fighting is an appropriate method for dealing with disagreements, which may lead to an increase in child aggression. Finally, children may attribute blame for conflict between parents to themselves; this may be especially true for young children who tend to be egocentric.

Studies have consistently demonstrated that conflict between ex-spouses over custody, child support, visiting arrangements, and other issues is associated with poor adjustment among children of divorce (Johnston et al. 1989). It is probable that conflict and contact are positively associated, given that contact provides opportunities for conflict to occur. So although continued contact with non- resident fathers may be beneficial for children in certain ways, it may also exacerbate conflict between parents, which is bad for children. The end result would be one in which continuing hostility between parents cancels out the benefits that might otherwise follow from a high level of contact with the non-custodial father.

Two American studies provide support for this reasoning. Hetherington, Cox, and Cox (1982) reported that father visitation was associated with positive child adjustment when interparental conflict was low but was associated with decrements in children's adjustment when interparental conflict was high. Similarly, Healy, Malley, and Stewart (1990) found that father visitation was associated with high child self-esteem when legal conflict was low, but not when legal conflict was high.

An Assessment

To explore this idea further, Sandra Rezac (a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and I examined data from the 1987-88 National Survey of Families and Households. This is a large data set based on interviews with family members living in the continental United States. We focused on information on approximately 725 children of divorce between the ages of 5 and 18 years.

To assess contact, we looked at how often non-custodial fathers talked with their children on the telephone or wrote letters, how often non-custodial fathers visited their children, and how often non-custodial fathers spent time with their children in leisure, religious, and school activities.

We assessed conflict between ex-spouses over a number of issues, including children's living arrangements, how children are raised, payment of child support, how money is spent on children, and the non-custodial father's visits.

Finally, we looked at a number of child behaviour problems, including whether they had ever repeated a grade in school, been suspended or expelled from school, run away from home for one or more nights, been in trouble with the police, or seen a doctor or therapist about emotional or behaviour problems.

A number of interesting results appeared in relation to contact and conflict. For example, we found that children's contact with non-custodial fathers was higher when parents were well educated, older, and earned a high income. We also found that the marriage of the mother was related to lower contact. Furthermore, contact was positively related to interparental conflict, which suggests that contact provides opportunities for conflict to occur. As one might expect, the length of time since marital separation was associated with less contact and conflict. Finally, we found that as conflict increased, so did the number of reported behaviour problems.

More importantly, we were concerned with how interparental conflict might moderate the impact of contact with non-custodial parents. When we looked at boys whose parents experienced little or no conflict, we found that contact was associated with a decrease in the number of behaviour problems, especially at the highest level of contact. In cases where some conflict existed between parents, contact appeared to have few consequences for children's behaviour. In contrast, when parents had a high level of conflict, contact between fathers and children was associated with an increase in the number of reported behaviour problems, especially at the highest level of contact. Overall, the largest number of problems was found among boys who had high conflict and high contact, whereas the smallest number of problems was found among boys who had low conflict and high contact.

These findings for boys are consistent with the notion that frequent contact with non-custodial fathers is beneficial, but only when it occurs within an atmosphere of cooperation between ex-spouses. However, we found no comparable effect of contact/conflict for girls. This may be because parents are more likely to fight in the presence of sons than daughters. Mothers may also displace some of their negative feelings toward fathers onto sons, thus making sons more vulnerable to interparental conflict. Alternatively, our failure to find comparable effects for girls may have to do with our focus on behaviour problems. It may be that boys tend to manifest more externalising problems when confronted with stress, whereas girls tend to manifest more internalising problems. If a measure of internalising problems (such as depression or low self-esteem) had been included in the study, we might have observed similar results for girls.

Nevertheless, our research, and that of others, shows that the consequences of contact between non-custodial fathers and children depend on the quality of the post-divorce relationship between parents.

Contact Does Not Always Benefit the Child

Policy makers and practitioners who work with divorced families should consider the possibility that maintaining or increasing the level of contact between non-resident parents and children may not always be in children's best interest. When parents can cooperate and have a cordial relationship, encouraging frequent visits between non-resident parents and children is likely to benefit the child. Furthermore, fathers who maintain frequent contact with their children are also more likely to pay child support (Seltzer et al. 1989), which is also beneficial. However, when the relationship between ex-spouses is marked by hostility, frequent visits may do more harm than good.

Given these findings, it would be useful to promote policies that allow children to maintain contact with both parents following divorce, but only in the context of a cooperative relationship between ex-spouses. Note that this is quite different from the 'clean break' principle that many people assume is optimal.

If both parents are to remain actively involved in children's lives, then some type of continuing relationship between parents is necessary. Mediation is an example of a process that may facilitate cooperation between ex-spouses. Mediation has been shown to reduce the level of acrimony between parents during the divorce process. However, if a cooperative relationship between former spouses is to be maintained over the long haul, especially as family circumstances change, then it may be necessary to provide mediation or other counselling services well after the divorce is finalised.

When parents remain antagonistic following divorce, a number of strategies could be adopted for ensuring that visitation does not generate conflict. Rules for visits may need to be clarified - for example, by eliminating unscheduled visits by the non-resident parent. Procedures can also be developed for minimising personal contact between parents when children are 'handed over', such as picking up children at the home of a relative or friend, rather than the home of the custodial parent. And non- custodial parents may need to be counselled on the importance of not missing a scheduled visit.

These results also have implications for the practice of joint legal custody - which is not uncommon in some American states, such as California. In joint legal custody, both parents have legal rights and responsibilities for children, and children spend a significant portion of time with both parents. When parents can cooperate, this arrangement would appear to be optimal for all parties. Not only are both parents able to retain an important role in their children's lives, but children benefit from the combined input of two parents. But when parents are unable to cooperate, it may place children at considerable risk. Under these conditions, joint custody may lead to more contact between fathers and their children, but may also maintain and exacerbate conflict between parents.

In a large California study, Maccoby and Mnookin (1992) found that joint custody is sometimes used to resolve custody disputes. They found that joint custody was awarded in about one-third of cases in which mothers and fathers had each sought sole custody. And the more legal conflict that occurred between parents, the more likely joint custody was to be awarded. Three and one-half years after separation, these couples were experiencing considerably more conflict and less cooperative parenting that were couples for whom joint custody was the first choice of each parent. This demonstrates that an award of joint custody does not, in and of itself, improve the relationship between hostile parents. Consequently, it would appear to be undesirable - from the child's perspective - for courts to impose joint custody on unwilling parents.

In conclusion, these results suggest the importance of taking a systemic perspective, rather than a dyadic or individual one, in understanding children in divorced families. Clearly, divorce does not bring an end to the triadic relationship between parent, child, and parent. Instead, a good deal of research indicates that the quality of one relationship impacts on the others. Researchers who wish to understand children's adjustment, therefore, will need to use conceptual frameworks and analytic methods that take into account the full complexity of family relationships following divorce.


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A Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies between 1983 and 1987, Dr Paul Amato is now Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the United States. He is currently working on a 12-year study of parents and young adult children.