How Mother-Child and Father-Child Relationships Influence Each Other: A Study on Families with Young Children in China

Zhang, X. & Chen, H. Reciprocal influences between parents’ perceptions of mother-child and father-child relationships: A short-term longitudinal study in Chinese preschoolers. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 2010, 171(1), 22–34.


tree11Research has traditionally explored the effect of parent-child relationships on children’s development or the effect of parents’ marital quality on parent-child relationships. Less explored is the influence of one parent-child relationship on the other.

This angle is the focus of a recent Chinese study, which studies whether father-child relationships and mother-child relationships affect each other over time. In doing so, this study expands on limited earlier research showing that mother-child attachment is moderately concordant with father-child attachment, and that a quality score of the mother-child relationship is modestly correlated with that of the father-child relationship.

The following provides an abstract of the research study.


The study used a two-wave, longitudinal sample of 100 Chinese preschoolers (56 boys, 62 girls) aged two to three years and their fathers and mothers. Children were recruited from six nursery classes at three urban preschools in Beijing, China. 95% of the children were the only child and the others had one or two siblings. Most parents (97.4%) were living together, and

2.6% were separated and living alone or divorced.

The mothers and fathers independently rated their own relationships with the target children, across two time periods, nine months apart. Relationship ratings measured relational closeness and conflict, derived from the Child-Parent Relationship Scale.


The study found that in general, mother-child relationships were closer and less conflictual than were father-child relationships. Furthermore, the average level of closeness and conflict did not differ between Time 1 and Time 2.

However, when examining the reciprocal influence between mother-child relationships and father-child relationships, the study reported the following:

  • Mother-child closeness appears to lower father-child conflict. Young children whose relationships with mothers were highly close were less likely than other children to have conflictual relationships with fathers nine months later, assuming the same level of father-child conflict in the first instance.

A possible explanation for this finding is that mothers’ positive attitudes and behaviours in their relationships with young children might lead to positive changes in fathers’ attitudes and behaviours with the children. At the same time, children’s warm relationships with mothers contribute to their good behaviours and in turn lead to their less conflictual relationships with fathers.

  • Father-child conflict raises the likelihood of mother-child conflict. Children who established conflictual relationships with fathers were more likely to have conflictual relationships with their mothers nine months later, assuming all groups had the same level of mother-child conflict in the first period.

This relationship can similarly be attributed to the impact of fathers’ attitudes and behaviours on mothers’ attitudes and behaviours, as well as to how father-child conflict can negatively affect children’s behaviour, in turn resulting in children having conflictual relationships with mothers.

  • Father-child closeness does not influence mother-child closeness or mother-child conflict, over the nine-month period.
  • Mother-child conflict was also not found to have an impact on father-child conflict, over the same period.

The study, while small in scale, offers interesting reflections on how mothers and fathers function within a family.

There is evidence of mutual influences between mother-child and father-child relationships. These influences are related to parenting behaviours and child functioning, which can spill-over from one parent-child dyad (relationship) to another, and shape parenting and child functioning in the other dyad.

This finding implies that both mothers and fathers have a role to play in facilitating more positive relationships between the child and the other parent, in order to enhance family dynamics in general.

Notably, father-child relationships appear more sensitive to mother-child influences than vice versa. This finding corroborates with other research showing that fatherhood is more dependent than is motherhood on contextual factors within and outside the family. For this reason, fathers may be particularly sensitive to encouragement or discouragement within their environment.

Finally, this study did not investigate how child temperament and marital quality affect the mutual influence between father-child and mother-child relationships. These factors could further complicate the inter-relationships.

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First published on 05-06-2012.