Rising rates of divorce and single parenthood have led to more children living apart from one of their parents – typically their fathers. While much research has focused on the negative impact of such arrangements, a growing body of evidence suggests that fathers who live apart from their children (non-resident fathers) can still make a difference. Research highlights from this perspective are discussed below.
The evidence on father absence is widely documented: children do better educationally, socially, and psychologically when they live with both parents. While family instability and financial difficulties contribute to poorer outcomes for children with non-resident fathers, a review of 28 studies of father absence found that the major disadvantage related to father absence is reduced parental attention following the departure or loss of one parent.
Non-resident fathers can face unique challenges in contributing to their children’s development. Understanding this context of fatherhood is the first step in helping them to maintain a positive presence in their children’s lives.
Fathers who do not live with their children are simply less available to nurture, guide, and provide for them. While many non-resident fathers seek to maintain some presence in their children’s lives, they often have little contact with their children after divorce or separation. Many go on to form new families, which tends to result in less contact with children from the earlier relationship.
Fathers who were never married are even less likely than divorced fathers to keep in contact with their children. In some cases of divorce, mothers limit the time children have with their fathers.
So How Can Non-Resident Dads Make a Difference?
Despite these disadvantages, non-resident fathers can still play a part. Research on the impact of non-resident fathers’ involvement is mixed, with some forms of involvement found to be more important than others.
For example, some studies show that it is not the frequency of contact per se that matters, but what a father does with his child and how he parents that counts. More recent studies have sought to define more precisely the circumstances in which such father-child relationships can flourish, and the value of these relationships for children.
- Key positive elements in the non-resident father-child relationship are warmth, support, and an authoritative parenting style. This style of parenting involves spending time with children, providing emotional support, giving everyday assistance, using appropriate control and limits, while still allowing the child autonomy, monitoring children’s behaviour, and providing consistent, fair and proportionate discipline.
- Both the amount of father-child contact-time and the quality of the father-child relationship are positively related to young children’s adjustment, with stronger effects for children whose mothers remain single than for children with stepfathers.
- Closeness to the non-resident father is linked to better academic and behavioural outcomes in adolescents, such as better school results and academic aspirations, a lower likelihood of suspension/expulsion, delinquency and other school related problems.
- Teachers’ reports of externalising (such as aggression and antisocial behaviour) and total behaviour problems in teenagers were found to be closely linked to the security of father-child attachment and to levels of father involvement, in both intact and non-intact families.
- However, children in non-intact families are particularly at risk because living apart from their fathers compromises two important “buffering” factors – fathers’ involvement and the security of the father-child attachment.
- One study using the quantity of time fathers invest in their children (i.e. how often he listens or talks to them) as well as the affective quality of that time (i.e. how close the child feels to the father) as a measure of father involvement, found that lower levels of non-resident father involvement were strongly predictive of adolescents’ externalising and internalising behaviours (specifically aggression, antisocial behaviour, emotional over-control; and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem).
- Involved non-resident fathers of adolescents already showing high rates of delinquent behaviour, make a positive impact as their children are less likely to engage in criminality one to two years down the road.
- Of course, providing adequate financial support is still a key route of influence. Children whose fathers make regular child support payments fare better overall.
- Overall, research seems to suggest that active involvement and the quality of the non-resident father’s relationship with the child, such as positive parenting and a close bond, matters more than frequency of contact.
It appears that in order to deliver the greatest benefits to their children, the time that non-resident fathers spend, should as closely as possible, resemble the diverse family experiences of resident fathers and their children. This includes sharing bedtimes, mealtimes, watching TV, doing homework, trips out, bonding at home and visiting with friends and family. Some of these may be possible, even when fathering from afar, when fathers – and mothers – prioritize their lives with their children’s best interests at heart.
2. Manning, W.D. & Smock, P.J (1999). New families and nonresident father-child visitation.Social Forces 78:87–116; Seltzer, J.A. (1991). Relationships between fathers and children who live apart: The father’s role after separation. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 79–101.
10. Williams, S.K., & Kelly, F.D. (2005). Relationships among involvement, attachment, and behavioural problems in adolescence: examining father’s influence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(2), 168-196.
14. Nord, C., & West, J. (2001). Fathers’ and mothers’ involvement in their children’s schools by family type and resident status[On-line].
15. Lamb, M.E. (2002). Non-residential fathers and their children. In C.S. Tamis-LeMonda & N. Cabrera (eds.), Handbook of Father Involvement: multidisciplinary perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.
First published on 28-04-2011.