Contact with Non-Custodial Fathers and Children’s Wellbeing

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This article has been reproduced from FAMILY MATTERS no.36 December 1993, pp.32-34

Paul R Amato, PhD



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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Amato, P. R. (1987),  ‘Family processes in intact, one-     parent, and step-parent families: the child’s point of view’,     Journal of Marriage and the Family, 49, pp.327-337.

Baydar, N. (1989),  ‘Effects of parental separation and     reentry into union on the emotional wellbeing of children’,     Journal of Marriage and the Family, 50, pp.967-981.

Furstenberg, F. F. Jr., and Nord, C. W. (1985),  ‘Parenting     apart: patterns of childrearing after marital disruption’,     Journal of Marriage and the Family, 47, pp.893-904.

Furstenberg, F. F. Jr., Morgan S. P., and Allison, P. D.     (1987), ‘Paternal participation and children’s wellbeing after     marital dissolution’, American Sociological Review, 52,     pp.695-701.

Grych, J. H., and Fincham, F. D. (1990), ‘Marital conflict     and children’s adjustment: a cognitive-contextual     framework’, Psychological Bulletin, 108, pp.267-290.

Guidubaldi, J., Cleminshaw, H. K., Perry J. D., Nastasi, B.     D., and Lightel, J. (1986), ‘The role of selected  family     environment factors in children’s post-divorce adjustment’,     Family Relations, 35, pp.141-151.

Healy, J.M., Malley, J.E., and Stewart, A.J. (1990),  ‘Children     and their fathers after parental separation’, American     Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, pp.531-543.

Hetherington, E. M., Cox, M., and Cox, R. (1982), ‘Effects of     divorce on parents and children,’ In Lamb, M. (ed.). Non-     traditional Families: Parenting and Child Development,     Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp.233-288.

Johnston, J.R., Kline, M., and  Tschann J. M. (1989),     ‘Ongoing post-divorce conflict: effects on children of joint     custody and frequent access’,  American Journal of     Orthopsychiatry, 59, pp.576-592.

Kline, M., Tschann, J.M., Johnston, J.R., and Wallerstein, J.     (1989),  ‘Children’s adjustment in joint and sole physical     custody families’, Developmental Psychology, 23,     pp.430-438.

Kurdek, L. A., and Berg, B. (1983), ‘Correlates of children’s     adjustment to their parents’ divorces’, In  Kurdek, L. A.     (Ed.), Children and Divorce . Jossey-Bass, San Francisco,     pp.47-60.

Maccoby, E, E., and Martin, J. A. (1983),  ‘Socialization in     the context of the family: parent-child interaction’, In     Hetherington, E. M. (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology, Vol.     IV: Socialization, Personality and Social Development, Wiley,     New York, pp.1-101.

Maccoby, E. E., and Mnookin, R. H. (1992), Dividing the     Child: Social and Legal Dilemmas of Custody,  Harvard     University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Pett, M. G. (1982), ‘Correlates of children’s social adjustment     following divorce’, Journal of Divorce, 5, pp.25-39.

Rollins, B. C., and Thomas, D. L. (1979), ‘Parental support,     power, and control techniques in the socialization of     children’. In Burr, W. R., Hill, R., Nye, F. I. and Reiss, I. L.     (eds.), Contemporary Theories About the Family, The Free     Press, New York, pp.317-364.

Seltzer, J. A., Schaeffer, N. C., and Charng, H. (1989),     ‘Family ties after divorce: the relationship between visiting     and paying child support’, Journal of Marriage and the     Family, 51, pp.1013-1032.

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.


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