Evidence base for working with fathers in family services

9 June 2006

This document is an extract from: ‘Fathers and Public Services’ by Adrienne Burgess, Research & Policy Officer, Fathers Direct, published in Daddy Dearest? Active Fatherhood and Public Policy. Edited by Kate Stanley and published by ippr in London, 2005
Obtainable from: http://www.ippr.org.uk/publicationsandreports/


Good dads

A substantial body of research now indicates that high levels of involvement by fathers in two parent families are associated with a range of desirable outcomes in children and young people, including: better peer relationships; fewer behaviour problems; lower criminality and substance abuse; higher educational / occupational mobility, relative to that of parents; capacity for empathy; non-traditional attitudes to earning and childcare; more satisfying adult sexual partnerships; and higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction (for reviews see Flouri 2005; Pleck and Masciadrelli 2004). The converse is also true: low levels of involvement are associated with a range of negative outcomes. For example, among teenagers, both low father involvement and decreasing closeness predict delinquency in adult life (Flouri 2005).

Among separated families, children do best when they maintain close and positive relationships with both parents (Amato and Gilbreth 1999). Contact needs to be designed in such a way that father and child regularly experience a range of activities together: bedtimes, mealtimes, watching TV, doing homework, trips out, ‘hanging’ in, visiting friends and family (for discussion see Lamb 2002). The benefit to children of payment of child support by their fathers is also well established, and greater contact with non-resident fathers tends to be associated with more child support being paid (Seltzer et al 1998).

Disadvantaged children are in greater need than other children from ongoing positive relationships with their fathers (Dunn et al 2004). For example, high levels of father involvement protect against adult experience of homelessness in the sons of manual workers; and against later mental health problems in children in separated families; and fathers’ active care of ‘difficult-to-raise’ pre-schoolers is related to fewer problems in these children later (Flouri 2005). The children of young parents – who tend to be amongst the most disadvantaged – may benefit particularly from a positive relationship with their father: ‘When young men do not take on the responsibilities of fatherhood, it has serious consequences for the child’s development, the mother’s resources and consequent social costs’ (ESRC 2002). In Russell and others’ 1999 survey of school children’s experiences of fatherhood, a 12 year-old wrote: ‘My dad … make me feel bad, (is) strict, not happy, frightens me, don’t care about me’ Mixed feelings were also found: ‘I love my dad: loveable, fun, mean, unkind … I hate it when my dad comes home drunk that’s when he starts fighting with my mum’ (11 year-old).

Bad dads

However, greater father involvement may not always prove positive. Studies also show a range of negative developmental outcomes associated with fathers’ (and father-figures’) poor parenting or psychopathology – as is also the case with mothers. Conflict with fathers, fathers’ negativity and fathers’ harsh or neglectful parenting are strongly associated with children’s externalising behaviour, and fathers’ harsh parenting has a stronger effect than mothers’ on children’s aggression. A father’s own bullying behaviour at school is a risk factor for his child becoming a bully. Fathers’ antisocial personality behaviour and/or substance abuse correlate with conduct problems and aggression in children and adolescents (studies cited by Phares 1999; Flouri 2005). Over and above negative developmental outcomes, is the pain and suffering experienced by children whose fathers neglect or abuse them, or who neglect or abuse their mothers.

No dads

When is no father better than a bad father? Like a mother, when his negative behaviour cannot be modified through intervention, and when it is extreme. For example, when a father is involved in low-level antisocial behaviour, his child will exhibit more conduct problems if s/he doesn’t live with him than if s/he does; when the father is engaged in high levels of antisocial behaviour, the child who lives with him will exhibit more conduct problems than the child who lives in another household (Jaffee et al 2003, cited by Flouri 2005).

These relationships, however, are complex. While some might argue that a father who poses any kind of risk must forfeit his right to a relationship with his child, Daniel and Taylor (2001:149ff) believe ‘this misses out the child’s perspective. The strength and complexity of children’s attachments to significant adults cannot be underestimated’; simply to sever a relationship between a father and his child does not mean that the child automatically ends up in a better family situation. Furthermore, since the impact of father absence on child development is often negative; since absent fathers can loom large in their children’s imaginations, often unhelpfully as ‘heroes or villains’ (Kraemer 2005); and, since father absence can cause their children substantial distress and self-doubt (Laumann-Billings and Emery 1998), current thinking is moving away from the idea of severance of unconstructive father-child relationships as a simple solution.

It is likely that, as fathers play an increasing role as direct carers of their children, rupture of the father-child relationship may cause greater distress, as these quotes from a DfES/Fathers Direct study (2003) illustrate:

Dear Father, I don’t say dear dad, because you have not been a dad to me, have you? My name is Daniel … and I am Rebecca…’s son. You might not remember my mother, but I think about you all the time. (11 year-old)

I might not have seen him for eight years but I love him every single day and night. (11 year-old)

Dear Dad, I only see you once a week … Some small things I ask of you: please come to my school plays and come to parents’ evening to see how I’m getting on. (12 year-old)

What is clear from the research is that everything a father does – negative or positive – impacts on his child; and, while negative behaviour by fathers can be seen as an impetus to exclude men from family support programmes, an alternative view is that the association between, for example, paternal mental health problems and child problems accentuates the need to work with fathers in public services (Lloyd et al 2003).

Why family services should engage with fathers

There is now emerging evidence that engaging with family professionals can impact positively on fathers’ negative behaviour and parenting styles; increase their knowledge and understanding of child development; increase their confidence in their parenting skills; and lead to more sensitive and positive parenting and to greater involvement in infant and child care, and in interaction with children (Pfannensteil and Honig 1995; O’Brien 2004). A review by Goldman (2005) of five studies using multivariate analyses which isolate the independent impact of fathers’ involvement in children’s learning on educational outcomes, clearly shows that fathers’ involvement (both in terms of level and frequency) in their children’s schools is a key factor that correlates with better educational outcomes for children.

Where child conduct is an issue, fathers can be as effective change agents within families as mothers; delivering a parent education programme to both mother and father is more effective than delivering it to just one parent; and each individual parent’s sensitivity towards their child (and their child’s attachment to them) is enhanced when both parents are included in the intervention (O’Brien 2004). Delivering parenting support to mothers only may, in fact, be risky to women and children, in that, where the parents’ relationship is volatile, the intervention may destabilise the situation without providing adequate supports.

Fathers who have been involved in public service programmes talk about their learning as parents and how they have transferred this learning from the programme to the home environment. They comment on the value of being able to spend ‘quality time’ with their child, and see benefits to their children via benefits to themselves (‘If I am a better father, he will be a better kid’). They also talk about trying to get involved with children other than their own when they know these children do not have involved fathers, because from engaging with the programme they have come to understand the benefit to children of involved fathering (Fagan and Palm 2004).


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