Fatherhood Institute Research Summary: Fathers and Disabled Children

21 September 2007

Introduction: An overview of evidence on fathers and child development

Since 1975, an increasingly sophisticated body of research has been charting the pathways through which fathers influence their children’s development. A recent systematic review of studies which controlled for maternal involvement and gathered data from different independent sources, found ‘positive’ father involvement associated with a range of desirable outcomes for children and young people (Pleck & Masciadrelli, 2004).

The positive outcomes include: better peer relationships; fewer behaviour problems; lower criminality and substance abuse; higher educational / occupational mobility relative to parents’; capacity for empathy; non-traditional attitudes to earning and childcare; more satisfying adult sexual partnerships; and higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction. Similarly, low levels of (positive) involvement are associated with a range of negative outcomes (for review, see Flouri, 2005a).

However, the pathway into higher paternal involvement is crucial. Forced high paternal involvement, as through forced unemployment, does not usually bring with it the same benefits as greater paternal involvement through choice (O’Brien, 2004a). Agreement between parents as to the desirability of the involvement is also key (Ashley et al, 2006).

How can father involvement affect children in negative ways?

• Studies show a range of negative developmental outcomes associated with fathers’ (and father-figures’) poor parenting or psychopathology (see Lloyd et al, 2003, p.7), substance misuse (Velleman, 2004, p.188) and abusive behaviour towards mothers (Jaffee et al, 1990).

• A ‘dose effect’ is found: worse behaviour by fathers tends to result in worse outcomes for children, as does more extensive contact with a father who is ‘behaving badly’ (Jaffee et al, 2003).

• Another kind of dose effect – the ‘double dose’ effect (Dunn et al, 2000) – is found where both parents’ life histories / behaviour are negative (O’Brien, 2004b).

• Jaffee et al (2003) also note a ‘double whammy’ impact, where genetic and environmental risks converge.

It has, however, been pointed out that singling out fathers in this way distracts attention from the larger body of evidence that shows negative maternal influences equally in evidence (Leinonen et al, 2003).

It has often been argued that no father is better than a bad father. That can of course be true. However:

• Severing father-child relationships entirely, either actively or by default, can result in children demonising or idealising their fathers (Kraemer, 2005; Gorrell Barnes et al, 1998) or blaming themselves for their absence (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001).

• Furthermore, loss or attenuation of the relationship commonly causes children substantial distress, anger and self-doubt (Fortin et al, 2006; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 1998).

• Controlling for other factors, absent fatherhood has been shown negatively to affect children directly, for example, by contributing to their difficulties with peer relationships, including bullying (Parke et al, 2004; Berdondini & Smith, 1996); and indirectly, via increased maternal stress and reduced income (McLanahan, 1997; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999).

• Although in some cases removing the father improves the situation for children, their situation more often becomes worse (Guterman & Lee, 2005).

Having ‘set the scene’ with general comments, we now focus on specifics.

Fathers and children with disabilities

Research in this area has a number of serious limitations (SCIE, 2005b). However, the following insights emerge:

• Fathers’ reactions to the diagnosis are invariably very intense (Herbert & Carpenter, 1994; Hornby, 1992); fathers may experience the diagnosis as an even greater crisis than mothers do (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997); and the process of adjustment can be turbulent and long-lasting (Harrison et al, 2007; Hornby, 1992).

• Fathers’ main supports are the partners. Lone fathers, those whose partners are unwell or where a relationship are broken down suffer substantial additional stresses (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007; Harrison et al, 2007).

• Negative aspects of the experience may be exacerbated by the men’s belief that they should be ‘strong’ for their partners. Their sense of failure when this proves difficult or impossible can be serious (Herbert & Carpenter, 1994).

• One small scale qualitative study (Herbert & Carpenter, 1994) showed mothers’ perceiving fathers’ reactions to the birth as being quite different from their own; these mothers also often commented on the fathers’ inability to discuss the child with them. By contrast, fathers often believe their reaction to their child’s disability to be the same as their partner’s (Rendell, 1997).

• In UK studies (Herbert and Carpenter, 1994), fathers reported returning to work very soon after their child’s birth and working longer hours than usual; in New Zealand studies (e.g. Ballard, 1994), fathers reported that they consumed more alcohol and more frequently as a way of dealing with their own emotional trauma.

• One study found fathers’ acceptance of their child strongly influenced by their own parents’ acceptance of the child (Waisbren, 1980).

• Fathers tend to be more concerned than mothers about the long-term implications of their child’s disabilities and may be especially disappointed by a son with disabilities (for review, see Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

What happens in the longer term?

• Fathers, like mothers, vary enormously in their response to the disability (Harrison et al, 2007) not simply on the basis of its severity but, perhaps more importantly, on the child’s behaviour generally and on their access to social, material and emotional resources (SCIE, 2005b).

• Extremes of great involvement on the one hand to total withdrawal on the other have been observed, with possibly less involvement with daughters and with more severely handicapped children, and greater involvement with first-born handicapped children (for review, see Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• Most fathers shared responsibility for care tasks with their partners, with those in paid employment trying to be involved in the daily care of their child, including providing care during the night. Work pattern adjustments included flexible working, compressed working hours, term time working and becoming self-employed (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• Fathers from lower income families tend to be both more adversely affected by the birth and to spend less time with their handicapped children than higher income and better educated fathers (for review, see Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• Some fathers speak of new values and personal growth as a result of successfully adapting to their children’s disabilities (Meyer, 1986). However, controlling for SES, it is clear that fathers of children with disabilities experience more depression, as well as more parenting and child-related stress and often feel their parental situation is more uncontrollable (SCIE, 2005b; Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• Some fathers of children with a learning disability may also have a learning disability themselves (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• Fathers and mothers tend to experience the challenges of raising a child with disabilities differently, mothers reporting more day to day stress and fathers diminished satisfaction with family life (for review see Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997). Couples often have little time together (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• The fathers often express ‘inferiority’ as fathers (Cummings, 1976), possibly in part because their main-breadwinning role and adherence to gender stereotypes tend to provide them with fewer opportunities than the mothers to do things with and for their children (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• Compensatory activities may be less available to them than to other fathers: for example, fathers of children with disabilities are often afraid to engage in roughhouse play (Gallagher & Bristol, 1989). It has been suggested that fathers of special needs children could benefit from learning how to include their children, where possible, in their favourite recreational activities. Access to reliable childcare providers would also be of value (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

What roles do professionals play with fathers of disabled children?

• In the days after the birth Herbert & Carpenter (1994) found the fathers’ grief unrecognised and unexpressed, with neither health nor education professionals nor employers recognising their need for inclusion.

• A substantial body of research shows these fathers being ignored or dismissed by services (for reviews, see SCIE, 2005b; and Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 2004), and variously described as ‘hard to reach’ (McConkey, 1994), ‘the invisible parent’ (Ballard, 1994), ‘the peripheral parent’ (Herbert and Carpenter, 1994). However, more recent research has found some fathers feeling more included (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• Being dismissed by professionals contributes substantially to these fathers’ alienation both from the situation and from their partners and/or children (Herbert & Carpenter, 1994). This may be an important contributing factor to the higher rates of separation and divorce found in these families.

• Fathers who possess assertiveness, negotiation and organizational skills felt better able to work with professionals (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• While fathers of children with disabilities are more likely than mothers to rely on their partners for support, they may feel they are giving more support to their partners than they are receiving from them (Carpenter, 2002).

• While the fathers are less likely to receive support from professionals (for review, see SCIE, 2005b) and are less likely to seek emotional support (Pelchat et al, 2003), they are actually more willing than mothers to seek outside help (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• Professional support reduces both familial stress and general life stress for fathers of children with disabilities (for review, see Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• When fathers in families with disabled children play a reduced role in childcare and childrearing responsibilities, the impact on mothers and – directly and indirectly – on their children, is negative and often profound (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• When fathers are directly provided with information so that they can share the role of ‘expert’ with their child’s mother, this helps them facilitate their children’s development and provide support to mothers (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).

• When programmes actively involve the fathers of disabled children with their children, this can foster increased father-child involvement at home, enhancing father-child attachment and contributing to the child’s cognitive and social development (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997), as well as providing mothers with respite from childcare (Bailey et al, 1992).

• Providing fathers of children with disabilities with opportunities to discuss their concerns with other similar fathers can help decrease their sense of isolation and benefit mothers, too (Bristol, 1984).

• Fathers who had experienced support designed specifically for fathers usually found it beneficial (Harrison et al, 2007; Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2007).

• The need for professional support does not diminish over time: fathers of older disabled children, like mothers, feel less supported and in greater need of services than fathers of younger children (Suelzle & Keenan, 1981).

• The benefits of paternal involvement may be greater in families where children suffer from disabilities as family members need particularly high levels of emotional support, understanding and practical assistance (Lamb & Laumann-Billings, 1997).


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