Fatherhood Institute Research Summary: Young Fathers
‘For too long, our culture has treated boys who become fathers . . . as detached misfits who are the architects of many of our nation’s problems, rather than seeing these youth for who they really are: young men trying to navigate a complex array of difficult life circumstances that place them at a tremendous disadvantage’ (Kiselica, 2008).
Contrary to common belief, many young fathers have real strengths; and the stereotype of the young buck who impregnates the neighbourhood is largely an urban myth: the single most powerful predictor of adolescent fatherhood is being involved in a long-term relationship with the baby’s mother (Hanson et al, 1989). The few young men who do have children with more than one partner tend to be not among the most powerful in their communities but among the most disadvantaged, including suffering from high levels of depression (Bronte-Tinkew et al, 2009).
Young men who experience early fatherhood are often distinguished by the fact that they can attract and keep a girl and may sometimes be of high status within their communities. While their backgrounds are generally disadvantaged and they do badly in comparison with same-aged young men in the wider population, comparison with boys from the same social and economic circumstances yields a far less gloomy picture (Rouch, 2005).
Most researchers, even those studying the most disadvantaged samples of young fathers, find:
- young fathers who are not engaged with their children mainly anguished by that fact (e.g. Osborn, 2008)
- only a small percentage showing no joy about becoming fathers and having no intention of supporting their partner and children (Kiselica, 2008, p.53)
- the vast majority keen to be, and stay, connected to their children (e.g Rouch, 2005; Quinton et al, 2002; Bunting & McAuley 2004a)
- most delighted by parenthood where involvement with their children is ongoing (McDonnell et al, 2009)
- many claiming that early fatherhood has given their lives meaning, as well as protecting them from involvement in a range of negative activities (e.g. Rouch, 2005).
- where young fathers express dis-interest, this is mainly associated with financial insecurity or confusion about how to take care of babies and young children (Rhein et al, 1997).
Florsheim & Ngu (2003) observed fatherhood to be a ‘wake up call’ for some hugely disadvantaged young men, who gradually pulled their lives together afterwards. Interestingly, a positive attitude during the pregnancy was no predictor of this, and some of the young men spent time in prison after their babies were born. The ‘wake up call’ often kicked in a little later.
Despite the fact that young fathers rarely receive support from professionals or wider society, early fatherhood can trigger growing maturity and promote personal growth and social responsibility (Kiselika, 2008). Young fathers:
- show greater involvement than their non-father peers in socially productive activities, such as serving as volunteers in their communities (Kowaleski-Jones & Mott, 1998)
- ultimately prove as able to support their children as their peers who did not become early fathers, with one study finding them twice as likely to make payments for their children (Berrington et al, 2007)
- by their early twenties are less likely than their non-father peers to be engaging in delinquent behaviour, although at the point when they had become fathers their average delinquency-rates had been higher (Thornberry et al, 2004).
- are no less likely to maintain contact with their children than older fathers, once unemployment and lower earnings/education ; are controlled for in a simultaneous model (Berrington et al, 2007).
How young are ‘young’ dads?
Young fathers are generally defined as males under the age of 24 or 25. Since teenage pregnancies usually involve 18- or 19-year-old females, most young fathers are in their early twenties (Dudley, 2007). Among these, many are developmentally immature (Robinson, 1990). Very much older male partners are a much discussed but rarely studied group. One study which examined births to 15¬17 year old girls in the US found only 8% with a partner five or more years older and few of those males obviously predatory (Duberstein et al, 1997). UK data suggest that 1:4 of the fathers of teenage mothers’ babies may be significantly older, but this is almost certainly a substantial overestimate, since the names of the youngest fathers are likely to be missing from their babies’ birth certificates. A US study found 42% of births to teenage mothers registered only in the mother’s name (Landry & Forrest, 1995).
Adolescent fathers who are younger than their partners may be an under-reported population. Such boys emerge in studies (e.g. Rouch, 2005); and 25% of sexually active teenage males report a recent older sexual partner and say they are less likely to use condoms regularly when their partner is older (Ikramullah & Manlove, 2008).
- Early fatherhood is more common in some minority ethnic communities (notably Bangladeshi, African Caribbean and Pakistani) where it may be culturally normative (Higginbottom et al, 2005).
- One important US study found young men’s age to be more important than their cultural heritage to their attitudes to sex and babies (Marsiglio & Hutchinson, 2002).
- Similarly, a UK study suggests that young age may be more predictive than ethnicity of young men’s exclusion by services (Berrington et al, 2005), although Pollock et al (2005) found ethnicity.(an African Caribbean sample) and the fathers’ young age (average 21 years) together reinforcing exclusion
- Exclusion of young fathers in some ethnic minority families may be reinforced by cultural practices when female family members play a particularly substantial role in providing support to the mother during pregnancy and birth (Pollock et al, 2005)
- Having a child with more than one partner is, in the US, more commonly associated with African American and some other minority groups (Manlove et al, 2008). However, a confounding variable may be more youthful age at first fatherhood.
Pregnancy prevention and young men
When a pregnancy is unplanned there tends to be reluctance to engage with the father, particularly if he is young. Usually his views are perceived as irrelevant. In fact, they can be of great significance:
- Pregnant teenagers’ attitudes towards their pregnancy are strongly linked with their perceptions of the father’s desire for the pregnancy (Hellerstedt et al, 2001).
- In deciding whether to abort or proceed to full term, pregnant teenage girls are substantially influenced by the known views of their baby’s father (Evans, 2001)
Helping adolescent males to delay fatherhood may also be important from a child health perspective: research that controlled for maternal age and other key factors found teenage fatherhood associated with an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth, low birth weight and neonatal death (Chen et al, 2007). The young men’s life-style factors are likely to be significant.
Is there value in trying go engage young men in pregnancy planning and prevention?
- Young males are less knowledgeable about sex and relationships than young females, but value the information more highly when it is provided to them (Blenkinsop et al, 2004)
- Howard et al (2004), surveying 2000 mostly African American 8th grade boys found the vast majority willing to use protection: this resulted in the local hospital restructuring its teen family planning clinical services to give the same in-hospital clinical and counselling support to young males as to young females
- Similarly, California’s Male Involvement Programme (‘Let’s Hear it for the Boys’) was able to improve boys’ knowledge and understanding, although translating this into changed behaviour was not so easy (Brindis et al, 2005)..
- Later male-focused pregnancy prevention projects have recognised the importance of engaging youth in community activities before grades 5 & 6. Incorporating sexuality education into activities for youth and parents is also associated with reductions in teen pregnancies and in sexual activity and high-risk sexual activity among boys as well as girls (Kiselica, 2008, p.182)
- Since boys at highest risk of becoming early fathers can be identified from age eight (see below) engaging with such young males in highly specialised programmes early on (to teach basic life skills, address negative peer influences, promote school success and direct them to alternatives other than early parenthood) is indicated, in order to reduce sexual risk-taking and early fatherhood (Thornberry et al, 2004)
- A central element in this may be positive impact on the young males’ self-esteem and sense of mastery over their lives (locus of control). Young men who do not see themselves as in control of their lives (i.e. who have an external locus of control) are less likely to use condoms reliably and are more prone to risky sexual behaviour (for review, see Kiselica, 2008, pp.45-46)
- Preventing future pregnancies among young men who are already fathers has been successfully addressed in parenting programmes for young fathers (Romo et al, 2004; Mazza, 2002).
Young fathers and services
While a wide range of services are in place in many areas to help teenage mothers in their transition to parenthood, services not only tend to ignore young fathers but to be overwhelmingly averse to them. Specifically:
- Quinton et al (2002) found young fathers ‘mostly ignored, marginalized or made uncomfortable’ by services, despite their desire for information, advice and inclusion.
- Bunting & McAuley (2004b) in a review of US and UK studies found young fathers reporting limited/no contact with midwives, health visitors and social workers.
- Bunting (2005) found health visitors perceiving the needs of both teenage mothers and their partners as high, the young mothers’ parenting capacity as average to good, the young fathers’ parenting capacity as poor, and decreases in couple/paternal contact as being due to negative characteristics in the fathers. All these assumptions were made, despite the fact that the health visitors actually knew very little about the young fahers and were ill-equipped to offer them support, being neither aware of any support they might be receiving, or of services that might be able to help them.
- Pollock et al (2005) found systemic exclusion of (mainly black) young fathers in a London hospital maternity service, though more inclusion by the local teenage pregnancy team
- Higginbottom et al (2006), reporting the views of ethnic minority young parents in England, found the young fathers, the young mothers and the service providers all agreeing that services were aimed at mothers.
- Since young fathers are less likely to have broad experience in caring for or being with young children, their needs will often differ significantly from the needs of young mothers with respect to parent education and support (Lero, 2008).
Once babies are born there is little provision for couples together. Most residential settings are for mothers-and-babies only, with one (relatively father-inclusive) Foyer project noting that they allow the father to stay over 3-times-a-week . One homelessness organisation that noted that many of the young men in their hostels were already fathers carried out an internal review. This revealed that the partners of the young mothers resident in their accommodation were not catered, either in terms of accommodation or support. Only the fatherhood of independently-registered male residents was considered; and when staff were asked to express what successful outcomes for young mothers and young fathers would ‘look like’, the differences were marked. Staff aims for mothers were:
- Sustainable livelihood: the mother (and her baby) have stable accommodation not in supported housing; the mother has access to training and employment; has workable relationship with father; has secure income; has wide social network; has access to childcare; makes contribution to wider community
- Confident and independent parenting: is a confident parent; is in suitable independent accommodation; has the confidence to ask for help; has a positive vision of the future.
- Support for the individual: has opportunity to remain in touch with services; has access to support as a young person as well as a parent;has vision of future as an individual as well as a mother.
Staff aims for fathers (which, one must remember, did not include the fathers of the babies of young mothers) were far less comprehensive, ambitious or caring:
- Individual outcomes: is happy and able to cope with circumstances;
knows legal rights; is aware of and accepts parental responsibilities; is in suitable accommodation where child(ren) can be brought; is emotionally stable.
- Outcomes relating to child(ren): has desired level of access to child(ren) and contact with mother; considers himself part of a family unit; has a positive relationship with child(ren); is involved in decisions about child(ren); can provide financial support for child(ren); has involvement in child(ren)’s future; is a positive role model for child(ren)
How ‘absent’ are young fathers?
- Fitzpatrick et al (1997) surveying pregnant teenagers at an Adolescent Antenatal Booking Clinic in Dublin found that at an average of 16.4 weeks into their pregnancies 87.5% of the mothers said they were involved in a continuing relationship with the father of their baby.
- Although a significant number of the birth certificates of babies born to teenage mothers do not identify the father (Ferguson & Hogan, 2004; Phipps et al, 2005) found that the father’s name was almost always in the hospital records
- Analysis of the British Cohort (1970) Study (BCS70) found that 80% of boys born in 1970 who became fathers in their teens have lived with their child at some point in time. Among slightly older young men (those who became fathers between the ages of 20 and 22), 85% have lived with their child (Berrington et al, 2005).
- The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents And Children (ALSPAC), which is following up all children born in 1991/92 in the Avon district, has discovered that 49% of teenage mothers have a live-in partner (mainly the father of their child) at the time of the birth; and of the 51% who don’t, two thirds will have a live-in partner by 33 months post partum. Only 18% of teenage mothers do not live with any partner for the whole 3-and-a-half- year period (Berrington et al, 2005).
- The Millennium Cohort Study, which is following babies born in the year 2000 has found, similarly, that 50% of the partners of teenage mothers are living with them during the pregnancy (Dex & Joshi, 2005).
- Lower co-residence (33%) is found by Barnes et al (2008) in a population of highly disadvantaged teenage mothers involved in the Family Nurse Partnership. However, very many of the non-resident young fathers are involved with the young expectant mother and significant to her. The second year evaluation recorded 64% of the young women saying that the intervention had helped their relationship with their partner (Barnes, 2009)
- In a small scale study of very young teenage mothers in Nottingham, Gates & Byrom (2008) found that 80% had conceived in an ongoing relationship with their baby’s father although almost none were still together within a year of the birth. The very low ongoing couple-connection in this sample may well have been a function of these mothers’ particularly young age.
- A Canadian study of 33 young fathers (mean age 21 years, mean child age 3.5 years) found 50% living with their child full time – and 33% of the children never seeing their fathers (Devault, 2006). Some young fathers were living with one child, and not seeing their child from another relationship.
- Kiselica (2008, p.53) reviewing a wide range of studies (including Kalihl, 2005, and Gee & Rhodes, 2003), found that while two-thirds to three-quarters of teenage fathers are in a relationship with the mother at the time of the birth, this had dropped to between one-third and one-fifth three years later. Since these studies are of adolescent fatherhood, this represents an unexpectedly high continuing-contact rate; and it should be remembered that young fathers in their early twenties are even more likely to remain connected (Wilson & Brooks-Gunn, 2001). It is worth noting that some fathers who are not described as being in a relationship with their child’s mother will nevertheless have contact with them.
- Young fathers may move in and out of contact
- The Millennium Cohort Study found that 21% of non-resident fathers (many of them young) who had low contact with their 9-10-month-old infants were in more frequent (and sometimes daily) contact when their child was aged 3.
- The same was true of 11% of the fathers who had seen their children less- than-weekly two years earlier (Dex & Ward, 2007).
- Coley & Chase-Lansdale (1999) found 18% of young fathers moving from low involvement at the birth to high involvement 2-3 years later.
- By contrast, Kalil et al (2005) found only one young father moving from a very low level of involvement to greater involvement. This was often because of factors beyond his control, for example resistance from other family members.
- The family experiences of both the young father and the child’s mother following the birth – for example, starting new relationships – are crucial in affecting the father’s subsequent level of contact and the payment of maintenance (Berrington et al, 2007).
- Environmental factors, such as whether the couple live together, are also significant, particularly for younger fathers (Wilson & Brooks-Gunn, 2001). This finding is important given the prevalence of mother-and-baby accommodation which excludes fathers.
Do young fathers matter to young mothers?
Quinton et al (2002) found that, by ignoring young fathers, services were ignoring mothers’ wishes: while in 50% of cases health visitors did not even know the fathers’ names, the young mothers themselves often placed a high value on the involvement of their babies’ fathers.
Another of Quinton’s key findings was that background disadvantage was a less powerful predictor of the young fathers’ remaining in contact or losing contact than was the quality of the relationship with the child’s mother. Similarly:
- Erkut et al (2005), studying Puerto Rican adolescent fathers, found their involvement influenced by child characteristics, their own perceptions of their fathering competence, social support – and the quality of relationship with their baby’s mother
- Ngu (2005) has unpacked this last finding, discovering that higher relational skills (acceptance, cognitive empathy) in young mothers during pregnancy predicted better parenting outcomes for the young fathers two years later. The young mother’s higher relational capacity was also found to predict development in the young father’s own relational capacity – which, in turn, predicted better paternal functioning.
Young fathers have a profound impact on their babies’ mothers, whether professionals are aware of it or not.
- Tarkka (2000) found one of three predictors of a young mother’s positive
childbirth experience to be her perception of a positive attitude toward the
pregnancy by the baby’s father.
- Among expectant teenage mothers, lack of perceived support by the father of their baby is a key correlate of high scores on the Child Abuse Potential Inventory (Zelenko et al, 2001)
- A decreasing pattern of involvement by the father is significantly associated with young mothers’ increased parenting stress (Kalil et al, 2005)
- By contrast, teenage mothers with positive partner support tend to be less rejecting and punitive towards their children (Unger & Wandersman, 1988)
- And adolescent mothers who perceive their partner to be supportive tend to
- Report greater life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and psychological distress and higher self-esteem (Gee & Rhodes, 2003)
- Exhibit more positive attachment behaviours towards their infants (Bloom, 1998)
- High parenting efficacy and satisfaction with father involvement (Krishnakumar & Black, 2003).
- Support by the father not only tends to bolster the mother’s child-rearing skills but to foster healthy emotional, cognitive and social development in the child, particularly where father and child perceive their relationship as close (Roye & Balk, 1996)
- The presence of a partner is a key factor affecting the relationship between young motherhood and behavioural difficulties in the child. The effect is mediated via the poorer mental health of women who do not have a stable partnership (Berrington et al, 2005).
Professionals who do not asses young fathers pre-natally may miss important indicators of future child abuse:
- Young expectant fathers who report poor relations with their own parents during the prenatal interview have higher child abuse potential scores at follow up (Florsheim & Ngu, 2003).
- Young men with a history of psychopathology revealed pre-natally report higher rates of physically punitive behavior toward their child later (Florsheim & Ngu, 2003).
- A history of psychopathology in both young parents (identified pre-natally) predicts inter-couple violence postpartum – another serious risk factor not only for the young adults, but for their infants (Moore & Florsheim, 2001).
- Young expectant fathers exhibiting a cluster of negative indicators including a history of anti-social behaviour, drug-misuse and so on, are likely to engage in negative parenting practices once babies are born (Kiselica, 2008).
Young fathers and disadvantage
While, as previously pointed out, young fathers do not necessarily compare badly with their peers from the same socio-economic group, their backgrounds are usually challenging and strikingly similar to those of most teenage mothers (Bunting & McAuley, 2004a; see also Berrington et al, 2007, 2005). The research cited below compares young (sometimes teen) fathers with all young men of their age in the population – not just with young men from similar socio-economic circumstances.
- Entry into young fatherhood is predicted by low SES, poor academic skills, failure to use condoms, early marriage/cohabitation, and having a mother who was younger at first birth. Anti-social behaviour and its correlates (including academic failure, substance use and early initiation of sexual behaviours) are also implicated (Pears et al, 2005; Bunting, 2005)
- Boys who become fathers as teenagers have been found to be three times more likely than non-fathers to fail to complete secondary education, and also tend to be far less satisfied with their educational experience (for review, see Kiselica, 2008, p.40)
- Tan & Quinlivan (2006) found, in multivariate analysis and after controlling for family income and education, men’s history of parental separation/divorce, their exposure to family violence in early childhood and their illicit drug use having significant, independent associations with becoming fathers of the babies of teenage mothers.
- Boys who have been physically maltreated and neglected as children, as well as those who have been victims of physical or sexual assault, have been forced to have sexual contact against their will or have been victims of incest are vastly more likely to become fathers as teenagers than other teenage males (for review, see Kiselika, 2008, pp42-44)
- Miller-Johnson et al (2004), in a prospective longitudinal study of 335 African American males found childhood aggression (particularly when stable across 3rd to 5th grades) significantly predicting reported pregnancies during adolescence, with adolescent substance use and deviant peer involvement adding incrementally to the prediction. This suggests that precursors for males’ early involvement in pregnancy can be identified as early as age eight.
Young fathers frequently face family rejection, barriers to contact with child and mother, a lack of ways to contribute financially, and an inability to envision future achievements (for review see Guterman & Lee, 2005). Furthermore:
- They tend to believe they are unwelcome and inadequate as parents (Knitzer & Bernard, 1997).
- They generally face lack of preparedness for fatherhood, cognitively and emotionally (for review see Guterman & Lee, 2005) and their knowledge of infant development tends to be deficient and unrealistic (De Lissovoy, 1973).
- Many have difficulty controlling their tempers (Bolton, 1987) and express negative parenting attitudes and behaviours (Miller, 1994).
- Related to this, they may be more likely than older fathers to be violent towards their partners and, possibly, their children (Guterman & Lee, 2005).
- They need to reconcile the contradictory roles of adolescent and father; and often to assume the responsibilities of adulthood before they are sufficiently mature (Kahn & Bolton, 1986) – similar challenges as those faced by young mothers.
- One US study found 47% of young fathers using alcohol, 40% having problems with the law, and 42% having been in jail (Weinman et al, 2005); other studies have identified higher than average involvement in drug use, although most young fathers are not serious drug users (for review, see Guterman & Lee, 2005).
Like young mothers, young fathers have very high rates of anxiety and depression (Miller, 1994). These are strongly correlated with younger age at onset of fatherhood, exposure to domestic and other violence as a child (including sexual coercion), and no father alive (Quinlivan & Condon, 2005). The mental health issues that young fathers report are commonly related to relationships, neighbourhood, family, tobacco use, police, and being a parent (Weinman et al, 2005).
Yet the young men’s distress usually goes untreated: their formal contact with psychiatric services is no higher than that of older fathers, whose rates of depression are much lower (Quinlivan & Condon, 2005); and they may not identify their own needs or solutions to these. For example in one study where the young fathers reported feeling states of anger, sadness/depression, nervousness/tension, helplessness and aggression, few requested services to address these issues; rather, their most frequently requested service needs were related to jobs and vocational training (Weinman et al, 2005).
Young fathers face the future
The life trajectories of men who become young fathers are, like those of young mothers, significantly more negative than the average (Berrington et al, 2007, 2005; Higginbottom et al, 2006) – although, as already mentioned, not necessarily more negative then the life trajectories of young men from similar backgrounds. As with young motherhood, these negative trajectories may be mainly explained by selection: the boys who become fathers when young tend to be disadvantaged to start with, and to remain so.
Early fatherhood itself may have some additional negative impacts, however: elevated risks of experiencing a series of unstable sexual partnerships and of living in public housing are found among men who have experienced early fatherhood when compared with controls (Sigle-Rushton, 2005). Failure to continue with education may in some cases be a response to the fact of early fatherhood, rather than a pre-pregnancy condition.
There are significant differences between some groups of young fathers and others, which can underline disadvantage and impact on the kinds of services that will support them effectively. Most obviously, the needs of very young fathers are substantially different from those of older young fathers (Kiselika, 2008, p.132); and they tend to be most socially disadvantaged to start with, are less likely to be living with their children’s mothers, and are more likely to be involved in criminality and substance misuse and to suffer anxiety, depression and emotional volatility (Kiselika, 1995). These negative indicators are likely to diminish with increasing age; and even very young fathers are sometimes able to sustain commitment (Rouch, 2005) and to become excellent parents (Kiselica 2008).
Residence status (whether the young father lives with his child) is correlated with young age and with the negative indicators listed above, although it can be a significant variable in itself (Jaffee et al, 2001). The severity of the young father’s antisocial tendencies is also significant, and is addressed in the section below.
Young offenders as fathers
Many young offenders are, or are about to become, fathers:
- Among 15-17 year old offenders 12% have children of their own
- Among those aged 22 and under, nearly half are (or are about to become) fathers
- Nearly half have literacy/numeracy levels below age 11.
- Over half have been in care
- Many have experienced violence or sexual abuse at home
- Few have had models of good fathering (Young Voice, 2005).
Young offenders are a particularly challenging group:
- A young father’s criminal history is the most significant predictor of such outcomes as whether he is employed in any given month (25% employment rate among ex-young offenders compared with 72% among other young fathers and whether he and his child’s mother have relationship problems (Romo et al, 2004)
- During imprisonment if not before, these young fathers’ relationships with their children’s mothers have usually broken down (Romo et al, 2009).
- 44% are under sentence for crimes of violence, with a proportion of the 24% who are on remand also likely to be involved in violence (Puffett, 2009). Violence and/or a long history of anti-social behaviour is strongly correlated with a cluster of negative indicators for active fatherhood including poor relationship/pro-social skills, grandiose expectations, a low frustration-threshold, substance misuse, a tendency to engage in negative forms of childrearing, and so on. Some also harbour cavalier sexual attitudes towards women (Kiselica, pp.120-122).
However, not all young offenders have histories of violent or other anti-social behaviour, and an increasingly robust evidence base demonstrates that many benefit from parenting courses delivered in prison, with increased parenting satisfaction and confidence, self-esteem, and knowledge of parenting, child development and behaviour-management techniques (Bronte-Tinkew et al, 2009; Meek, 2007; Dennison & Lyon, 2003). Key pieces of learning can also be retained once they have left prison (Dennison & Lyon, 2003; Boswell & Wedge, 2002) and even passed on to their children’s mothers (Boswell & Wedge, 2002).
Young Offenders also tend to see fatherhood as an important motivator for reducing re-offending (Pugh, 2008) although they rarely see this as sufficient on its own, also mentioning gaining employment; having stable housing; being in a relationship; having positive family relations; and managing drug/alcohol use (Farrant, 2006).
Current research offers conflicting findings regarding how, or whether, fatherhood influences youth offenders’ criminal trajectories; and substantial changes in social work practice are needed (including in offender-resettlement) if fatherhood is to succeed as a positive motivator for change (Kiselica, 2008). These will include working holistically with the young men to address multiple life challenges, and with their partners and families to facilitate re-integration.
Some young offenders may not easily perceive a need for change: one study found a majority of incarcerated adolescent fathers believing they could be good role models for their children and the kind of man of whom a child could be proud (Nesmith et al, 1997). And a majority of young offenders who had very much appreciated a parenting course delivered in prison expressed reluctance about accessing parenting and other formal provision post-release (Meek, 2007).
Interventions with young fathers: what works?
Young fathers tend to fall into one of three categories: ‘chaotic’, ‘semi-chaotic’ and ‘sorted’. All need support, but different strategies are required to engage effectively with these different kinds of young fathers; and – as already mentioned – other (sometimes confounding) variables, including age, residence-status and a history of offending, require different responses.
Even the most ‘sorted’ young fathers will need some support to feel that they are really significant in their children’s lives, given that fathers’ roles are less clearly socially scripted than mothers’, particularly in relation to intimate care-giving where fathers are generally perceived as optional extras. Furthermore, the negative attitudes and behaviour from professionals described earlier that all young fathers are likely to encounter may undermine their self-confidence and engagement.
Apparently ‘sorted’ young fathers who have left education and are succeeding in employment may need help to redefine their goals: while in the short-term their employment status may sit favourably with the young mother and her family, and therefore facilitate the young father’s engagement with his child, better qualifications may pay off in the longer term, not only because of the father’s increased earning capacity but also because better qualifications are associated with better parenting and with couple relationship stability (Yeung, 2004). Were such a change of direction to be planned, the young mother and her family would need to understand and accept the rationale or the immediate impact on father-child engagement may be negative.
As for the less ‘sorted’ young fathers:
- A substantial US intervention (Romo et al, 2004) found in-school young fathers particularly cost-effective to work with: they were rarely substantially involved in substance misuse, and the intervention was very effective in preventing repeat pregnancies.
- The fact that young fathers tend to recognise their unsuitability to parent can make many receptive to support with their parenting (Rouch, 2005).
- In Ireland, Ferguson & Hogan (2004) report a key challenge in working with some young fathers being to move them beyond ‘protest masculinity’ so they can adjust to domestic routines. These researchers believe intensive day or residential family support is the model most likely to lead to successful outcomes among these young men.
- Sherriff (2007), reporting on relatively long-standing UK programmes, found some practitioners operating groups for young fathers but reaching only a small minority that way, even though outcomes were positive for some individuals. Practitioners were also clear that groupwork is not appropriate for more chaotic young fathers; and that most young fathers need prior and continuing one-on-one engagement with professionals.
Reaching significant numbers of young fathers has proved challenging (Sherriff, 2007; Romo et al, 2004). However, recent practice suggests that if professionals systematically gather the young men’s details by, for instance, routinely asking the mothers for them early in the pregnancy, develop interagency working while making child outcomes the focus of their work and mainstream engagement through the service (in this case, a teenage pregnancy service) while keeping good records and comprehensively assessing the young men’s needs substantial numbers of young fathers can be reached with interventions that make a real difference.
The long-standing and very well evaluated programmes have mainly been in America, where the underlying objective has usually been to increase young fathers’ payment of child support. The participants were mostly young, disadvantaged and from ethnic minorities (Spaulding et al, 2009) and many – in one study 25% – had been young offenders (Romo et al, 2004). The programmes usually started out as men-only programmes engaging with the young fathers in isolation, rather than as part of a family intervention. Family case-work, where it developed, tended to be an add-on.
Because research had shown correlations between fathers’ being employed and paying child support; and between fathers’ being employed and spending time with their children; and between fathers’ spending time with their children and paying child support, the programmes generally sought to increase father-child contact (and the quality of that contact) while improving fathers’ earnings and payment of child support.
Improvements in the young men’s employment and payment of child support have been found. For example:
- Early US programmes such as Parents Fair Share did manage to effect slight increases in the amount of child support paid, but employment success was not substantial. It was hypothesised that failure to engage the fathers early in their fatherhood was partly responsible for limited positive outcomes (Mincy & Pouncy, 2002).
- However, lessons were learned from these early programmes and in 2004, the Texas Fragile Families initiative reported an increase in child support orders/paternity establishment among its participants (with a ‘dose’ effect – the longer the young father was involved in the programme, the more likely he was to establish paternity/pay child support); and employment rates up from 50% at the start of the programme to almost 70% at six months and 80% at one year (Romo et al, 2004).
- ‘Fathers at Work’ , a more recent multli-site US demonstration project which, like previous programmes, combined work around fathering with training/employment support reports participants earning $11,025 per year at follow-up (about twice as much as a comparison group and on average $4,602 more than before entering the programme). Participants with support orders in place paid an average of $90.32 in child support in the month before the follow-up interview, significantly more than was paid by comparison group fathers (an average of $38.13). Participants’ payments grew significantly between baseline (about $32 per month) and follow-up. However, noting that even their increased earnings barely took the participants’ income above poverty level, the evaluators recommend that an early focus on education and training rather than on income-generation may be a more productive long-term strategy for these young men and their children (Spaulding et al, 2009).
How well have programmes succeeded in connecting or reconnecting fathers with their children, or improving the quality of their parenting or the quality of the parents’ relationship? (This last is significant, not only because low-conflict parental relationships are positive indicators for children whether couples live together or not, but because a well functioning mother-father relationship is strongly connected with positive and substantial father-child contact, especially when parents live apart).
- Parents Fair Share brought about positive effects on father-child contact where levels had been particularly low (Mincy & Pouncy, 2002).
- However, ‘Fathers at Work’ fathers who participated without their partners in a fathers-only intervention to support their parenting reported more subsequent arguments with their children’s mothers than fathers who had not taken part. The fatherhood workshops may have increased fathers’ interest in and opinions about the well-being of their children, creating additional conflict about child-rearing issues’ (Spaulding et al, 2009).
- One small US study of just six fathers (Parra-Cardona et al, 2006) found the young men’s involvement with their children and their commitment as fathers substantially increased after participation in a therapeutic/ psycho-educational fatherhood programme.
- Saleh et al (2005) found programme participation by 38 young fathers correlated with one third moving from ‘positive emotionality’ to substantial ‘engagement’ with their child.
In this last study, ‘accessibility’ (i.e. the amount of time the child was available to the father) showed the smallest shift. This is not surprising, as it is the area least likely to be controlled by the young father himself.
Because young fathers’ access to their children is largely controlled by other people, interventions to support young men’ fatherhood prove more productive when delivered in partnership with mothers, or at least with ongoing reference to them:
- The Texas initiative reports the most successful team parenting programmes as having little differentiation between father’s and mothers’ case managers, seeing each case manager as a family support worker (Romo et al, 2004)
- Futris & Schoppe-Sullivan (2007) underline the importance of helping young parents strengthen their coparenting relationship in order to foster fathers’ engagement with their children
- Young fathers and mothers who had taken part together in a co-parenting intervention both reported fathers’ improved co-parenting behaviour when compared with a no-intervention control group, and with couples who had attended a birth-preparation course but not the co-parenting intervention (Fagan, 2008)
- Fathers (regardless of residence) and mothers residing with the father reported higher levels of fathers’ engagement with the infant when they had both participated in the co-parenting intervention (Fagan, 2008)
- Engaging with the young men’s peers may also prove valuable, with some young men more likely to engage with services if they can ‘bring a friend’ (or several!) (Kiselica, 1995).Herzog et al (2007) stress the importance of engaging with young mothers’ gatekeeping beliefs and behaviour – and also with maternal grandparents. Other researchers and practitioners also record the substantial impact on young fathers’ involvement of wider family members, particularly the mothers and fathers of both the young parents:
- Kalil et al (2005) found sustained low father involvement highly correlated with strong support given to the young mother by her own mother, particularly when the two lived together.
- By contrast, where the young mother experienced positive relationships with both the young father and his family (particularly his mother), this was predictive of higher initiated and sustained father-involvement (Kalil et al, 2005).
- Anderson (1993) found the paternal grandmother’s acceptance of her son’s paternity and her feelings towards the child’s mother significant in pushing the young father towards accepting his paternal role.
- Rouch (2005), in a case study example, found sustained support by a young father’s father and his father-in-law highly significant.
- Krishnakumar & Black (2003) found that a young mother’s satisfaction over time with the young father’s involvement was predicted by a positive relationship between her own mother and the young man; and recommend focus on role clarification for grandmothers and fathers; and joint parenting activities for mothers and fathers, regardless of their romantic relationship.
What do the processes of effective programmes look like? A meta-analysis of American interventions with very young fathers points to quality intensive community-based interventions with a good understanding of gender: the staff (who were experienced, empathetic, enthusiastic, and well connected into their communities) partnered with community organisations and used incentives to draw the young men in; they utilized needs assessments and participant feedback; developed one-on-one relationships with their young clients and provided mentoring; offered a comprehensive array of services delivered in engaging and interactive ways which incorporated teaching methods and materials appropriate to young men’s culture, sex and age. Perhaps most importantly, the programmes began with a theoretical programme model and used theories of change that were effective with young fathers (Bronte-Tinkew et al, 2008).
In this research summary we have not described the importance of positive father-child relationships to children nor the value and importance of engaging with fathers whose behaviour towards their children or their children’s mothers is negative, since we cover this in detail other research summaries. The findings in those research summaries apply no less to young fathers than to older fathers. Indeed, there is some evidence that the quality of father-child relationships is more significant in families facing multiple disadvantage, which is normally the case when fathers or mothers are young.
Given the exclusion faced by young fathers, their importance to young mothers, and their impact on their children in the short and longer-term, the need to inspire and enable these young men to be successful parents and productive citizens is clear. Early fatherhood poses great challenges, but even in the absence of support from services or wider society has proved a motivator for positive change. How much better are positive outcomes likely to be, when young fathers’ relationships with their children and their children’s mothers are supported – instead of being, as is currently the case, widely undermined.
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