The kids are alright: Adolescents and their fathers in the UK
When we first thought of applying to the Nuffield Foundation for funding to explore relationships between fathers and their adolescents in the UK, we wondered whether we would find sufficient ‘empirical’ evidence (that is, evidence obtained through observation, documentation and/ or measurement of behaviours and patterns) to be able to report findings with authority. We soon realised we could.
The UK is home to a number of world-renowned ‘longitudinal’ studies that have tracked cohorts of children over time with multiple ‘sweeps’ or ‘waves’ of data collection. This can allow researchers to track associations over a life-time between ‘father-factors’ (fathers’ behaviours, circumstances, characteristics, attitudes and so on) and their children’s outcomes. Other data comes from large one-time-‘snapshot’ studies, often surveys, which can chart associations between ‘father-factors’ at the time and children’s development and wellbeing. All in all, we found 118 detailed analyses of these kinds of studies – and it is mainly from these that we have derived our findings.
What are some of the highlights?
Firstly, we came to understand that we are not living in a ‘fatherless’ society (see our instagram post on the fatherlessness myth in UK family services at child age 12+ here - part of our social media series debunking the myth of a fatherlessness crisis).
Last year in England, 95.4% of mothers and fathers registered the birth of their baby together (percentages are similar in the other countries of the UK); and of the 95% of fathers who were present in their baby’s life in the year 2000, nine in ten were still part of their lives when they were teenagers.
The future looks even brighter. Young-age-at-parenthood is strongly associated with unstable parental relationships, and today teenage pregnancy is rare. This means the percentage of families with dependent children headed by a ‘lone parent’, already at its lowest in more than 20 years, is likely to keep falling.
Secondly, the research showed us that fathers matter – from Day One. Take fathers’ depression in the postnatal year: longitudinal studies have found this associated with poorer school performance at child-age 16; and with higher depression scores in 9-10-year-olds - and, when the father’s education level was low, in both sons and daughters at age 16. That is probably partly due to the negative impact of fathers’ mental distress on their parenting: negative expressiveness, hostility towards their child, harsh parenting, low levels of warmth...
The quality of the father-adolescent relationship during adolescence itself also matters – and both ‘time with dad’ and relationship quality are significant. For example, when fathers spend little time with their teenagers, this is associated with high ‘total difficulties’ and hyperactivity scores and lower levels of happiness – and, among boys, with being bullied. Conversely, when the young person experiences their relationship with their father as ‘close’, life satisfaction and self-esteem are higher and mental health difficulties and ‘self-harm’ less likely.
We asked four dads to share their experience of fathering teenagers – read their stories here.
We were also fascinated to learn that today’s adolescents are far better behaved than they were even 10 or 20 years ago: confirmed offences committed by 10–17-year-olds in England and Wales dropped 81% between 2012 and 2022; and young people themselves reported acts of vandalism down by two thirds and acts of violence down by more than a quarter (homicides of young males ‘by a sharp instrument’ is an outlier, increasing in England and Wales but, allegedly due to different policing methods, decreasing in Scotland).
Far fewer young people now smoke, drink alcohol excessively or use cannabis, and the percentage of 15-year-olds in England saying they have already had sexual intercourse almost halved from over 35% in 2002 to 20% in 2018.
As always, fathers matter. Higher scores in both the amount of time fathers spend with their teenagers and the ‘closeness’ of their relationship are significantly associated with fewer adolescent risk behaviours – and with teenagers’ positive attitudes to school and better grades.
Can fathers, or mothers, take credit for any of this? Parents are becoming better educated, and better-educated fathers spend more time with their children on ‘developmental’ activities, are less likely to engage in harsh parenting, and are more likely to have positive relationships with them. Also, over the past four decades, father-adolescent relationships have been improving across the world. This, plus young people’s change in recreation patterns from ‘going out’ to spending more time on screens at home (meaning, among other things, that they are consuming less alcohol) is protecting them and their communities from many of the most common youth risk behaviours.
What's the rest of the story?
So… can we claim that ‘the kids are alright’? Clearly, the majority are far more ‘alright’ than most of us would ever have imagined. But that is not the whole story, with an estimated one-in-five feeling they do not have even one parent they feel close to or can rely on.
Supporting father-child relationships could help to reduce this number. Much research has shown fathers actively ‘shut out’ from the beginning, with the pathetic two weeks of poorly-paid statutory paternity leave to which employed fathers are entitled underlining their role as outsiders.
Not only must our parenting leave policies be brought into line with most of the rest of the developed world to provide new fathers with opportunities for early caretaking, but data-systems (from birth notifications on) need to include fathers’ details (it is a shocking truth that currently they do not do so).
Nurseries and schools should actively seek to engage with fathers, including those who do not live full-time with their children. To achieve this ‘father inclusion’, all relevant workforces will need training so that they do not continue, actively or passively, to exclude them.