To protect teenagers’ mental health, we should also focus on relationships with fathers and stepfathers.

Teenagers who think they don’t matter much to their fathers or stepfathers face significant risks to their mental health, according to our study of 392 13- to 16-year-olds from communities in Arizona and California in the United States.

Mattering to fathers predicted future mental health over and above mattering to mothers.

The risk to adolescent mental health was also independent of similar, already well-known, levels of risk associated with intimate partner violence between parents as well as frequent and intense but non-violent parental conflict (nagging, arguing, getting angry, and yelling).

“Although they may tell you that you’re old fashioned, they still want you there. Drive-by fathering doesn’t typically work well for adolescents.”

The findings of this study, spearheaded by my graduate student Go Woon Suh, should prompt searching questions. We should re-examine how fathers are expected to engage in adolescents’ lives. Our society’s expectations are often dictated by working practices, family norms and parental separation. This study suggests that, because our policies and practices often limit fathers’ engagement, we may be missing opportunities to make children more resilient, and thus to protect them from depression, anxiety, aggression, delinquency and behavioral problems at school.

Doing things together is a sign of mattering to dad and mom

These findings fit with our earlier findings (lead author Matthew Stevenson) that how much adolescents think they matter to their parents is closely linked to how much time they spend doing things together. Time spent interacting at this age is often overlooked not only by researchers, but also by parents and sometimes by therapists and mental health professionals, as well as by family policy. However, we found that adolescents often carefully monitor how much time they spend with their parents and they draw conclusions partly from that calculation about how important they are to parents. So, although they may tell you that you’re old-fashioned, they still want you there. Drive-by fathering doesn’t typically work well for adolescents.

Mattering to dad is uniquely important

The perception that they matter to mom, of course, is also important to teenagers. But our study found a unique association between mattering to fathers at age 14 and good mental health development at 16, over and above mattering to mothers. So, when fathers are put in the equation, mattering to mothers on its own no longer predicted mental health. We don’t know why this is the case. However, we found that this ‘mattering’ was equally significant whether it was related to resident biological fathers or to resident stepfathers. Mattering to each was associated with better mental health. So both are important for adolescents’ well-being. In a previous study (lead author Clorinda Velez, née Schenck), we have found that the perception of mattering to a biological father isn’t any less important to teenagers just because they feel that they matter to a stepfather. The quality of both relationships is related to adolescent mental health.

Loveless marriage can also risk damaging teenagers’ mental health

Our study also found a fourth predictor of poorer teenage mental health – in addition to having a father or stepfather who seems not to care about you, intimate partner violence between parents, and non-violent parental conflict. It was the security that parents felt in their own relationship, measured from questions about love and affection, spending time together, getting along well, relationship problems, and thoughts about divorce. In other words, living with parents in a loveless marriage is an additional contributor to poorer adolescent mental health, over and above the other three factors.

“Mattering to fathers was equally significant whether it was related to resident biological fathers or to resident stepfathers. Mattering to each was associated with better mental health. So both are important for adolescents’ well-being.”

We can’t firmly say that any of these four predictors actually causes poor mental health. However, ours was a longitudinal study, monitoring the same adolescents from age 13 to age 16. This approach increases the likelihood of identifying a causal relationship while at the same time making it possible to rule out other explanations such as family income, parents’ education and parents’ personalities.

A further striking feature of our study was that the findings largely held true for both boys and girls, for both biological fathers and stepfathers, and for both ethnic groups involved in the study ‑ Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans.

Broader approach needed to support fatherhood and couple love

Our finding about the warmth of couple relationships strengthens the case that we need a broader approach to maintaining young people’s welfare with respect to their family context. We’ve tended to focus on protecting young people from witnessing violence and verbal conflict between parents, but we sometimes overlook the importance of nurturing inter-parental relationships and children’s relationships with fathers and stepfathers.

The message to policy makers and practitioners is that our findings reveal a need to expand the traditional focus on parental conflict, intimate partner violence, and relationships with mothers to include additionally the emotional quality and security of marital relationships and children’s relationships with their fathers and stepfathers.

Header photo: Scott Ableman. Creative Commons.

Policy Implications

Only about 25% of studies include fathers, a rate unchanged for 30 years, and so funding agencies and journals should actively encourage research that includes both parents.

Practice Implications

Few parenting interventions include fathers, but relationships with fathers might be the more potent point of intervention during early adolescence.

References

 Suh GW, Fabricius WV, Stevenson MM, Parke RD, Cookston JT, Braver SL & Saenz D (2016), Effects of the inter-parental relationship on adolescents’ emotional security and adjustment: The important role of fathers, Developmental Psychology 52.10