Absent Fathers & Their Children’s Well-Being: A Survey of the Research

30. Oct, 2002

A substantial body of empirical research has examined the implications of a father’s absence on a child’s well-being. The majority of research indicates evidence to support the following analyses and outcomes for the absent fathers’ children: (1) Contact with a child does not necessarily have positive benefits; (2) economic contributions to a child have positive benefits;  (3) a positive relationship with the child’s mother has positive benefits;  (4) emotional involvement with a child has positive benefits;  (5) and, an authoritative parenting style has positive benefits.

Although not a new phenomenon, absent fathers have become more common in families within the past few decades (Eggebeen & Uhlenberg, 1985; Gringlas & Weinraub, 1995; King, 1994; Phares, 1993).  However, researchers such as Danziger and Radin (1990) contend that a father’s absence from his child’s home does not necessarily indicate an equal absence from the child’s life (p. 640).  The question as to whether absent can be equated with uninvolved has also been posed by Vicky Phares (1993).  The effects of absent fathers’ involvement with their children on their children’s well-being have been widely debated among researchers.  Differences in research outcomes are due, in part, to variant methodologies of these studies.

Generally, studies have proposed hypotheses that expect positive associations between the involvement of absent fathers with a child and the child’s well-being.  However, a limited amount of evidence exists to prove these hypotheses   (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Hawkins & Eggebeen, 1991; King, 1994; King, 2001; Lamb, Pleck, Charnov, & Levine, 1987; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Seltzer, 1994).  Mixed results across the field have given researchers cause for question.

On the other hand, there are certain data that have been found consistent across the gamut of study, and, despite the enigma as to how to interpret such results, the analyses of the relationship between absent fathers and their children can be better understood within their context.  This article surveys the commonalities and points of divergence in methodology and data among studies that examine the effects of fathers’ absence on their children’s well-being.

Framing and Reframing the Problem

Research studying absent fathers’ involvement with their children has traditionally been interested only in frequency of contact and payment of child support.  A majority of the studies surveyed here utilize these traditional variables.  Recently, however, researchers have questioned the limited scope of these studies.  Some have proposed the use of an ecological systems perspective in moderating the variables of such studies.  Doherty, Kouneski, & Erickson (1998), for instance, held that fathers’ relationships to their children are more dependent on contextual forces than maternal behavior.

Upon examining sixty-three studies dealing with nonresident fathers and their children’s well-being, Amato and Gilbreth (1999) offered this critique: “Without knowing about the behaviors that transpire between fathers and children during visits, how children feel about these visits, or the context in which these visits occur, it is difficult to make predictions about the effects of contact on specific child outcomes” (p. 559).  Valarie King (1994) conducted similar research, testing to determine whether father visitation or the payment of child support are significantly associated with several measures of child well-being.  In assessing her findings, King observed, “There is a bit more evidence that the quality of the father-child relationship, not simply father-child contact, may have beneficial outcomes for children” (p. 79).

Other studies have considered the quality of the relationship between parents as a function of the quality of the father-child relationship and, subsequently, the child’s well-being (Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1978, 1982; Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).

In consideration of the presence of moderating variables in the emerging research of father-child relationships, this survey will consider the common outcomes of traditional studies as well as those of the expanded ecological perspective, focusing mostly on those studies which seem to be indicative of trends in the research at large.


Frequency of Contact with Absent Father
Across the literature, frequency of contact is considered to be the most basic component of father-child research.  Furstenberg, Peterson, Nord, and Zill (1983), Seltzer and Bianchi (1988), and numerous other studies have shown, quite simply, that there is generally little contact between nonresident fathers and their children.  Other studies, however, such as Healy, Malley, and Stewart’s (1990), for example, have discovered that traditionally used empirical variables such as frequency of contact are not immune to the effects of moderating variables.  They found, as reported by Vicky Phares (1993), “that younger children and boys of any age showed higher self-reported self-esteem when paternal visitation was frequent and regular.  However, older children and girls of any age who had regular visits with their father actually showed lower self-esteem according to children’s self-reports… [suggesting] that the impacts of paternal involvement after parental divorce are extremely complex” (p. 296).

King (1994), as indicative of most research analyses of frequency of contact, has employed five scaled assessments and found little support for the hypothesis that father visitation has beneficial effects for child well-being (p. 79).  She has also noted that the quality of the father-child relationship must be considered in further examination of father-child visitation because, in circumstances where there exists violence or any variation of abuse in the father-child relationship, visitation may do more harm than good (p. 84).

Despite the recent consideration of moderating variables in the studies of Healy et al. (1990), King (1994), and others, the majority of existing research still seems to overlook confounding variables such as age, gender, class, family history, and length of time that the father has been absent from the child’s home (King, 1994).

Absent Father’s Economic Contributions to Child
The second most frequently utilized variable has been the extent to which absent fathers have contributed economically to the child’s upbringing.  Several studies have found a stronger relationship between an absent father’s economic contributions and the child’s well-being than any other association (King, 1994, p. 963).  Amato & Gilbreth (1999) have examined studies within the field of sociology, psychology, and economics and all provide support for the idea that a father’s economic contributions are an important factor for a child’s well-being:  “Fathers’ financial contributions,” the meta-analysis noted, “provide wholesome food, adequate shelter in safe neighborhoods, commodities (such as books, computers, and private lessons) that facilitate children’s academic success, and support for college attendance” (p. 559).

King (1994) has examined numerous studies that provide evidence that the payment of child support has beneficial effects on educational achievement as well as behavioral adjustment (p. 963).  Other studies, such as Graham, Belief, and Hernandez (1991), have recognized socioeconomic status as a moderating variable within their research and, subsequently, have shown a positive link between an absent father’s economic contributions and the child’s educational achievements.

Absent Father’s Quality of Relationship with Child’s Mother
Many researchers have sought to consider the quality of the relationship between parents as a factor in determining the quality of an absent father’s relationship with his child, which could be shown, in turn, to correlate with the child’s well-being.

Amato and Rezac (1994) have tested this association:

“The study tested the hypothesis that children’s contact with nonresident parents decreases children’s behavior problems when interparental conflict is low but increases children’s behavior problems when interparental conflict is high… The hypothesis was supported among boys from divorced families. No support for the hypothesis was found among girls, regardless of family background.” (p. 557)

Other studies, however, have resulted in positive correlations between the quality of the parental relationship and child well-being.  For instance, Amato and Gilbreth (1999) note “several studies have shown that contact with nonresident fathers following divorce is associated with positive outcomes among children when parents have a cooperative relationship but is associated with negative outcomes when parents have a conflicted relationship.”  Hetherington, Cox, & Cox (1978, 1982), whose research is among such studies, similarly concluded that a contingency exists between the quality of the parents’ relationship and the father-child dyad.

Quality of Absent Father’s Emotional Involvement with Child
In contrast with other variables, Amato and Gilbreth (1999) maintain “the strength of the emotional tie between children and nonresident fathers would appear to be a relationship dimension with clearer implications for children’s well-being” (p. 559).  Studies that deny the influence of the emotional dynamic in father-child involvement are scarce.  However, they do exist.  In fact, a study by Furstenberg, Morgan, and Allison (1987) found, as reported by King (1994), “A child’s closeness to his or her nonresident father had no effect on well-being.”

Nonetheless, the majority of research supports that the quality of the father-child relationship has been found to be a very influential factor in the well-being of the child.  Amato and Gilbreth (1999) described the findings of Davies and Cummings (1994): “When children feel loved and cared for by parents, their sense of emotional security is strengthened.  Emotional security, in turn, helps children cope with stress and makes them less vulnerable to anxiety and depression” (p. 559).

Other researchers have connected the quality of the parent-child relationship with a child’s obedience to parental rules, the emulation of parental behavior, the internalization of social norms, low levels of psychological distress and delinquency, among other positive outcomes (Amato, 1987; Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Bandura, 1971; Pleck, 1997; Rollins & Thomas, 1979; Veneziano & Rohner, 1998).  Amato and Gilbreth (1999) speculate, “The same principles may apply to nonresident fathers” (p. 559).

Quality of Absent Father’s Parenting Style
Another highly considered variable in recent research of father absence and child well-being is the quality of the father’s parenting style.  Baumrind (1968), Maccoby and Martin (1983), and Rollins and Thomas (1979) have each contributed to the large body of research that “identifies parental support and control as key resources for children” (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999, p. 559).  Amato & Gilbreth (1999) further conclude, in examining a plethora of studies that have considered quality of parenting as a moderating variable, “The combination of a high level of support with a moderately high level of noncoercive control reflects authoritative parenting—the parenting style most consistently associated with children’s positive development” (p. 559).

The extent to which authoritative parenting may positively influence child well-being has been illustrated in a study by Young, Miller, Norton, and Hill (1995), “who found that fathers’ intrinsic support (reflected in trust, encouragement, and discussing problems) was positively correlated with children’s life satisfaction, but fathers’ extrinsic support (reflected in going out to dinner, buying things, and seeing movies together) was not related to children’s life satisfaction” (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999).


A number of issues regarding the scope and validity of studies on the effects of absent father’s involvement with their children’s well-being have become platforms for much debate in recent years.  One concern, noted by Amato and Gilbreth (1999) is that “most studies of nonresident fathers have been atheoretical” (p. 558).

The implications of disregarding systemic dimensions of paternal behavior and child well-being have probably confounded a great deal of past research.  Amato (1993) and Demo and Acock (1988) have each pointed to reliance on small and random samples, the failure to control for potentially confounding variables, and the use of measures with low or unknown reliability as limitations to research methodology (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999, p. 561).

However, while many of the existing studies have been limited in scope and have presented somewhat contradictory conclusions, there is evidence that family, cultural, and social diversity issues have been considered more effectively in recent studies.  In these regards, Hawkins and Eggebeen’s (1991) concluding remark probably said it best: “Clearly, much more research is needed to answer the broad and complex question of fathers’ relationship to children’s well-being” (p. 12).

Written in 2002, by Blake Edwards
School of Psychology, Family, & Community
Seattle Pacific University


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