Arizona State Researcher: ‘At equal parenting time, the quality of the (father-child) relationship was at its highest’

This piece is fascinating and, for the most part, excellent. It’s a paper presented by Dr. William Fabricius of Arizona State University entitled “The Bad News about Divorce and Children Is Worse than We Thought, but the Good News Is Better than We Thought.”  Fabricius is a colleague of Sanford Braver and the paper was delivered to the Roundtable of Family Dynamics of the Senate of Canada, chaired by Senator Anne Cools. In the paper, Dr. Fabricius summarizes the research on divorce, fatherlessness and child well-being.  That’s the first part of the “Bad News” that’s “Worse than We Thought.”  He then goes on to public attitudes about equally-shared parenting and finds that the news on that front is “Better Than We Thought.”  The latter is where I take exception to some of what he says. But first the bad news which, if you’re a fathers’ rights advocate, is also good news since it so powerfully argues for greater paternal
involvement in children’s lives post-divorce. First, Fabricius notes that previous research has found that deterioration of the father-child bond is the single strongest result of divorce and that no factors such as levels of parental conflict, moderated the effect.  In short, children of divorce tend to have substantially poorer relationships with their dads than do children of married parents. His own research into a cohort of 1,030 high school students indicates that

the effect of divorce on the father-child relationship depends heavily on the amount of parenting time the child has with the father.  At equal parenting time, the quality of the relationship was at its highest; at the lowest levels of parenting time with father (0% to 15%) the quality of the relationship was at its worst.

That is, the more time a child has with his/her father post divorce up to 50%, the better the relationship between the two.  More time beyond 50% doesn’t seem to improve matters.  The implications of that for public policy should be obvious.

The bad news is that a large percentage – almost 40% — of the students had these minimal levels of parenting time with their fathers when they were growing up, and had damaged relationships with their fathers as young adults.

So, the failure of courts to grant fathers greater custody and to enforce visitation has a direct and negative effect on children both during childhood and after. The “Worse News” relates to health and its compromise by exactly the type of minimal relationships between fathers and children 40% of the high school kids described in Fabricius’ own study.  For decades researchers have been compiling data on the correlation between high parent conflict and/or parental absence and poor health in their offspring.

The primary threats to safety and protection that the helpless human infant and young child”s system is attuned to detect are parent absence, parent unresponsiveness, and parent conflict…  Children in families characterized by dysfunctional parent conflict and unsupportive parent-child relationships experience these threats repeatedly and learn to anticipate them when they are absent. This exposes these children to chronic, low-level doses of these hormones, which is what causes the long-term health problems. When we consider that almost 40% of the students had had minimal parenting time with their fathers, and on average as young adults had damaged relationships with their fathers, and when we link that with the lifetime health outcomes of young adults who had reported similarly distant relationships with their parents, we can see that the bad news looks worse than we thought it was.

This is far from the first time we’ve learned about the impact of divorce and father-loss on children’s health.  As but one example, I wrote here about a longitudinal study spanning some 80 years that found that divorce during a child’s life is the single greatest factor contributing to early death of the child. To summarize, children need both parents both during marriage and afterwards.  Divorce tends to marginalize fathers in their children’s lives and that loss is bad for both the physical and emotional health of the child.  Those effects can last into adulthood. I’ll write more on the second part of Dr. Fabricius’ paper in a later post. Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.

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