Children behave worse in families in which dads feel unsupported, Sussex study finds

Children are more likely to display troublesome behaviour in families in which the father feels unsupported by his partner, a new University of Sussex study has revealed.

A photo of a father with his child, standing on a beach holding hands and looking out to seaThe findings by doctoral researcher Rachel Latham were presented yesterday (7 May) at the annual conference of the British Psychology Society in Liverpool. 

The ways in which parents work together in their roles has been shown to be an important factor in relation to the  behaviour of their children. However, few studies have distinguished between mothers’ and fathers’ perceptions of the support they receive from their partners.

Supportive ‘coparenting’ involves parents’ sharing childrearing values, expressing positive emotion with each other during interactions with their child and supporting their partner’s parenting efforts.

The study examined the contribution of both parents’ perceptions of coparent support and undermining in association with their young children’s behaviour.

Mothers and fathers from 106 families completed questionnaires about parenting practices and telephone interviews relating to their relationship quality and coparenting techniques.  All families consisted of both biological parents who were married or living together.

Latham’s analyses showed that for fathers, perceptions of poor support from their partners were negatively associated with their children’s behaviour. They related more incidents of their child acting defiantly or deliberately breaking toys.

For mothers, however, feeling unsupported by their partners did not relate to their child’s behaviour. 

Although the study has only established a link rather than a cause, Latham suggests that a number of reasons may account for the findings, such as “maternal gatekeeping”  by which the mother limits the father’s child-rearing input. 

They may also be connected to the societal expectations of fathers. Latham says: “Compared to mothering, the fathering role may be less clearly socially defined and fathers may withdraw from it, whereas mothers – and fathers – may see the mother’s role as less discretionary than the father's. 

"Or it could be simply that fathers don’t feel as confident or competent in their role because, although it is changing, commonly they are still less likely to be the primary child carer.”

She adds: “My results suggest that in the long term, family therapeutic interventions that aim to improve the coparent relationship may be informed by paying particular attention to how much fathers feel supported by their coparent.”