This study examined the relations between perceptions of 133 early adolescents in stepfamilies concerning how much they mattered to their stepfathers and nonresidential biological fathers and adolescents' mental health problems. Mattering to nonresidential biological fathers significantly negatively predicted mother-, teacher-, and youth-reported internalizing problems. Mattering to stepfathers significantly negatively predicted youth-reported internalizing and stepfather- and youth- reported externalizing problems. For teacher-reported externalizing problems, mattering to stepfathers and nonresidential biological fathers significantly interacted. Mattering to either father predicted low externalizing problems; perceptions of mattering to the second father did not predict a further reduction in problems. Results suggest that mattering is an important aspect of father-adolescent relationships, and highlight the importance of considering adolescents' relationships with both non-residential fathers and stepfathers.
Keywords: mattering, parenting, fathers, stepfamilies, adolescent mental health problems
It is well documented that high quality parent-child relationships provide robust protection against the development of mental health problems in children and adolescents (Luthar, 2006; Masten, 2001). One potentially influential but understudied aspect of parent-child relationships is children's perceptions of how much they "matter" to their parents. The current study examined how perceptions of mattering to nonresidential biological fathers (nonresidential fathers) and mattering to residential stepfathers (stepfathers) relate to mental health problems in a sample of adolescents in stepfather families. Below, mattering is defined and the limited research in this area is described. Next, the theoretical framework that underlies the current study is articulated. The findings of the research on aspects of father-child relationships and psychological adjustment of children in stepfamilies are then briefly discussed and the current study is described.
Rosenberg and McCullough (1981) state that to matter is to be noticed, to be an object of concern, and to be needed by a specific individual. A sense of mattering does not require approval or agreement between the parent and child. Rather, disagreement or criticism, while not typically thought of as a hallmark of a positive parent-child relationship, may co-occur with mattering; parents may attempt to control or change their children's behavior precisely because they matter. Even in cases where a child does not describe his/her relationship as close or positive, the child may still see him/herself as a primary object of the parent's attention and therefore have a strong sense of mattering to the parent. The conviction that one is unimportant to one's parents is thought to lead to a profound sense of isolation, irrelevance, or meaninglessness (Rosenberg & McCullough). The limited research on the relations between mattering to one's parents and children's psychological adjustment indicates that mattering is negatively related to internalizing and externalizing problems (Marshall, 2004; Rosenberg & McCullough) and positively related to self-esteem and self-concept (Marshall, 2001; Marshall, 2004; Rosenberg & McCullough).
There are numerous theoretical perspectives that focus on how interpersonal relationships influence adjustment. The most relevant theoretical perspective to the current study is attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1973). Two primary features of a secure attachment are the perceived availability of the parent and the child's reliance on the parent during times of stress (Bowlby, 1969). When children feel secure and accepted in their parental relationships, they feel less threatened by stressful events (Gunnar, 2000) and generally have more positive developmental and behavioral outcomes (e.g., Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). By extension, it is reasonable to assume that perceived importance to parents (i.e., parental mattering) creates a sense of relatedness and security about one's social position with regard to significant others, which in turn positively influences adjustment (Marshall, 2001,2004).
Although typically focused on the mother-child relationship, attachment theory predicts that children form multiple attachment relationships with different caregivers across development (e.g., Bowlby, 1969; Howes, 1999) and that each of these relationships may influence children's psychological adjustment (Howes; Main & Weston, 1981). Howes suggests a number of models of how these multiple relationships might influence adjustment, including a "hierarchical model" in which one relationship is most influential (i.e., mother-child relationship), an "integrative model" where each relationship independently and equally affects outcomes, and an "independent model" in which each relationship is differentially related to different outcomes (e.g., mothers influence academic competence, fathers influence negative affect). As children in stepfather families typically have two father figures in addition to their mother, investigation of how mattering to each of these nontraditional fathers relates to children's psychological adjustment over and above mattering to mothers is an important contribution to the understanding of how multiple parent-child relationships influence children's psychological adjustment. Knowing that one is important to the nonresidential father may confirm that the role of being a son or daughter remains salient and stable despite physical distance and comparatively little contact, improving the child's sense of belongingness. Similarly, perceiving oneself as important to the stepfather may enhance one's sense of belongingness and relatedness within a potentially complex family structure (e.g., new father figure, presence of step-siblings and other step-relatives). As children in stepfamilies are likely less clear about their position within their family structure relative to children in two biological parent families, perceptions of mattering and the associated sense of relatedness may be especially important to their psychological adjustment.
Nontraditional Fathers and Children's Psychological Adjustment
Societal changes along with increasing involvement of fathers in children's lives is forcing the reshaping of our perspectives on fathers in general, and, more specifically, the role of the father-child relationship in child development and adjustment (Cabrera, Tamis-LeMonda, Bradley, Hofferth, & Lamb, 2000). Although there has been rapid growth in this area of research, the majority of work has focused on residential biological fathers. Comparatively little work has addressed the contribution of nonresidential fathers and stepfathers (Cabrera et al.) despite their increasing prevalence (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995).
The findings of the research on the links between aspects of children's relationships with their nonresidential fathers or stepfathers and psychological adjustment provide support for the importance of these relationships. In summarizing the literature on the relations between children's psychological adjustment and their relationships with their nonresidential fathers, Amato and Gilbreth's (1999) meta-analysis concluded that the quality of the nonresidential father-child relationship (e.g., emotional quality or closeness) is related to child psychological adjustment, and that nonresidential fathers' participation in aspects of authoritative parenting was the most consistent predictor of positive outcomes. Regarding the research on the stepfather-child relationship and its links to children's psychological adjustment, some investigations have shown that children in stepfather families show no advantage over those in single-parent families in terms of a range of aspects of adjustment (e.g., Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991), whereas others have shown that the presence of a stepfather buffers some of the negative effects of parental divorce (e.g., Bronstein, Clauson, Stoll, & Abrams, 1993). Other researchers have found that stepfathers serve as socialization agents for their stepchildren (Kurdek & Fine, 1993), make positive contributions to children's functioning (e.g., Fine, Donnelly, & Voyandoff, 1991), and that parenting variables are more strongly linked to child outcomes than classic contextual variables (e.g., complexity of family structure; Fine & Kurdek, 1992). For example, authoritative parenting by the stepfather is associated with children's better psychological adjustment, higher quality of life, higher scholastic competence, and fewer behavior problems (e.g., Andersen, Lindner, and Bennion, 1992; Fine, Voyandoff, & Donnelly, 1993).
Only a few studies have considered the joint influence of both types of nontraditional fathers on children's psychological adjustment. In the most recent study, King (2006) tested five competing hypotheses regarding the relation between closeness to nonresidential fathers and to stepfathers and adolescent functioning. The hypotheses included "irrelevance" (closeness to either father provides no benefit), "primacy of biology" (closeness to the nonresidential father is beneficial; closeness to the stepfather provides no additional benefit), "primacy of residence" (closeness to the stepfather is beneficial; closeness to the nonresidential father provides no additional benefit), "additive" (closeness to both fathers contributes substantially and independently), and "redundancy" (closeness to one father is sufficient; closeness to the other father provides no additional benefit). King found support for the primacy of residence hypothesis for adolescents' reports of internalizing and externalizing problems, and support for the redundancy hypothesis for grades.
Few other studies have examined the relations between quality of the stepfather-child and the nonresidential father-child relationship and youth adjustment simultaneously. White and Gilbreth (2001) found that quality of both the mother-child and the stepfather-child relationship contributed uniquely and significantly to adolescents' internalizing problems; the quality of the nonresidential father-child relationship was not significantly related to internalizing or externalizing problems. However, interpretation of these findings is complicated because the measure of the nonresidential father-child relationship differed from that used for mothers and stepfathers. …