Relations between Mattering to Step- and Non-Residential Fathers and Adolescent Mental Health

Article excerpt

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

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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.

Mattering

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. …