The Noncustodial Father-Child Relationship from Adolescence into Young Adulthood

Article excerpt

The relationship between adult children aged 18 - 24 and noncustodial fathers was explored with longitudinal data from the National Survey of Families and Households (n = 359). Noncustodial fathers' commitment to their adolescent children (contact, involvement in childrearing decisions) was strongly associated with father-child relations in early adulthood. Father-adult child relations were weaker when children were born to an unmarried mother and when children had no memory of living with the father. Contrary to expectations, both mothers' and fathers' remarriage was associated with stronger father-child relationships in early adulthood. The results show continuity in the father-child relationship from adolescence into young adulthood and suggest that the life course transitions of family members influence the father-child bond.

Key Words: father-child relations, noncustodial parents, nonresidential parenting, parenting and parenthood, youth/ emergent adulthood.

Fathers play an important role in the development and life chances of their children. Children are harmed when fathers play a lesser role in their lives after divorce or nonmarital birth (LaumannBillings & Emery, 2000; Shulman, Scharf, Lumer, & Maurer, 2001) and benefit when nonresident fathers take an active role and provide emotional and material support (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Lamb, 1999; White & Gilbreth, 2001). With data from a 12-year longitudinal study, Amato (1994) found that fathers made important contributions to the well-being of their young adult sons and daughters; the quality of relations with fathers was associated with adult children's happiness, life satisfaction, and psychological distress.

Noncustodial parenthood resulting from divorce or nonmarital birth is a threat to the father-child relationship. The negative effects of noncustodial parenthood on fathers' involvement with their offspring have been shown with younger children and adolescents (Munsch, Woodward, & Darling, 1995; Seltzer, 1991). Relatively little is known about noncustodial father-child relationships as sons and daughters enter the adult years or about the conditions that influence whether adult children and their nonresident fathers stay connected or grow apart. The purpose of this research is to begin to fill this gap in the literature on parentadult child relationships. Key questions center on the degree to which relationship patterns established in childhood continue to be played out in early adulthood, and whether transitions in the life course of the father, mother, and child influence patterns of father-child interaction over the transidon to adulthood. I investigate factors that influence the level of contact between young adult children and their noncustodial fathers and the degree to which young adult children view their noncustodial fathers as a potential source of emotional and instrumental support.

Theoretical Framework

The family life course theoretical framework guided this research. This framework emphasizes the interdependence of family members' life paths and the interplay between the individual life course of family members and the dynamics of family relationships over time (Bengtson & Alien, 1993; Elder, 1984). Family life course theory highlights the possibility of continuity over time in family relationships. The theory posits that patterns of interaction established between family members at earlier times will influence interaction patterns at later points in the life course (Caspi & Elder, 1988). Rossi and Rossi (1990) concluded, on the basis of retrospective reports, that early parent-child relationships have long-term consequences for adult intergenerational relationships, a rinding also supported by prospective analyses of parent-adult child relations (Aquilino, 1997; Thornton, Orbuch, & Axinn, 1995). Family life course theory also suggests that family relationships are influenced by the individual developmental paths of family members (Elder, 1984). …