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. …