The Impact of Mothers' Parenting, Involvement by Nonresidential Fathers, and Parental Conflict on the Adjustment of Adolescent Children

By Simons, Ronald L.; Whitbeck, Les B. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, May 1994 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Mothers' Parenting, Involvement by Nonresidential Fathers, and Parental Conflict on the Adjustment of Adolescent Children


Simons, Ronald L., Whitbeck, Les B., Beaman, Jay, Conger, Rand D., Journal of Marriage and Family


By one estimate, 44% of children born between 1970 and 1984 will live for a time in a single-parent family (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989), and Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) project that 60% of children born in the 1990s will have this experience. Unfortunately, research during the 1980s provided rather strong evidence that children living in single-parent households are at risk for a number of negative developmental outcomes (Amato & Keith, 1991; McLanahan & Booth, 1989). These studies also reported, however, that there is much variability in adjustment among such children, and that many, if not most, avoid long-term problems (Emery, 1988). Given these findings, researchers and policy makers have been concerned with identifying factors that serve to reduce the hazards of growing up in a single-parent household.

The most popular explanations for variations in child adjustment concern the parenting practices of the custodial parent, level of involvement of the noncustodial parent, parental conflict, and family economic hardship. The present study uses panel data to examine the importance of each of these variables in predicting externalizing and internalizing problems among a sample of adolescents living in mother-headed households. The study avoids the limitations of much of the past research on child adjustment in single-parent families by using multiple sources of data to build measures of constructs and by including controls for potentially confounding variables. Also, in contrast to most prior investigations, the present study considers the possibility that child adjustment problems may influence, as well as be influenced by, parental behavior.

ASPECTS OF SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES

PARENTING PRACTICES OF THE CUSTODIAL PARENT

Although a few studies have reported an association between family structure and level of parental warmth and support, the dimension of parenting most consistently linked to number of parents in the home is that of control. There is strong evidence that single parents tend to make fewer demands on children and utilize less effective disciplinary strategies than married parents (Astone & McLanahan, 1991; Furstenburg & Nord, 1985; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1982).

Although past studies report a tendency for single parents to display lower levels of monitoring and discipline than married parents, most of these studies find substantial variability in parenting practices in their samples of single parents. Thus it is probably a minority of single parents that account for discrepancies in control between single- and two-parent families. The present study examines the extent to which variations in control exerted by single mothers is related to the adjustment of their adolescent children. Differences in parental control are expected to exert a greater influence on adolescent externalizing than internalizing problems.

PARENTING PRACTICES OF NONRESIDENTIAL FATHERS

Level of involvement by the nonresidential parent--usually the father--is frequently cited as an important determinant of children's adjustment to divorce. It is argued that children show better adjustment when both the custodial and noncustodial parent are actively involved in childrearing. Based upon this belief, researchers have initiated studies of the conditions that promote nonresidential paternal involvement and many states have adopted joint custody statutes in an attempt to encourage fathers to remain involved with their children (Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991).

Although the idea that child adjustment is facilitated by involvement by nonresidential fathers is intuitively appealing, there is actually little empirical evidence for the claim (Emery, 1988; Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991). In a recent review of research regarding this issue, Amato (1993) identified 16 studies that supported the hypothesis that frequency of contact with the noncustodial father is positively related to child adjustment. …

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