Father absence

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Parental separation affects a child's development. Early parental divorce (during primary school) has been associated with greater internalising and externalising behaviour problems in the child,[1][2] while divorce later in childhood or adolescence may dampen academic performance. Children of unmarried parents tend to suffer greater emotional and social difficulties than others do.

Whilst father absence mainly results from parental divorce and separation,[3][4] other factors such as family poverty, developmental difficulties have been associated with father absence,[5][6][7][8][9] the effects of which have been explained by various theoretical approaches.

Difficulties associated with father absence[edit]

General problems[edit]

Despite limited agreement among researchers regarding the exact significance of fathering,[5] fathers are traditionally deemed a provider of protection and support for the child's development.[10] Through a number of pathways, father absence may influence child behaviour, especially in early and middle childhood.[6][7] These include a decline in household income and ineffective parenting arising from continued conflicts and psychological distress.

The effect on children of an absent parent following divorce[edit]

The issue of divorce is a crucial aspect in the society in relations to the life of children. The separation of a married couple due to irreconcilable differences is a matter that is common in the society and its effects on children is negative. It will impact negatively on the education of the children, health conditions of the children, children's relation with their parents as well as the future well-being of the children (Amato, 2000). Therefore, the area relating to the effects of divorce on children is significant for academic inquiry. It makes sense to research on this particular area since it will help learn on the effects that comes with divorce, how children adjust and adapt to divorce and how they are being treated. It is also worth to mention that, parents who divorce have their minds lingering on how their actions will affect their children's happiness as well as health.

Behavioural and mental health difficulties[edit]

In regard to the effects of father absence, a recent British study[1] assessed child problem behaviour in over 15,000 families using the clinical cut-offs of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), controlling for household factors such as resources, parental mental health and inter-parental relationship.[11][12] The study found that father absence at a given age, similar to poverty and parental psychological distress, predicted a high probability of the child scoring above the cut-off score for total difficulties two years later. Likewise, father absence predicted several specific difficulties including borderline personality disorder, severe hyperactivity and abnormal emotional problems.[1] Reciprocally, a child's severe externalising and social during their preschool years were also associated with a greater probability of the father being absent two years later. The authors concluded that father absence seemed to be more of a cause than a consequence of child problem behaviour.[1]

Through direct interaction, fathers’ involvement in children's development has a positive influence on their social, behavioural and psychological outcomes. In general, engagement of a fatherly figure reduces the frequency of behavioural problems and delinquency in sons and psychological problems in daughters, all the while facilitating children's cognitive development.[8][9]

Theoretical approaches[edit]

Evolutionary approach[edit]

Evolutionary life-history theory postulates that women may invest more in their offspring than the opposite gender due to a slower rate of reproduction in females.[13] Some theorists add that the assured maternal relatedness to one's offspring may also make women invest more than men.[14][15] This is because some men may have variable paternity confidence that the child is his offspring. In light of this, some researchers argue that assured maternal relatedness, together with the lower variance in female reproductive success, may lead parents to bias investment towards female offspring under less favourable household conditions.[16] In other words, father absence and the associated socioeconomic constraints it puts on the household may pose a greater risk to sons’ rather than daughters’ survival.

Psychodynamic approach[edit]

The psychodynamic approach posits that behaviour is motivated by basic needs, and drives and is sometimes shaped by unconscious childhood experiences. It is implicated that for a child to develop a “normal” gender identity, they will have to be raised in a conventional family where there is a father and a mother. Freud believed that being parented by a single mother could confuse the child's identity or lead them to become homosexual.[17] Father absence may hinder the son's acquisition of the traditional masculine role, as he is not able to model his own behaviour and attitude on his fathers’. Along similar lines, sons with absent fathers could have confused gender identities – if the son was separated from his father by age four, he would be less assertive, less involved in sport, less masculine than other boys and more dependent on his peers.[18] Nevertheless, findings of certain empirical studies on psychosexual gender identification have been deemed contradictory and inconclusive.[19] A number of studies have highlighted such negative consequences of the two-parent heterosexual household on children. Contrarily, others have pointed out that being reared in lesbian and single-parent households where the father was absent did not affect the psychosexual development of children, despite higher aggressiveness and submissiveness and lower assertiveness.[20]

Biological approach[edit]

Genes and hormones may account for the tendency of fathers to be absent. Certain DNA patterns have been shown to affect an individual's degree of fidelity and investment in their offspring. In particular, a study in prairie voles indicates that the gene AVPR1A affects the activity of vasopressin receptors in brain regions and thus predicts less cheating on their partners.[21] Similar to oxytocin, the hormone vasopressin can facilitate trust, empathy and social bonding. Injection of vasopressin in polygamous montane voles significantly increased their likelihood of becoming monogamous.[21] This may in turn decrease their likelihood of being an absent father.

A meta-analysis[22] based on 56 twin and adoption studies totalling over 200,000 families has revealed that genetic makeup significantly affects the individual's parenting behaviour. Genes in the father reliability predict up to 40% of his positive or negative emotions towards his children. In this sense, genes contribute to a father's liking or repulsion for his children, the latter of which may result in father absence.

Gender differences[edit]

There is mixed empirical evidence on the relative impact of father absence on the development of male and female offspring. A recent study in rural Ethiopia, where father absence could mean a significant drop in household income, revealed a considerable difference between the wellbeing of male and female offspring.[23] In particular, the author found that a male infant's risk of dying per month was doubled if the biological father was absent – a 30% greater risk than that for females. For female infants, father absence (as opposed to presence) was associated with a lower risk of dying, as well as higher nutritional status. That is to say, father absence was only a statistical predictor of infant death only for male infants. Such a gender difference has been observed despite a strong cultural preference for sons in the area. On the other hand, in developed countries such as the United Kingdom where father absence may not inflict as much harm on the family's income, the effects of father absence are not noticeably gendered.[1]

Specific negative impacts[edit]

Early pubertal timing – precocious puberty – is associated with negative outcomes in both genders. Early maturing girls have been found to be at risk for teenage pregnancy,[24] drinking[25] and weight problems,[26][27] and giving birth to low birth weight infants.[28] Early maturing boys are at risk for sexual promiscuity and delinquency[29] and testicular[30] and prostate cancer.[31] Individual difference in pubertal timing may be influenced by weight, physical activity and genetics.[32]


A central event of female puberty – menarche – is associated with father absence.[33][34][35][36][37][38][39] According to the evolutionary explanation, an unstable home environment (e.g. father absence) discourages a long-term mating life history, leading girls to adopt a short-term reproductive strategy, such as early menarche.[40] This is because they perceive resources they have as scarce and, possibly, their lifespan to be shorter, under the influence of father absence. An early menarche can increase the chance of fertility, while other short-term reproductive strategies can diversify the genes inherited in offspring. These could lift up a higher success rate of rearing children to adolescence. Moreover, the stress of father absence prompts girls to develop a variety of internalising disorders, such as bulimia and depression, which may lower the person's metabolism leading to excessive weight gain which precipitates early menarche.[27][41] A study shows that there are fewer monitored meals in the father-absent household.[42] Having meals in the family is arguably more beneficial to children than is eating alone (i.e. solitary eating), as the former lowers the chance of obesity.

However, it has been disputed whether the environmental stress of father absence stimulates weight gain, and thus accelerates early puberty.[43][44] Likewise, the stress arisen from the absence of mother has been shown to have little influence on the child's body weight. Since mother absence does not predict weight gain in children, it seems that the increase in the child's body weight observed is due to the isolated genetic influence of an absent father, rather than the global environmental stress cause by the absence of either parent.[45] This is possibly because in ancestral times the survival rate of children with mother being absent was extremely low. A specialised mechanism to deal with mother absence has never been developed.

In addition, recent findings seem to regard genes, rather than the environment, as the mechanism underlying the positive correlation between high body mass index and earlier first menarche onset.[46][47][48] Androgen receptor gene may predispose a father to impulsive and externalising behaviours (e.g. family abandonment) and his offspring to early puberty.[2] The essentialness of androgen receptor to female fertility and ovary development has been proven by rodent studies.

Sexual behaviour[edit]

Father absence in a household can result in children (of both sexes) having earlier average ages of first sexual intercourse than those raised in father present households. There is also the effect of increased rates of teenage pregnancy. Some evolutionary theories propose that early childhood is vital for encoding information that shapes future reproductive strategies[49] in regulating physical and motivational pathways of sexual behaviour. Conflicting and stressful parental relationships can lead children to believe that resources are limited, people are untrustworthy, and relationships are opportunistic. As they replicate their parents’ mating-oriented reproductive behaviour, they tend to have multiple sexual partners and erratic relationships. Children implicitly and explicitly model their sexual attitudes and behaviours on their parents, see engagement in non-marital sex as normative. Father absence however can be a byproduct of initial social and economic strain within the household (e.g. violence, lack of educational opportunities and cumulative life exposure to poverty can increase the likelihood of early sexual endeavours and pregnancy). The timing of first intercourse can be heritable - shorter alleles of the X-linked androgen receptor (AR) gene has been associated with aggression, impulsivity, high number of sexual partners, divorce in males and earlier ages of physical maturation in females.[2]

Mechanisms to balance father absence[edit]

Matrilineal support[edit]

Despite being poorer overall, widowed and divorced women are on average 2.4 kg heavier than women whose children's fathers are present.[23] Widowed and divorced mothers as well as their daughters are reported to have substantially improved nutritional status which could be explained by them having greater access to the mother's relatives (matrilateral kin). Furthermore, proximity to a mother's relatives can dramatically improve female children's height for age, an indicator of good nutrition.[50] Women who return to their village of birth following marital dissolution are seen to benefit from extra matrilateral kin support,[51] which replaces the help of the missing husband.[52][53] Female headed families are found to be similar to traditional families regarding a range of measures such as quality of parenting and young adult's psychological adjustment. Children were also found to have more positive family relationships and greater psychological wellbeing as young adults.[54] Children without their biological fathers present can also grow up in same sex parent households, where they can experience far more interaction with their mothers and be more likely to perceive them as available and dependent compared to peers from father present homes. there were no negative effect on social and emotional development or differences in parenting or children development. Although boys showed more feminine characteristics this did not mean they showed less masculine characteristics. Father absence here can influence adolescents relationships with their mothers but no negative consequences for children.[55] No significant differences are found regarding families of heterosexual and homosexual mothers for boys, there was no influence over sexual identity conflict or even peer group stigmatisation.It is also necessary that significance of the study be stated by a researcher which will make the research meaningful. In line with this topic, parents will be informed of the underlying behaviours of children as a result of absence of parent following divorce. The study will also enlighten parents on the roles they play to shape their children when they live as a couple, therefore, parents will try to their best to reconcile their differences and live as one. The challenges that young adults at the age of 14 to 25 years and whose parents divorced faces as they enter into romantic relationships are revealed. The aim of the study is to explore knowledge relating to counselling of such cases. The study will be easier when the scope is mentioned. This is the area the study will cover or rather the number of respondents. The study on ‘The effect on children of an absent parent following divorce,’ will be focus on pre-schoolers, adolescents as well as young adults in a particular area which can be certain learning institutions within a specific city. There are also certain assumptions which a researcher will have to make in this study. For example, it will be assumed that at the time the research will be done. All the learning institutions will be on session and can be accessed and that the respondents will be willing to share the information required.

As part of the research, a literature review is necessary. This will involve carrying out various theoretical reviews to examine various theories related to the topic under study. Such theories will include attachment theory, social learning theory, among many others. The theories will lay a foundation to the topic. Moreover, empirical review is another part of literature review where various literary works carried out by other researchers relating to the topic of study are examined in detail.

The research design in relation to the topic of this study will be descriptive survey design. The target population will be all the students in the learning institutions selected that will be used for the research. Stratified sampling design is suitable for the study since data will be collected and based on three strata; pre-schoolers, secondary and college. Data collection will be by use of questionnaires and finally, data analysis will be both quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative will encompass such descriptive statistics as mean and standard deviation while the qualitative will take into account attaching significance to the themes as well as the patterns observed (Bryman, 2008). The results and findings will be finally presented summarizing the information obtained from data collection and analysed. The summary of the findings will provide answers to the research questions, reveal the challenges experienced throughout the research and expose gabs that can aid in further research concerning the topic.

The research especially when administering questionnaires and interviews if any should be carried out in a manner which is within two key aspects: conforming to ethical practices and adhering to approved protocol. Ethical practices in research are very vital and plays a very important role in protecting the rights and privacy of the respondents. The use of human subjects is a critical ethical consideration. This study will have to adhere to the guidelines set by Institutional Review Board of the schools which data will be collected. The board is composed of people who will check to ensure that the information gathered from the respondents are safe and that human rights of the respondents are not violated in any case. The ethical considerations that are relevant to this study will involve voluntary participation by the respondents and the informed consent (Vanclay, 2013). It is important to note that ethical standards very important roles in this research work. They guarantee that all human subjects that become respondents in the study accepted freely and wilfully to participate and that they have been fully updated on the purpose of the research. Moreover, the subjects’ confidentiality and anonymity is highly protected. [56]

Presence of a stepfather[edit]

In light of certain research, father absence can be disadvantageous; certain evidence suggests stepfather presence does not reduce these disadvantages but in fact has a worsening effect on such issues. For example, the Cinderella effect, which refers to the observation that stepchildren are at a dramatically increased risk of physical abuse and homicide than children living with their biological parents.[57][58][59][60] Although there researchers have found a negative relationship between stepmothers and food expenditure, this effect is not observed with stepfathers and their stepchildren.[61] Ellis and Garber (2000)[62] and Ellis (2004)[63] suggest that stepfather presence is a better predictor of age of menarche than father absence, as it indicates lower quality paternal investment. In accordance with their findings, results show that girls raised in families with stepfathers exhibit a significantly earlier age of menarche than girls raised without stepfathers.

Relative to other groups, children with a constantly absent biological father but a stepfather present reported more frequent incidences of sexual intercourse, as well as an earlier onset of sexual behaviour. The mean age of children with their biological father absent or partially absent is approximately 15. A higher percentage of children with a constantly absent biological father reported having sexual intercourse than those in the partially absent group. Those with a stepfather present and those with a biological father always absent have the earliest first time experiences of sexual intercourse at on average 15.11 years old, whereas children without a stepfather or their biological father partially absent at the age of 15.38 experience their first encounter of sexual intercourse. The effect of having a partially absent biological father with stepfather absence and the effect both stepfather or biological father absence are the same. This study indicated that the presence of a stepfather is not compensating to the disadvantages of a biological father being absent. In some situations, it can cause an even bigger negative effect on children.[64]

No agreement upon effective client treatment[edit]

Choice of effective treatment can be greatly varied and thus can be affected by many factors such as age, one's ability to understand and deal with emotionally heavy material, family members involvement and the family and child's priorities and needs.[65] In treating some of the negative effects that young girls may have, transference to a male therapist could help facilitate the opportunity to fill any emotional void created through father absence.[66] On the other hand, simply through the existence of a connection with a consistent and empathetic adult can provide some paternal function, regardless of gender.[67]


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