A new study suggests that how mothers and fathers see themselves as co-parents to their children plays a key role in how well their children adjust.
The researchers found that, in a sample of low-income couples, children did best when both parents viewed their coparenting relationship as very positive and worse when both parents viewed their relationship as poor.
However, children’s outcomes diverged when couples saw their co-parenting relationship as moderately good, but mothers and fathers had different views of each other as parents, said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, lead author of the study, professor of psychology at The Ohio. State University, and the chairman of the board of the Council of Contemporary Families.
“The best outcome for children was when both parents viewed their coparenting relationship as positive. But children were nearly as well adjusted when relationship quality was moderate and mothers were less positive about coparenting in relationship with parents,” Schoppe-Sullivan. said
Children’s outcomes suffered, however, when it was parents who were less positive about co-parenting, the study revealed.
The study was recently published online in the journal Child Development.
Previous studies have shown that parents with better co-parenting relationships are more effective, as parents and their children are better adjusted; for example, they have fewer behavioral problems and better social relationships with others. But most previous research has been done in white, middle-class families and has relied solely on mothers’ perspectives on the coparenting relationship.
Participants in this new study were 2,915 low-income couples from seven US states who participated in the Healthy Marriage Support Program. All couples had a child under the age of 5.
Participants were asked about their co-parenting relationship with their partner, that is, how they related to each other as parents.
“Co-couples in high-quality relationships provide emotional support to each other and support each other’s parenting decisions,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
Eighteen months after couples reported on their coparenting relationship, they were asked to report on their child’s social competence and behavioral adjustment.
Based on mothers’ and fathers’ reports of their coparenting relationship, the researchers identified four coparenting groups. The oldest (43% of the sample) were parents who both saw their coparenting relationship as very positive.
The next largest group (32%) were fathers who both viewed their relationship as moderately positive, but mothers were less positive about co-parenting.
“Their children were almost as well-adjusted as the parents who were positive about their coparenting relationship,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
That these two groups made up the majority of the sample was a significant finding, Schoppe-Sullivan said.
“Low-income couples often face a variety of challenges that can make parenting more difficult than it is for middle-class couples, so it’s encouraging that three-quarters of them had relationships of co-parenting that gave good results to their children,” she said.
The next largest group (16%) were those who reported a co-parenting relationship of moderate quality, but fathers were less positive than mothers. The fourth group (9%) consisted of couples who reported low-quality coparenting relationships, with mothers particularly critical of fathers.
These two groups had children who were less well adjusted than children in the other groups.
One question the study raises is why children adjust less when fathers are less positive than mothers about their coparenting relationship.
The study data can’t answer that conclusively, Schoppe-Sullivan said. But the study showed that psychologically distressed parents were more likely to be in the “less positive parenting” group than in other groups.
Distressed fathers may ask mothers to take them away from parenting duties, which can lead to fathers developing more psychological problems and less satisfaction with their parenting role.
“This can lead to more conflict between parents, more disagreement about parenting decisions and less positive engagement between parents and their children,” Schoppe-Sullivan said.
“All of this may play a role in the poorer adjustment of their children.”
When mothers are less positive than fathers, it may indicate that mothers feel that fathers are not contributing enough to parenting, she said. Since it is common for mothers to feel this way, it may not generate as much conflict between parents as when parents are less positive, so children may be relatively well adjusted.
Overall, the findings suggest that professionals working with fathers may want to pay special attention when fathers are less positive than mothers about their coparenting relationship, she said.
Co-authors of the study, all from Ohio State, are: Jingyi Yang, doctoral student in psychology; Junyeong Yang, doctoral student, and Minjung Kim, assistant professor, both in education studies; and Yiran Zhang, doctoral student, and Susan Yoon, associate professor, both of social work.
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