Growing Up in Scotland: father-child relationships and child socio-emotional wellbeing

Research report providing insight into the nature of father-child relationships in Scotland.

Executive Summary

This Growing Up in Scotland ( GUS) study of father-child relationships aims to promote greater understanding of the role of fathers, and factors that strengthen father-child relationships. This should contribute to more effective representation for fathers in family policies and services, a declared aim of the Scottish Government's national parenting strategy (Scottish Government, 2012). The study was commissioned by the Scottish Government in collaboration with Fathers Network Scotland as part of the Year of the Dad 2016. [1]

The study considers several important issues for policy makers and practitioners involved with family influences on children's socio-emotional wellbeing. It examines the distribution of poor, good or excellent father-child relationships; what predicts poor father-child relationships; and how positive father-child relationships are linked with other aspects of children's socio-emotional wellbeing. Mother-child relationships are also considered, in order to view the totality of parental support for the child, and see where the child's relationship with one or both parents may need strengthening.

The study draws on information from over 2,500 couple families in the first GUS birth cohort, a nationally representative sample. Most of these were families containing both biological parents although 10% were families containing the child's mother and a male partner who was not the child's father. In 2014/15, children in the study sample (average age 10, in Primary 6) were asked a series of questions about their trust in, and communication with [2] , their resident father or father figure resident in the biological mother's house. These questions measured the extent to which fathers were emotionally supportive of the child.

Children's responses were used to categorise father-child relationships according to whether fathers' supportiveness was poor, good or excellent. Similar information was collected about mothers' supportiveness.

Distribution of poor, good and excellent father-child relationships

Most ten-year olds in couple families are very positive about levels of supportiveness from resident fathers, with 84% of father-child relationships being classified as "good" or "excellent" in terms of the level of supportiveness reported by the child. However, a substantial minority (16%) perceive poor relationships characterised by low supportiveness.

The vast majority of children (95%) have an excellent or good relationship with at least one parent. A third (33%) of children have an excellent relationship with one parent, and 18% have an excellent relationship with both their parents. Fathers' supportiveness shows a strong positive association with mothers' supportiveness. Most children with an excellent father-child relationship also had an excellent relationship with the mother. In all, only 5% of children have a poor relationship with both parents. Among the 15% of children who have a poor relationship with just one parent, this is more likely to be with the father (11%) than with the mother (3%).

Boys report slightly lower supportiveness from fathers than do girls. This gender difference is reflected in other aspects of children's wellbeing: boys also perceive lower supportiveness from mothers, have higher levels of behavioural and emotional problems, and are more likely to experience difficulties adjusting to life at school.

Children with a father figure report lower supportiveness than those with a resident biological father. Roughly a third (35%) of children in families without both biological parents have a poor relationship with a father figure, compared with 14% of children with a poor father-child relationship in families containing both biological parents.

Risk factors for poor father-child relationships

In order to find ways of helping the minority of families with poor father-child relationships, we focused on risk factors for low levels of perceived father-child emotional support.

There were two main aims of this analysis. The first was to identify which families might be most at risk, and therefore benefit most from any targeted support for fathers. Since father-child relationships may be affected by a broad spectrum of contextual factors, the analysis considered factors relating to the child, mother and family as a whole, as well as factors relating more specifically to the father. These included child physical and mental health, parental socio-economic status, employment and working hours, home location and experience of multiple adverse family events (family illness, death, or separation, parental conflict, drug use and mental health; and family experience of or involvement in crime).

The second aim was to investigate potentially modifiable aspects of family life that might be targeted by future policies and interventions to strengthen father-child relationships. These aspects included father involvement in play and care when children were younger, whether parents have a mutually supportive partner relationship, home organisation (the extent to which the home atmosphere is calm and ordered, rather than noisy and chaotic), family ethos (the extent to which family relations and activities are mutually supportive and co-ordinated), and positive parenting (the extent to which parents are involved in the child's activities and use praise and other positive reinforcement of the child's behaviour).

The analysis revealed that factors associated with a poor father-child relationship measured at age 10 (i.e. "current" factors) include: a male child; unmarried parents; low family socio- economic status; recent adverse family events; and the presence of a father figure rather than the biological father.

Early childhood predictors (measured when the child was aged 10 months and/or 2 years) of a poor father-child relationship at age 10 among families containing both biological parents include: a male child; low family socio-economic status; an unsupportive relationship between the child's parents; the father working as a small employer or being self-employed; and living in a remote part of Scotland. Additional risk factors for poor father-child relationships identified during the pre-school and school-age years include: adverse family events; weak home organisation; a less supportive family ethos and low levels of positive parenting.

Risk factors predicting poor father-child and poor mother-child relations were compared. Some early risk factors (male child, low family socio-economic status, adverse family events, father's occupation and unsupportive relationship between the resident parents) and a later risk factor (low levels of positive parenting) predict that the child will have a poor relationship with both parents. However, living in a remote location, an unsupportive partner relationship and weak home organisation and/or family ethos were more strongly associated with poor father-child relationships.

Associations between fathers' supportiveness and other aspects of children's socio-emotional wellbeing

The last part of the study explored whether fathers' emotional supportiveness is associated with other aspects of ten-year olds' socio-emotional wellbeing. It examined two measures of overall wellbeing (high total levels of behavioural and emotional problems, and low life satisfaction), as well as wellbeing outside the home. Here, measures of wellbeing mainly concern school (poor school adjustment, disliking school, having a poor relationship with the school teacher), although one measure (victimisation by other children) extends to the peer environment outside school.

Father-child relationship quality is found to be independently associated with all aspects of wellbeing listed above. This was the case, even after allowing for mother-child relationship quality and family circumstances such as socio-economic status and adverse family events. Associations between parental supportiveness and child wellbeing are similar in strength for father- and mother-child relationships, and are equally important for boys and girls.

Overall conclusions and recommendations

These results highlight the importance of father-child relationships in heterosexual couple families. They indicate that fathers' supportiveness is closely associated with several other aspects of ten year-old children's socio-emotional wellbeing that extend outside family life to include enjoyment of school, and relations with teachers and peers. The extent to which these associations have a causal basis, and the direction of any causation, are uncertain. Further longitudinal research is required to establish whether father-child relationships influence child wellbeing over time. Nonetheless, these findings suggest that strengthening the quality of fathering in specific couple families may improve children's socio-emotional wellbeing. Families with risk factors for poor father-child relationships, including socio- economic disadvantage, family adversity, and the presence of a non-biological father figure, could potentially benefit from additional support.

The research has also identified potentially modifiable aspects of family life that could be the focus of policies and intervention work. The quality of father-child relationships seems to depend on the quality of family interactions more generally, suggesting that fathering is embedded in the whole family system. This points to the potential value of measures that boost family cohesion, support couple relationships and strengthen co-parenting. In families with a non-biological resident father figure, the finding that a relatively high proportion of children perceive poor levels of supportiveness suggests that men who find themselves in the position of being a father figure may have particular difficulties in defining their role, both within the family and in relation to the child's non-resident biological father. Researchers and policy makers who focus on biological fathers have often overlooked father figures. Further study of non-biological father figures' needs is required in order to further our understanding of how best to support them.


Email: Wendy van der Neut

Back to top