Regardless of whether a child’s parents are married, living together, separated, or divorced, children will have a better opportunity to have a close relationship with each of their parents if the adults have a healthy, cooperative relationship. However, different upbringings and household dynamics bring with them challenges and opportunities for maintaining positive relationships between fathers and their children.
Divorced and never-married fathers who do not live with their children may struggle to maintain effective co-parenting relationships. Blended families, such as when a father has children with more than one mother, can create competing demands on a father’s time and resources.
Fathers who are low-income may often face additional challenges of not having enough education, skills, or other resources to provide for their children, which can also place a strain on relationships. Likewise, the stresses and anxieties that come with poverty can negatively influence relationships between partners and between parents and their children.
Relationships are diverse and often complex. Here are some tips and best practices practitioners and fatherhood programs can use to support fathers in developing skills needed for healthy relationships, whether they involve long-term romantic commitments, marriage, or co-parenting arrangements.
Tips & Best Practices
- Consider different needs of relationship types. There are differences between “front-end” mother-father relationships, in which there never was a lasting or developed romantic connection, and "back-end" relationships that featured meaningful romantic connections over several years. Blended families and stepfamilies also have their own dynamics. The types of relationship issues faced by non-residential fathers may vary, depending on if they ever lived with their child’s mother or developed a romantic relationship with the mother. The ending of back-end relationships is likely to be more intense and contentious. Practitioners may need to help fathers in front-end relationships shift their focus away from the child to better understand the mother’s point of view. While practitioners working with back-end fathers often need to start by asking them to first acknowledge any negative feelings about the ex-partner or spouse, and then focus on what is best for their child. In both cases, the bottom line is to help non-residential fathers understand the importance of developing a cordial, empathetic relationship with their co-parent. Frame the issue around what is best for the children, instead of focusing solely on a father’s concerns about his rights or what makes him happy.
- Fathers who live with their children can still experience relationship challenges and stressors. Fathers who live with their child’s mother tend to work more hours than fathers who are not married or cohabitating. While stable employment and earnings can promote healthy relationships, it can also cause relationship strains. Additionally, pressures of cohabitating can result in differing quality of relationships. Some couples may have a meaningful connection and commitment, while others might be stuck in negative or abusive patterns and struggling to make it work for the sake of the child. Cohabiting couples tend to be younger and have less college education than married couples. Cohabiting fathers tend to have lower incomes and are slightly less likely to be employed than married fathers (77% compared to 90%). Consequently, cohabiting couples may need more support to build economic stability, including job training and placement, as well as financial education to better manage less income and fewer resources. Practitioners can reinforce the positive impact that healthy relationship skills can have on outcomes for children and their parents.
- There are often economic differences between cohabitating and married couples, which may affect their relationships. Cohabiting couples tend to be younger and have less college education than married couples, and cohabiting fathers tend to have lower incomes and are slightly less likely to be employed than married fathers (77% compared to 90%). Consequently, cohabiting couples may need more support to build economic stability, including job training and placement, as well as financial education to better manage less income and fewer resources.
- Regardless of relationship dynamics, fathers and mothers who interact positively with each other will contribute positively to their child’s development. Programs can support fathers in establishing a positive co-parenting relationship with their children’s mothers. Promising practice strategies include providing a safe space for young fathers and mothers to participate in programs together, providing safe spaces for them to engage separately (such as through the creation of a father group), and by monitoring relationships for signs of stress, violence, or abuse.
The Engaging Fathers project was a collaboration between the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) and the Fathers and Families Center (FFC) in Indianapolis. The project was one of four funded by the National Quality Improvement Center on Non-Resident Fathers and the Child Welfare System (QIC NRF) to explore models for systemic collaboration between fatherhood programs and the child welfare system. FFC had a full-time staff person onsite at the Marion County DCS office to serve as the initial contact for non-resident fathers, help them navigate the child welfare and court systems, and provide training and support to DCS staff about father engagement.
How does conflict in the parents’ relationship affect their children?
Children who are exposed to violence – especially intimate partner violence - are more likely to experience a range of problems, including difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, mental health issues, and aggression and conduct problems. In working with fathers or couples, it is important for programs to recognize that intimate partner violence is real, harmful for all parties, and possibly exists in some participants’ relationships. Any indicators of domestic violence should be addressed immediately.
What are some common issues faced by non-residential fathers?
Fathers who do not live with their children may experience issues that result from not being involved in their child’s day-to-day lives. This may include frustration that they are not more involved or a desire for more time with their children (including access, visitation, and custody issues), or anger and resentment toward their children’s mother. Fathers may require a need for assistance in negotiating co-parenting agreements, legally establishing paternity, or learning how to navigate child support and court systems.
How can I work with fathers to navigate blended family challenges, such as co-parenting with an ex-partner?
Many fathers must navigate blended family dynamics as they, or the mother of their child, engage in new romantic relationships. Conflict with an ex-partner is an issue that can affect the relationships in a blended family. Whether deliberate or not, ex-partners and current partners can cause conflict and strain relationships and hinder effective co-parenting.