Absent Fathers and the Implications for a Child’s Well-Being

Little girl with bearThe absence of fathers in the lives of their children is not uncommon. David Blankenhorn (1995), author of Fatherless America, wrote, “The United States is becoming an increasingly fatherless society. A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his father. Today, an American child can reasonably expect not to.”

As this phenomenon continued to spiral, the 1990s was a time ripe for hundreds of studies of this trend, which has continued. According to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau study, 24 million children—about one out of every three—do not live with their biological fathers.

The question as to whether absent can be equated with uninvolved has been posed repeatedly over decades by researchers such as Vicky Phares at the University of South Florida and Valarie King and Paul Amato at Pennsylvania State University. It cannot. And yet a number of studies have indicated that nonresident fathers overwhelmingly tend not to engage in frequent contact with their children.

A preponderance of studies identify at least nine factors influencing a child’s well-being when they do not live with their father—frequency of contact, age and gender of the child, the father’s economic contribution to the child’s life, the quality of the father’s relationship with the child’s mother, socioeconomic variables, education, the quality of the father’s relationship with the child, and the father’s parenting style. Five additional factors I find to be widely neglected are the presence of an alternative, or surrogate, father figure such as a stepfather, variables related to family history, length of time the father has been absent from the child’s home, and the number and presence of siblings.

Back in the ’90s, Phares found signs of increased self-worth in younger children and boys of any age when visits with fathers were frequent and regular, whereas older children and girls of any age showed signs of lower self-worth when visits were more frequent. In her studies, King (1994a) found little support for the hypothesis that father visitation in and of itself has beneficial effects for child well-being, regardless of age or gender, and expressed concern that in circumstances where there exists abuses in the father-child relationship, visitation may do more harm than good.

Rather, King (1994b) pointed to numerous studies that provided evidence that the payment of child support has beneficial effects on educational achievement as well as behavioral adjustment. Several studies have found a stronger influence from economic contributions than any other factor.

Some have studied the quality of the parental relationship in moderating child behavior. One study hypothesized that a child’s contact with his or her nonresident father would decrease the child’s behavior problems when conflict between the father and mother was low, but increase behavior problems when the interparental conflict was high. Fascinatingly, although the hypothesis was supported among boys from divorced families, no support was found among girls (Amato and Rezac, 1994).

Other studies, however, resulted in positive associations of the quality of the parental relationship and child well-being with both boys and girls. For instance, Amato and Gilbreth (1999) noted “several studies have shown that contact with nonresident fathers following divorce is associated with positive outcomes among children when parents have a cooperative relationship but is associated with negative outcomes when parents have a conflicted relationship.”

Upon examining 63 studies of nonresident fathers and their children’s well-being, Amato and Gilbreth (1999) offered this critique: “Without knowing about the behaviors that transpire between fathers and children during visits, how children feel about these visits, or the context in which these visits occur, it is difficult to make predictions about the effects of contact on specific child outcomes.”

They asserted that healthy father-child relationships enhance resilience: “When children feel loved and cared for by parents, their sense of emotional security is strengthened. Emotional security, in turn, helps children cope with stress and makes them less vulnerable to anxiety and depression.”

Many researchers hypothesized that not only the quality of the relationship but the father’s parenting style held significant influence. Amato and Gilbreth (1999) suggested, “The combination of a high level of support with a moderately high level of noncoercive control reflects authoritative parenting—the parenting style most consistently associated with children’s positive development.”

The extent to which authoritative parenting may positively influence child well-being was illustrated in a study by Young, Miller, Norton, and Hill (1995), who found that “fathers’ intrinsic support—reflected in trust, encouragement, and discussing problems—was positively correlated with children’s life satisfaction, but fathers’ extrinsic support—reflected in going out to dinner, buying things, and seeing movies together—was not related to children’s life satisfaction.”

A substantial body of empirical research has examined implications of a father’s absence on a child’s well-being, indicating evidence to support the following conclusions: (1) contact with a child does not necessarily have positive benefits; (2) economic contributions to a child have positive benefits; (3) interparental cooperation has positive benefits; (4) positive emotional involvement with a child has positive benefits; and (5) an authoritative parenting style has positive benefits.

At the culminating of significant research back in the ’90s, a wonderful national organization took shape, committed to raising awareness of this issue and increasing the number of involved, responsible, and committed fathers in our country. That organization is the National Fatherhood Initiative, which has a host of wonderful resources available on its website.


  1. Amato, P.R., and Gilbreth, J.G. (1999, August). Nonresident Fathers and Children’s Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, pp. 557-573.
  2. Amato, P.R., and Rezac, S. (1994). Contact with nonresident parents, interparental conflict, and children’s behavior. Journal of Family Issues, 15, pp. 191-207.
  3. Blankenhorn, D. (1995). Fatherless America: Confronting our most urgent societal problem. New York: Basic Books.
  4. King, V. (1994a, March). Nonresident Father Involvement and Child Well-Being: Can Dad’s Make A Difference? Journal of Family Issues, 15 (1), pp. 78-96.
  5. King, V. (1994b, November). Variation in the Consequences of Nonresident Father Involvement for Children’s Well-Being. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, pp. 963-972.
  6. Phares, V. (1993, December). Father Absence, Mother Love, and Other Family Issues That Need to Be Questioned: Comment on Silverstein (1993). Journal of Family Psychology, 7 (3), pp. 293-300.
  7. S. Census Bureau (March 2011). Children’s living arrangements and characteristics. Washington D.C.
  8. Young, M.H., Miller, B.C., Norton, M.C., and Hill. E.J. (1995). The effect of parental supportive behaviors on life satisfaction of adolescent offspring. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, pp. 813-822.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • James

    March 17th, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    If you are just willing to be in it for the one night, then you don’t need to engage in the activity that could very well make you a dad!

  • Anita

    March 17th, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    I know that there will be people who disagree but I still think that there is something to be said for having a two parent home that offers stability for the entire family. There are some really great single parents out there but I don’t think that any of them would ever say that this is easy without having someone around to help them.

  • francis

    March 18th, 2015 at 7:55 AM

    At least have a strong male figure in their lives in some way

  • Clancy T

    March 18th, 2015 at 11:01 AM

    I have heard all of the arguments for against this for a long time now, but I am a single mother and I think that I do just fine. My boys and I have always pretty much been on our own and I am thinking that until they graduate and go off to college then it will be that way. We are good with that. They are very close to my dad and he kind of helps fill some of that void where their dad should be and I think that all of us together have made this work. It might not seem to be the ideal situation but for us and our family we have all turned out okay. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do and that’s the way it is. You can’t go around having a pity party all the time because that gets nothing that is critical or important accomplished!

  • Cora

    March 19th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    This can be especially hard on kids who always tend to continue to look for that father figure in their lives and never find it

  • jonathan

    March 20th, 2015 at 12:08 PM

    I hate it when I hear men talk about how they are being kept out of their children’s lives and so to not cause a problem they just stay away. What?!? Do you think that I would ever let anyone keep me from seeing my children regardless how contentious my relationship may be with their mom? I think that this is just an easy way out for many men, they say that they do it to avoid confrontation but honestly it feels like there are too many of them doing it to avoid taking responsibility.

  • Jesse

    February 5th, 2018 at 6:08 AM

    I have recently been offered a job which would require me to move away from my daughter, potentially not seeing her for months at a time. Is there any literature around the effects this can have on a toddler? I am concerned about the implications it may have for her and the way in which her mother may use it to her advantage, as we are separated already.

  • Abe

    January 22nd, 2020 at 10:14 AM

    I got what you intend, thankyou for posting.

  • Zachary

    February 6th, 2020 at 7:29 AM

    What you said about how one out of every three children does not live with their fathers was interesting to me. My biological father left me as well when I was a kid and has not attempted any contact ever since. I’m glad that this article talked about how a father’s intrinsic support does affect the child in some way as opposed to extrinsic support. Thank you for this article, I will share this with my mother.

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