Aug 15, 2010

Fathers matter!

Most psychological research into parenting concentrates on the role of mothers but having a good relationship with one's father can also help people to cope better in later life. Researchers from California State University, Fullerton studied 912 people between the ages of 25 and 74. Over eight days they interviewed the participants about that day's experiences asking them about their mental state and any stressful events. The participants were also asked about the quality of their childhood relationships with their parents. The study found that more people were likely to say their childhood relationship was better with their mother than with their father; a difference that was more pronounced among men. People who had had a good relationship with their mother reported 3% less psychological distress compared to those who reported a poor relationship. Men who had had a good relationship with their father also reported less psychological distress but this effect was not as strong among women.

Researchers spoke to more than 900 men and women aged from 25 to 74 before reaching their conclusion.

Psychology Professor Melanie Mallers, of California State University-Fullerton, who led the research team, said: "Most studies on parenting focus on the relationship with the mother.
"But, as our study shows, fathers do play a unique and important role in the mental health of their children much later in life."

As part of the study, 912 adult men and women completed short daily telephone interviews about that day's experiences over an eight-day period.

The interviews focused on the participants' psychological and emotional distress - such as whether they were depressed, nervous, or sad - and if they had experienced any stressful events that day. These events were described as arguments, disagreements, work-related and family-related tensions and discrimination.

The participants also reported on the quality of their childhood relationships with their mother and father. For example, they answered questions such as: "How would you rate your relationship with your mother during the years when you were growing up?" and "How much time and attention did your mother give you when you needed it?"

The same questions were asked about fathers. The research took into account age, childhood and current family income, neuroticism and whether or not their parents were still alive.

Prof Mallers and her team found participants were more likely to say their childhood relationship with their mother was better than with their father, with more men reporting a better mother-child relationship than women.

People who reported they had a good mother-child relationship reported three per cent less psychological distress compared to those who reported a poor relationship.

Prof Mallers said: "I don't think these results are surprising, given that past research has shown mothers are often the primary care-giver and often the primary source of comfort.

"It got interesting when we examined the participants' relationship with their fathers and their daily emotional reaction to stress."

They also found that men who reported having a good relationship with their father during childhood were more likely to be less emotional when reacting to stressful events in their current daily lives than those who had a poor relationship. This was not found to be as common for the women in the study.

And Prof Mallers said the quality of mother and father relationships was significantly associated with how many stressful events the participants confronted on a daily basis. In other words, if they had a poor childhood relationship with both parents, they reported more stressful incidents over the eight-day study when compared to those who had a good relationship with their parents.

Prof Mallers said: "Perhaps having attentive and caring parents equips children with the experiences and skills necessary to more successfully navigate their relationships with other people throughout childhood and into adulthood."

She said it was difficult to come up with a concrete theory as to why men's relationship with their father had such an influence on their emotional reaction to stress, especially since this study included adults of all ages who were raised during very different eras in the United States.

Prof Mallers added: "The role of fathers has changed dramatically from the time the oldest participants were children.

"We do know that fathers have a unique style of interacting with their children, especially their sons.

"We need more research to help us uncover further influences of both mothers and fathers on the enduring emotional experiences of their children."

Prof Mallers presented the findings at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in San Diego.

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