Sons damaged by fathers behaving badly

Catherine Hepworth examines the psychological effects of bad paternal care on inner-city boys
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The Independent Online
Studies of "psychological disorders" in boys have focused almost exclusively on mothers' care and so have resulted in widespread blaming of mothers, especially single mothers. I wanted to find out if fathers' care was important; in particular, whether having a neglectful, hostile or abusive father in the home, or an uninvolved, unreliable absent father, made a difference to a boy's behaviour. I presented my findings to the British Psychological Society's annual meeting yesterday.

For boys, it seems that a bad father is worse than no father. In my study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, I talked to a group of 99 young men about the quality of care that their fathers provided throughout their childhood and adolescence. The young men, in their late teens and early twenties, were from inner-city Islington, in north London. What emerged was that those who had poor care from their father - either when he was present in the home or absent following divorce - were more likely to develop behaviour problems in their teens than those who had had good paternal care.

Poor paternal care from present fathers was experienced by around a quarter of the young men I saw. Typical recollections described a father who was never there, a distant figure uninvolved in his son's life, his schooling, his friends, his interests and his general welfare. Some fathers, when they were around, were hostile, rejecting and physically violent.

Experiences such as these often led to high rates of chronic behaviour problems in adolescence, such as truancy, theft, aggression and disruptiveness at school - seen in almost half of those with poor paternal care, in contrast to only a fifth of boys who had good paternal care.

The young men also discussed relationships with fathers who had left following divorce. Half of them had experienced family breakdown and all of them stayed with their mothers.

Around a third of father-son relationships ended completely after divorce and their fathers were never seen again. There was some indication that this was more likely to happen if the boy was very young at the time of the divorce and where mothers had remarried.

Contact sometimes ended for very good reasons, especially where the separation was caused by the father's violence to the mother. Boys with such memories quite understandably expressed anger, and fierce loyalty to their mother. One son commented: "I don't want nothing to do with him. I changed my surname because I don't want him to find me."

I was surprised to find that boys with no relationship at all with their absent father were not more disadvantaged than those whose father had maintained good, regular and reliable contact. In both these groups, around one fifth developed behaviour problems. Mothers certainly compensated for the lack of a father in many cases and in their sons' eyes had done a good job of bringing them up alone.

In contrast, those who had a poor relationship with their father after divorce were more than twice as likely to develop behaviour problems. Poor relationships were described in terms of their father's unreliability in turning up for arranged visits or forgetting birthdays and Christmas presents. More than half of the boys with these experiences had behaviour problems in their teens.

The research puts fathers in the picture. The research suggests that poor-quality father-son relationships are more damaging than being brought up only by a single mother. A disrupted, chaotic paternal presence after divorce fails to provide the security that boys need to avoid the problems of adolescence. Fathers should be made more generally aware of the importance of their role as parents, and those who have not been violent to their families may need support to maintain a positive involvement with children after divorce. Good parental care is the key to healthy adolescent development, rather than who or how many parents provide that care.

The writer is senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Westminster.