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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Working with Divorced Dads? Tell Them to Play the Long Game

Parental divorce is one of most common stressors experienced by school children and college students. Because parental divorce is not a variable that can be controlled, one of the most important tasks for researchers and educators is to develop strategies that help mitigate the stress that the divorce places on students, which can lead to lower academic and relational success. One of the most important factors for children is having parents who provide emotional and financial support after the legal divorce process is complete.  Unfortunately, the context of adversarial divorce proceedings often leads to a loss in emotional and financial connection between children and one parent – most often, the father.

In a recently published article from the Journal of Family Relations, we worked with Drs. Coleman and Ganong from the University of Missouri to study what happens to the father-child relationship post-divorce when the child no longer lives full time with the father.  

After conducting interviews with 33 young adults with divorced parents, we learned that for the majority of the sample, the divorce resulted in a poorer relationship with their fathers, often because their feelings of loss could not be overcome or parents created a context where seeing dad was stressful. However, for nearly all of those whose relationships got worse immediately post-divorce (often in adolescence), relationships improved in young adulthood. Why? Young adults said that either they or their fathers changed after they became adults. For most people in the study, that occurred when they moved out of their mothers’ homes and went to college. Many reported that their fathers started calling more, started providing more financially, and started treating them like an adult. Others felt that it was their own maturity that allowed them to see their father as a complex adult, or allowed them to adjust their expectations of their fathers, or simply develop a sense of obligation because “he’s still my dad.” Much more research is needed to test what relationship-building strategies work best – however, the literature is very clear that the more emotional and financial support provided from non-residential fathers to their children, the better. 

What can educators do?  

Help fathers by building bridges to their children. During the tumultuous time following divorce, fathers are often pushed away, but many are eager to engage in meaningful ways with their children. Educators should remember to: 

  • Include fathers in all communications about their children (good, bad, and neutral). Add their emails to class lists and follow up with them if only mom responds to requests from the school. 

  • Invite the father to volunteer at school or participate in events. This enables fathers to demonstrate their commitment to their kids by showing up.  

  • Provide fathers with opportunities to engage with their children at school. Visiting their fathers’ homes can be stressful for some children, so bringing fathers onto “their turf” may reduce some of this stress. 

Educators may also have conversations with non-residential fathers. If the quality of the father-child relationship does come up, our study provides some advice: 

  • Encourage fathers to acknowledge his children’s feelings during the divorce process. Help him to understand that the father-child relationship will likely get worse for some time but that there is potential for a stronger relationship in the future if fathers are emotionally and financially supportive.  

  • Encourage fathers to keep (or start) trying. Tell him to keep calling, keep showing up at games, keep providing financial and emotional support in any way he can.  

  • Once children are late adolescents or young adults, they want their academic and career choices respected. Encourage fathers to be the supportive adult peer they need and desire by becoming a mentor instead of making demands. 

Time is on the father’s side. In our study, even young adults with the worst current relationships with their fathers desired a closer relationship with them in the future. As Gwen (21), who was twelve during her parents’ divorce, notes, “When I was younger, I had an OK relationship with [my father],… [but our relationship] has gotten better because I understand where he’s coming from [and] I appreciate his friendship more than I did when I was younger.” Fathers in this situation should make investments of time and attention now, because our study shows that they will pay a significant dividend in the future. 

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