Parenting today is a minefield. Who’s influencing their young minds, which strangers are they getting close to, how is it all shaping their forming brain and self-esteem, are they developing a good work ethic, and are their interpersonal skills affected? These are just a few of the concerns that parents have about raising children around digital technology and social media.
Just two decades ago things were so different.
But that’s not the only change. Many couples parent and coparent differently now too; they expect more of themselves and each other.
For many, what makes a ‘good parenting team’ today looks very different to what they witnessed and experienced growing up.
And perhaps that’s what makes this new research even more important.
Coparenting research looking at mothers’ and fathers’ perspectives
Sarah J. Schoppe-Sullivan and fellow researchers from Ohio State University have found that how fathers view their coparenting relationship, compared with how mothers view it, alters how well-adjusted their child is, socially and behaviourally, at under 5 years old .
A sample of 2915 low-income and ethnically diverse couples was used to gather information about coparenting. At the beginning of the study in 2007, the majority of the couples were married (80.89%) whilst the rest were in a committed relationship (19.11%).
Two follow-ups were done at 12 months and 30 months (2010 for the latter) to establish the quality of coparenting and perspectives on one’s coparent, and to gather information on how well adjusted the parents rated their child to be.
Questions asked to determine coparenting quality
To determine the quality of their coparenting relationship, researchers gave the mother and the father a questionnaire 12 months after the study had begun. Interviews with fathers had been glaringly missing from previous research studies so this would shed a whole new light on child outcomes.
To glean aspects of cooperative coparenting, the parents individually reported their level of agreement with five statements using a 4-point scale of ‘Strongly Agree’, ‘Agree’, Disagree’ and ‘Strongly Disagree’. For example, ‘When I have to make rules for the child(ren), [spouse] backs me up’.
To determine coparenting disagreement, they individually rated the frequency with which they disagreed with their partners on five areas related to parenting using a 4-point scale of ‘Never’, ‘Hardly Ever’, ‘Sometimes’, and ‘Often’. For example, how often they had disagreements about ‘who does childcare tasks’.
Questions asked to determine parents’ psychological distress
The individual parents were asked to report how frequently, on a 4-point scale of ‘Often’ to ‘Never’, that they felt depressive or anxious feelings (e.g. hopeless, worthless, nervous) in the past month.
This would enable researchers to gauge the level of psychological distress each mother and father was individually experiencing to see how this, too, might affect coparenting and child adjustment.
Questions asked to determine how well adjusted their child was
Mothers and fathers also responded individually to questionnaires at the 30 months follow up to determine their child’s adjustment, socially and behaviourally at under 5 years old.
To do so they were given a questionnaire with nine items to be rated on a 3-point scale from ‘Very True’ to ‘True’. For example, questions about whether the child ‘Understands other people’s feelings’ and ‘Is helpful to others’.
They were also asked to rate their child’s behaviours on the same aforementioned 3-point scale to determine the child’s internalising and externalising behaviours.
Results of the coparenting study
The researchers found four coparenting patterns:
- mutual high-quality (43.4%),
- moderate-quality, mothers less positive (31.8%),
- moderate-quality, fathers less positive (15.9%),
- and low-quality, mothers less positive (8.9%).
So the mothers and fathers sometimes had similar perspectives on their relationship as coparents (like the ‘mutually high-quality’ coparenting couples) but sometimes one partner felt the coparenting relationship was better than their partner did (as per the latter three categories above).
Children were best socially and behaviourally adjusted when both parents felt the coparenting relationship was positive.
The children were also well adjusted when the coparenting relationship was moderately positive with mothers feeling less positive than the fathers, about the coparenting relationship.
Importantly, children who had the poorest social and behavioural adjustment, were those whose father was less positive about the coparenting relationship than the mother was, even though coparenting quality was moderate.
Wait. What? Let’s break that down
That’s a striking difference:
- Moderate quality coparenting with mothers less positive = child developed well.
- Moderate quality coparenting with fathers less positive = child fared the worst of all four groups!
That’s almost opposite ends of the spectrum for child outcomes. Well and worst child adjustment. And the only difference? Mothers were less positive (well adjusted) and fathers were less positive (worst adjusted).
Given there was also another category – low-quality, mothers less positive – this highlights that fathers’ perspectives about the coparenting relationship can be especially impactful on the child’s social and behavioural development.
Why is that?
The researchers don’t know but they do speculate about possible reasons such as maternal gatekeeping. I agree that this could be a factor and we’ll come back to this.
Additionally, as a relationships coach who helps people with their mental health and well-being, and their romantic relationships, here are other possible reasons that come to mind.
A) Assuming for a moment that the child’s primary caregiver is their mother, young children may be more sensitive to their father’s dissatisfaction or depressed moods due to being less close with their father than their mother, thus creating a lower sense of security with which to emotionally buffer the child from the father’s palpable unhappiness.
B) Again, assuming the mother is the child’s primary caregiver, the mother-child bond could be stronger and thus buffers the young child from being emotionally affected by the mother’s low moods.
C) Due to differences in male and female brains [2, 3, 4], perhaps fathers are more obvious about their unhappiness in front of their young, readily giving the child verbal and non-verbal cues about how miserable they are and/or how much animosity they have towards the child’s mother.
D) Again, due to neurological differences, maybe mothers are more thoughtful about hiding their discontent in front of their young for fear of the child perceptively noticing it.
Four factors to help you address your coparenting concerns
So let’s look at this in relation to you and your coparenting relationship.
1. Psychological distress
Are either of you experiencing any form of psychological distress?
The researchers found that, compared with the other groups, the fathers in the ‘fathers less positive’ group were more likely to be unmarried fathers and fathers with higher levels of psychological distress.
So whilst either parent’s psychological distress needs to be addressed, paternal psychological distress could signal to you that your child’s development is particularly at risk.
But do also pay attention to maternal psychological distress, which was most frequently found in the ‘low-quality, mothers less positive’ group. Regardless of whether this is a cause of, or the symptom of, the quality and/or perception of the coparenting relationship, it’s still something that can hinder the child’s development.
2. Maternal gatekeeping
Is maternal gatekeeping taking place?
One theory put forth by the researchers is that fathers in the ‘fathers less positive’ group may be experiencing more maternal gatekeeping.
Even when maternal gatekeeping is done with good intentions, the outcome can be problematic.
It is important to identify if maternal gatekeeping is occurring as a result of the mother trying to protect the child from the father’s psychological distress or if the father is experiencing psychological distress because of maternal gatekeeping, or both.
Also, is there another reason maternal gatekeeping is happening? For example:
- Maternal psychological distress due to other reasons?
- Or you’ve become competitive where one or both of you want to be the ‘better, more hardworking parent’?
- Or concerns that your child is not having his/her needs met by the father’s parenting style?
Either way, controlling the father’s relationship with his child could be hindering your child’s development, and also each of you as individuals, and also your relationship as a couple or ex-couple. And whilst the reasons may seem justified, a solution is still required.
3. Coparenting improvements
Are there any areas that you think that either you, or your partner, or both of you together, need to improve upon?
- showing a united front when disciplining;
- giving autonomy to one another as parents;
- showing appreciation for one another as coparents;
- improving your communication both in front of and away from the child’s view/hearing;
- being satisfied with the time you each spend with your child;
- managing finances relating to parenting, well?
And if so, what changes will you both agree to that will help you to create a high-quality coparenting relationship that you’re mutually happy with?
4. Relationship improvements
Remember that children are extremely sensitive to what they see, hear and feel around them. Are there any other things about your relationship that you need to improve?
What aspect of your relationship with one another is likely affecting your young child, whether you’ve previously given it much thought or not?
What would make you a happier couple, children aside? Or a happier ex-couple who are now friends, children aside?
How you coparent, matters
Prevention is always the best cure. Weed out any dissatisfaction and problems in your coparenting relationship as soon as you see them (potentially) developing. Use the questions above to help you.
And give yourselves and each other a pat on the back for raising well rounded children in this day and age. If you’re contributing to a better future for us all, then we appreciate it, and you should appreciate each other too.
1. Schoppe-Sullivan, S J., Wang, J., Yang, J., Kim, M., Zhang, Y., & Yoon, S H. (2023). Patterns of coparenting and young children’s social–emotional adjustment in low-income families. Child Development, 00, 1– 15. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13904
2. Goldman, B. (2017). ‘Two minds: The cognitive differences between men and women’, USA: Stanford Medicine Magazine. Available at: https://stanmed.stanford.edu/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different/
3. Kogler, L., Müller, V. I., Seidel, E. M., Boubela, R., Kalcher, K., Moser, E., Habel, U., Gur, R. C., Eickhoff, S. B., & Derntl, B. (2016). Sex differences in the functional connectivity of the amygdalae in association with cortisol. NeuroImage, 134, 410–423. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.03.064
4. Chen, Y. T., Huang, M. W., Hung, I. C., Lane, H. Y., & Hou, C. J. (2014). Right and left amygdalae activation in patients with major depression receiving antidepressant treatment, as revealed by fMRI. Behavioral and brain functions : Behavioral and Brain Functions, 10(1), 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/1744-9081-10-36
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