‘Boomerang’ dads boost daughters, not sons

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“Churning”—a cycle in which couples break up and get back together—is common among young adults, but happens with married and co-habiting couples well into middle age, too. And when dads come back, their daughters benefit.

A new study on these “boomerang fathers” finds that while dad’s return lowers the risk of depression in daughters, it has no effect on sons.

“This is good news for kids. We’re finding a new way that families might support their children. Even though the family has gone through some really bad times, having the dad come back has proven to be positive,” says Cassandra Dorius, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University.

“You can imagine the ups and downs these children go through. Research shows children often experience a range of problems when their parents’ relationship ends and the father moves out. What no one really knew was whether the father moving back in would make things better, or if the damage had already been done.

“We find that for girls, depression rates are significantly lower when dads move back in. And these ups and downs might just cancel each other out for boys.”

Fathers who come back

Researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and examined a sample of 3,366 women and 3,731 adolescents born between 1978 and 1992. They looked at children in all relationship transitions from birth to age 18 and then measured depression in early adulthood. About a third of the adolescents in the study had their biological father move out of the home. Of that number, 15 percent—or 5 percent of the total sample—had fathers return home.

In boomerang families, adolescents experienced an average of three parent relationship transitions. For example, dad leaving the home would count as one transition. Researchers found the total number of transitions did not change the risk for depression. A majority of boomerang fathers were living in the home at the time the child turned 18.

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“Although the relationship between the biological father and mother may be complex there is a commitment to the child by the boomerang father that creates a bond between father and child,” says Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor at the University of Houston and lead author of the study in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Researchers know that teenage girls are twice as likely to experience depression than boys their age, and that family stability during adolescence is crucial for child development. Identifying and limiting risks for depression increases the likelihood that adolescents will do better in school, have higher self-esteem and fewer behavioral problems, such as alcohol and substance abuse.

Four types of dads

In the study, researchers identified four categories (stable, unstable, not present, and boomerang) that described the biological father’s presence in the home. Most mothers in boomerang relationships were not married when their child was born. They also had lower levels of education and were more likely to live in poverty, compared to stable and unstable households.

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Researchers noted that there was no significant difference in depression levels between teens who lived with a boomerang father and those who lived with their biological father from birth to 18. While boomerang fathering causes disruptions and instability for the family, it also limits exposure to other men entering the house (59 percent of adolescents in boomerang households never lived with a stepfather or other father figure) who may not be as invested in the children.

“Men provide more time and money for their children when they are the biological dads, but they tend to give less after mothers move in with someone new. We think this may be what’s really driving these results,” Dorius says.

“Boomerang dads may be staying closer and providing more resources to their children, and their presence blocks other men from moving in, which may keep these resources higher for longer. This may be one of the key ways they help their children overcome the issues that arose with the disruptions, the reformations and instability.”

Source: Iowa State University