When parents separate and fathers move out, children often experience long-term negative effects. But what happens when mom and dad get back together?
A new Iowa State University study looks at the implications of "boomerang dads", which are fathers who separate and then reunite with their children’s mothers. Researchers found a parental reconciliation benefits a daughter’s mental health, though not a son's.
"Girls are much more likely to be depressed, and so they might be more responsive to (their father's return) because one of the reasons they’re more depressed is because they tend to internalize a lot of the emotions from the relationships that they’re in," explains ISU human development researcher Cassandra Dorius, one of the study's authors.
And though boys don't appear to be harmed if their father and mother reunite, this doesn't ease the mental health burden that seems to be created when parents breakup and a dad leaves.
The research, published last week in the Journal of Marriage and Family, studies a national sample of more than 3,700 children born between 1978 and 1992 who lived with their mother at least 75 percent of the time.
Research shows that when either a mother or a father finds a new partner, paternal investment drops. But boomerang dads are more likely to continue investing time and resources, while also blocking the possibility of other men coming into their child's home.
Dorius says the findings were surprising since the original hypothesis was that boomerang fathering would create an unstable environment, which would negatively impact children.
"I have friends who are therapists who thought maybe...it will be worse for kids if the dad gets back with mom," says Dorius. "If parents want to get back together, they don't need to be nervous that they are going to be messing up their kids."
So while many families experience hardship, the findings suggest there are ways to mitigate instability.
Future research in this area may look at same-sex parenting and whether children at various ages respond differently to boomerang dads.