Date of Degree
Access restricted until 08/31/2020
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Noonan, Mary C
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
Most of the research on the relationship between family structure and childhood obesity and distress is limited in its conceptualization of family structure, either ignoring single-father families or bunching them in the same category as single-mother families. Although single-mother families are the most common type of one-parent families, the number of single-father families has increased dramatically over the past three decades and thus warrant study. In this study, I use data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class (ECLS-K) to answer three related questions: (1) Do children living in single-father families have different rates of obesity and externalizing and internalizing behaviors compared to children living in single-mother and two-parent families? (2) Are these differences, if they exist, explained by the type of environments parents create for their children through: (a) differences in time and financial resources between single-father, single-mother, and two-parent families? and/or (b) differences in levels of distress between single-father, single-mother, and two-parent families? (3) Do the health risks associated with living in a single-father family, compared to living in a single-mother or two-parent family, differ as children age? I add to the current literature by integrating the concepts of family structure, family resources, role stress, gender expectations, and parent-child relational dynamics. I focus on these dynamics within single-father families, and compare them to single-mother and two-parent families. Finally, I use semi-structured, in-depth interviews of single-fathers to supplement the survey results.
Results from this study demonstrate that, children living in single-parent families, compared to two-parent, married families have higher rates of obesity and a greater number of externalizing and internalizing behavior. In general, single parents have fewer family resources (i.e., time and money) and greater levels of stress and distress. Single fathers provide similar family environments for their children, overall, compared to two-parent families, but single mothers in general, provide "poorer" family environments, compared to two-parent families.
Children living with a single father, compared to those living with a single mother, have similar rates of obesity and experience similar numbers of externalizing and internalizing behavior. Single fathers earn more than single mothers, but they are less likely to be in the home part- or full-time, and in general, single fathers and single mothers experience similar levels of stress and distress. Finally, single fathers and single mothers provide similar family environments for their children, except in regards to the number of physical activities they let their children participate in.
Path analysis results demonstrate that parents' resources, stress and distress, and family environment do not appear to have a mediating effect on the relationship between family structure and children's obesity, once controlling for other family characteristics (i.e., parents' education and health, race, number of siblings, and region). Parents' resources, stress and distress, and family environment, however, all have a direct effect on children's rates of obesity and externalizing/internalizing behavior.
The path analyses show that parents' resources, distress, and parent/child closeness directly impact children's externalizing and internalizing behavior and act as significant mediators between family structure and children's emotional wellbeing, controlling for other family characteristics. However, these variables do not fully mediate the relationship between family structure and children's externalizing/internalizing behavior, and therefore, family structure still has a significant direct effect on children's emotional health. Furthermore, gender of the residential parent matters. For example, the magnitude of the direct effect of living with a single father is larger than the magnitude of the direct effect of living with a single mother for children's internalizing behavior at kindergarten and internalizing and externalizing behavior at third grade.
Further analysis demonstrates that children's physical and emotional wellbeing changes as they get older. Children's obesity rate increases from kindergarten to third grade for all family types. However, for children in single-father families, obesity rates then dramatically decrease from third to eighth grade. Children living with a single mother and married parents have stable obesity rates from third to eighth grade.
Changes in children's emotional wellbeing from kindergarten to eighth grade vary by family type. For example, children living with a single father, experience an increase in externalizing behavior from kindergarten to third grade, but then a decrease from third to eighth grade. Conversely, children living with a single mother or married parents experience an decrease in their externalizing behavior from kindergarten to third grade, but then an increase from third to eighth grade. The mediating effects of parents' resources, stress and distress, and family environment are fairly similar across waves.
Several themes emerged from the qualitative interviews of fathers' experiences as single parents. Five major themes are found: (1) Interactions and relationships with their children, (2) Process of gaining custody, (3) Obstacles faced as a single parent, (4) Nutrition and meals, and (5) Defining success as a parent. Overall, the single fathers interviewed for this study take their "father role" very seriously and are highly engaged with their children. They recognize that there are certain areas where they struggle, but overall they feel that they are very successful as single parents.
Several policy implications emerge from my study. First, the qualitative results can be useful to further educate family lawyers and judges handling custody cases. While the essence of the law regarding custody is what is "in the best interest of the child", bias still exists. The interviews included in this study demonstrate that single fathers worry about, and in some instances, experience discrimination in regards to custody decisions. Second, this study highlights the need for a greater focus on single-father families. Both the survey data and the interviews find that, while fathers tend to have greater family resources, compared to single mothers, they do not necessarily provide healthier family environments for their children. The role of organizations, and the health field in general, to educate "at risk" parents with information and provide/support programs to protect their children from increased risk for obesity and emotional distress is just one implication from this study.
Child wellbeing, Family, Single fathers
xv, 190 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 182-190).
Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Ann Turchi
Turchi, Jennifer Ann. "Single father families: the mediating role of parents' resources, stress and family environment on children's physical and emotional wellbeing." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2014.
Available for download on Monday, August 31, 2020