Two of the most potent factors that influence children's postdivorce adjustment are exposure to interparental conflict and quality of parenting (Amato & Keith, 1991; Kelly & Emery, 2003). Understanding the impact of conflict and parenting on children's well-being is complicated because they are interrelated in complex ways. For example, conflict may influence parenting, and the relations between parenting and children's well-being may be influenced by the level of conflict between parents. One of the goals of this article is to disentangle the separate and interactive effects of parenting and conflict on the well-being of children who are experiencing the divorce of their parents. This research has important implications for how the courts respond to issues brought before them. In developing a postdivorce parenting plan, divorcing parents need to negotiate the level of contact that each will have with the child, and decisions concerning a parenting plan need to be informed by research concerning the effects of maternal and paternal parenting on children's well-being. Negotiating a parenting plan that is in the best interest of the child is particularly difficult under conditions where there is a high level of conflict between the parents. There is currently little empirical research to inform our understanding of what the impact is of parenting, by both the mother and the father, on the children's well-being in divorcing families where there is a high level of ongoing conflict.
EVIDENCE CONCERNING THE INTERRELATIONS BETWEEN FATHER AND MOTHER PARENTING, CONFLICT, AND CHILDREN'S WELL-BEING
Research over the past two decades has increasingly recognized the complexity of the issues in studying the effects of parenting, interparental conflict, and children's well-being following divorce. Both parenting and conflict are complex, multidimensional constructs. Furthermore, they are dynamically interrelated so that conflict and parenting can influence each other, and the effect of each on children's well-being may differ as a function of the level of the other. However, progress has been made in studying these complicated issues, so that findings are beginning to emerge to inform court and family decision making.
HIGH-QUALITY PARENTING BY BOTH THE MOTHER AND THE FATHER IS RELATED TO POSITIVE WELL-BEING OF CHILDREN
High-quality parenting is conceptualized as including both a high level of affectively positive, affirming parent–child interactions, in which the parent is responsive to the needs of the child, and a high level of effective discipline, in which the child knows the rules, and they are consistently and fairly enforced (Baumrind, 1991). In the years following divorce, the stressors on the parents often lead to a decrement in the quality of parenting, which is associated with increased strain in parent–child relations and higher levels of child problems (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999). Considerable research has demonstrated, however, that high-quality parenting from the custodial mother is associated with better postdivorce child well-being and helps protect children from the stress of divorce (Hetherington, Bridges, & Insabella, 1998; Amato & Keith, 1991). Furthermore, recent research has demonstrated that the quality of mother–child relationships can be improved by relatively brief parenting programs, with positive and dramatic effects to improve children's long-term, postdivorce well-being (Sandler, Wolchik, Winslow, & Schenck, 2006). Illustratively, Wolchik et al. (2002) demonstrated that the New Beginnings Program, which was designed to strengthen parenting by the custodial mother, was effective in reducing the rates of diagnosed mental disorder, substance use, and high-risk sexual behavior and in improving self-esteem and grade point average of children of divorce six years after program participation (Wolchik et al., 2002; Wolchik, Sandler, Weiss, & Winslow, in press). Tein et al. (2004) found that the positive effects of the New Beginnings Program on children's mental health problems was mediated through the changes it brought about in the quality of parenting by the custodial mother.
Research regarding the effects of nonresidential fathers on child well-being has focused on three aspects of father parenting: quantity of contact, payment of child support, and quality of the relationship. Early research on the effects of fathers on children following divorce primarily addressed two aspects of fathering: frequency of contact between the nonresidential father and children and the payment of child support. The studies failed to provide consistent evidence for a positive relationship between frequency of father–child contact and children's well-being (Amato, 1993; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994), but did find that payment of child support was associated with children's well-being (King, 1994). More recently, it has become clear that, similar to the findings for mothers, quality of fathers’ relationships with their children following divorce is positively related to children's well-being. The quality of the relationship is conceptualized, similarly as it is for mothers, to include positive involvement in the children's activities (e.g., homework and school), strength of the emotional tie between parent and child (e.g., feelings of closeness and positive relationships), and authoritative parenting (e.g., effective discipline and positive affective relationships). Illustratively, Amato and Gilbreth (1999), in a meta-analysis of 63 studies, found that the dimensions of a father–child relationship, which involved feelings of closeness and authoritative parenting, were significantly related to the children's positive well-being (i.e., better academic success and fewer externalizing and internalizing problems) and that these positive benefits were found across gender and age of the children.
One limitation of many of the studies of the effects of postdivorce parenting on children is that they investigate the influence of mothers and fathers separately, without considering them in the context of the effects of the other parent. For example, it could be that the positive effects of fathers are due to their being in divorced families where there is a mother who has a positive relationship with the child. In a methodologically rigorous study, King and Sobolewski (2006) investigated the joint effects of parenting by mothers and fathers using a national sample of 453 families in which the children lived with their mother and there was a nonresidential father. They found that high-quality and responsive parenting on the part of fathers and mothers each had an independent relationship with lower child mental health problems, even when accounting for the quality of the relationship of the other parent. While extent of father contact had no direct relation to child well-being, it was strongly related to the quality of the father–child relationship, so that the contact had an indirect effect through its influence on the quality of relationship. They also studied children's well-being under the different conditions of having a positive relationship with one parent, both parents, or neither parent. Similar to other research (Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1991), children did most poorly when they did not have a close relationship with either parent. The presence of a positive relationship with either mother or father was associated with fewer mental health problems for children, as compared to not having a close relationship with either parent.
INTERPARENTAL CONFLICT FOLLOWING DIVORCE IS ASSOCIATED WITH POORER CHILD WELL-BEING
There is considerable evidence that exposure to interparental conflict is associated with higher levels of mental health problems for children (Davies & Cummings, 1994; Grych & Fincham, 1990). Conflict often increases in the period immediately following the separation and divorce, but decreases over time for many families (Hetherington, 1999; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). However, conflict persists over a prolonged period of time for approximately 8 to 12 percent of divorced families (King & Heard, 1999; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Postdivorce conflict is associated with poorer child adjustment, particularly when it places the child in the middle, through badmouthing of the other parent, carrying negative messages between the parents, and creating loyalty conflicts for children (Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 1991). Postdivorce conflict can also threaten the children's well-being indirectly by leading to a decrease in the quality of parenting by the custodial and noncustodial parent (Krishnakumur & Buehler, 2000; Fabricius & Luecken, 2007).
A critical issue that needs further study concerns the interrelations between conflict, parenting by the noncustodial father, and the well-being of children. Some research has indicated that the level of conflict affects the relations between father contact and child well-being. In low-conflict, divorced families, high father contact is associated with better child adjustment. Conversely, in high-conflict families, high contact with the noncustodial father has been found to relate to worse child adjustment (Amato & Rezac, 1994; Johnston, Kline, & Tschann, 1989). It is notable, however, that this research focused on father–child contact rather than the quality of the father–child relationship. Because the quality of a relationship between a noncustodial father and a child, rather than the quantity of contact, has been found to have the most robust positive effect on children, this is an important distinction. The lack of evidence concerning the effects of quality of noncustodial father–child relationships on children's well-being, under conditions of high conflict, is an important gap in our knowledge. It may be that a high-quality relationship with fathers is a positive resource for children when there is high conflict between the parents, just as it is when there is low conflict. On the other hand, it may be that, because of loyalty issues, the conflict between the parents mitigates the ability of the father to support the child, reducing the potential impact of a positive relationship between father and child.
QUESTIONS ADDRESSED BY THE CURRENT STUDY
The current study addresses two issues concerning the interrelations between the quality of parenting by custodial mothers and noncustodial fathers, interparental conflict, and the children's well-being following divorce. First, the study seeks to replicate the findings from King and Sobolewski (2006) concerning the independent and interactive relations between quality of parenting by custodial mothers and noncustodial fathers on children's well-being in a general sample of divorcing parents. The study differs from King and Sobolewski (2006) in that it includes only divorcing families early in the divorce process, while King and Sobolewski (2006) included both divorced and never-married families, where the father lived separate from the mother-headed household and where the separation occurred an average of 10 years prior. Thus, the current sample is more similar to the families that appear before the court in the process of divorce. The study also investigates the independent and interactive effects of parenting by custodial mothers and fathers and interparental conflict when considered simultaneously in the same model. More specifically, the study addresses the question of whether the effects of parenting by the noncustodial father and the custodial mother differ as a function of the level of conflict between the parents. Because the study focuses on several of the most robust factors that are believed to impact the well-being of children following divorce, it has significant implications to inform court policies and practices concerning divorcing families.