Dads contribute to the healthy development of their children in myriad ways. And a new study shows that even a father who bounces in and out of his daughter’s life is better than no father at all.
The presence of a “boomerang” father can mitigate the risk of depression in girls during adolescence, when their chance of developing a depressive disorder doubles, says family researcher Daphne Hernandez from the University of Houston. While Hernandez and her colleagues did not examine why this is, she speculates that even a part-time time dad lowers the stress level of their young daughters, perhaps by keeping a mother from bringing non-related men into the household.
“We have a tendency to categorize dads as present, absent, or as deadbeats,” says Hernandez, co-author of the study, recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. But there is a middle ground for daughters of fathers “who are not necessarily absent all the time and not necessarily present all the time.”
Tapping data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the researchers analyzed information about 3,366 mothers and 3,731 male and female children born before 1992. The information included the mother’s relationship history and status throughout her child’s adolescence.
For each child, the relationship between mother and biological father was classified in one of three categories:
- stable father, who lived with the child until he or she reached age 18;
- unstable and absent fathers, who left after living with the child or who never resided with the family;
- boomerang father, who came back to the home after living elsewhere.
The boomerang father is “not visiting, not staying for a day or two,” explains Hernandez. He lives with his children on a daily basis for some time. Exactly how long was not tracked by the researchers.
At age 18 or 19, the nearly 4,000 children—almost equal numbers of males and females—reported whether they had experienced any symptoms of depression and how severe their symptoms were. The frequency ranged from never experiencing symptoms to suffering on a daily basis.
Only among females did rates of depression correlate with the presence or absence of a father. Adolescent daughters of boomerang fathers showed fewer symptoms of depression than girls with unstable or absent fathers. Only 4.5 percent of those with boomerang fathers experienced symptoms of depression versus 4.69 percent of those with absent fathers.
Some dad time is better than no dad time, observes Hernandez. “You don't have to be in a married household for your child to benefit from a father,” she says. “All fathers matter.”
The daughters of boomerang fathers did as well as those with stable fathers, at least in regards to depression. That’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from having a full-time father. Plenty of research shows a father’s presence has multiple psychological benefits, such as inhibiting sexual promiscuity (especially among daughters), and protecting sons from behavioral problems, such as substance abuse and delinquency.
Although boomeranging is clearly a nontraditional parenting model, Hernandez believes it’s the choice to return to living with their kids that makes the difference: “In the end, those fathers are dedicated to the child.”
The researchers can’t say for sure how a father’s sometime presence protects his daughter from depression. It may create a bond between father and child that acts as a buffer against mental distress. Alternatively, it may keep strange men from entering the child’s life. A father bouncing in and out of the home leaves little room for the mother to develop other romantic relationships—or for a daughter to experience the stress of an ambiguous relationship to a mother’s new partner.