Young Fathers And The Transition To Parenthood: An Interpersonal Analysis Of Paternal Outcomes

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Title

Adolescence And Beyond: Family Processes And Development.




The transition to parenthood is regarded as a critical developmental milestone, posing a number of new challenges associated with dramatic increases in responsibility, new demands for emotional attunement and stability, and profound shifts in the nature and parameters of intimacy. Indeed, many young couples report significant declines in marital satisfaction, directly related to the emotional and physical strain of caring for a newborn as well as diminished time and energy for romance (Lawrence et al., 2008). The typical difficulties of early parenthood usually are compensated for by a parent's psychological preparation for childrearing, a durable relationship between the coparents, and love for the child. Although most parents are able to manage temporary declines in relationship satisfaction by drawing on their interpersonal reserves, some couples become increasingly hostile and pervasively distressed. This problematic adjustment to parenthood can be particularly dire when it "spills over" onto the parent-child relationship (Katz & Gottman, 1996; Katz & Woodin, 2002; Kitzmann, 2000; Laurent et al., 2008; Margolin et al., 2001). Adolescent parents in general, and adolescent fathers in particular, are thought to be especially susceptible to coparenting relationship problems (Cabrera, Fagan, & Farrie, 2008; Fagan, Bernd & Whiteman, 2007). In addition to being more likely to have unstable relationships with their coparenting partners, young fathers are often psychologically unprepared for fatherhood and Interpersonally ill-equipped to provide the sort of nurturance and care that an infant needs. Despite having generally optimistic views of marriage before childbirth, less than 20% of adolescent coparenting couples are married when their child is born (Ryan, Manlove, & Moore, 2004). In addition, there is evidence that over time, committed romantic relationships between young parents tend to dissolve and young fathers become increasingly disengaged as parents, contributing to the high rates of impoverished children among households headed by single mothers (Carlson, McLanahan, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008). The social and public health concerns associated with the decline in stable two-parent families have generated some debate about how to support marriage or promote engaged parenthood among young fathers and their partners (Halford, Markman, & Scott, 2008). Concerns about the impact of unstable coparenting relations on child development have also led to an increased interest in young couples who are able to successfully navigate the transition to parenthood and surmount the significant risk factors that they encounter along the way. In regards to this last point, it is important to note that despite the well-documented risks associated with early parenthood, not all young fathers fail as relationship partners or as parents; some are in fact able to manage the frustration, anxiety, and demands that accompany the monumental responsibility of parenthood and maintain (or establish for the first time) positive relations with both their partners and children (Carlson & McLanahan, 2006; Fagan, Palkovitz, Roy & Farrie, 2009). In this chapter, we use an interpersonal framework to develop an understanding of how adolescent males manage the transition to parenthood, highlighting different pathways and outcomes that can emerge during this process. We employ complementary methods and analytic strategies to provide a comprehensive understanding of the development and functioning of young fathers. More specifically, a combination of observational and self-report data helps provide a broad perspective on interpersonal trends associated with the adjustment to parenthood, while interview-based narrative data from two young fathers help anchor these trends in the concrete life experiences of individuals.