CO-PARENTING AMONG NEW, UNMARRIED AFRICAN-AMERICAN FAMILIES
SEPTEMBER 19, 2014
New Study Reveals Positive Coparenting Exchanges Common Among New Unmarried African American Fathers and Mothers With Their Babies
Over 80% of first-time, lower socioeconomic unmarried African American parents who take part in a prenatal intervention devoted to helping mothers and fathers build a strong coparenting alliance for the baby show signs of positive coparenting during triadic interactions with their new baby, according to a new report published today in the Infant Mental Health Journal. The research article, “Observed Coparenting and Triadic Dynamics in African American Fragile Families at 3 Months Post-partum,” is the first study to ever systematically observe and describe mother-father-baby interactions in so-called “fragile families” during the early post-partum months. It provides important insights into budding family strengths in an increasingly-growing segment of U.S. families categorized as “single parent families” by census definitions and often characterized in terms of deficits.
In the report, authored by James McHale, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Family Study Center at USF St. Petersburg and Erica Coates, a graduate student at USF Tampa, 19 sets of new parents took part in a play assessment 3 months after the baby was born. In 53% of the participating families the parents were coresidential, and in 47% parents reported living apart. Whether co-residential or not, both parents were present for the 3-month sessions, as was the baby. During the assessment, parents and baby were video-recorded as they completed a standardized play interaction called the “Lausanne Trilogue Play” or LTP. The adults and the baby sat facing each other in a triangular configuration, with the baby in a specially constructed infant chair positioned at chest height for the parents. This enabled the baby to be a full and interactive partner with the parents as they played. The LTP has 4 parts: (a) first one parent plays with baby, while the other parent is just present; (b) the parents switch roles; (c) all 3 family members play together: (d) The parents interact together and the baby is “just present.” Parents got to decide when to transition from one Part to the next. Parents interactions during the LTP provide important glimpses into coparenting dynamics such as cooperation, warmth, sensitivity, conflict, and withdrawal.
Analyses of video records of the interactions revealed that in 16 of the 19 families (84%), parents displayed moderate to high levels of cooperation, warmth and/or sensitivity, as ascertained on the Coparenting and Family Rating System (CFRS), a widely used rating system that evaluates coparenting dynamics in diverse family systems. Moreover, in nine of the 19 families, not only were ratings signifying coparenting collaboration and connection high, but ratings signifying coparenting challenges and strains were low. Of the remaining 7 families also exhibiting moderate levels of cooperation, warmth and/or sensitivity, the families did show some signs of strain, in the form of competition, disengagement, or both. Such families were of special interest in that they revealed some level of coparenting and family strength providing at least some balance for the evident signs of coparenting strain and challenge. Of particular significance, highly positive coparenting alliances were no more likely among residential than non-residential families; several families were managing to coparent successfully across different domiciles.
The project giving rise to the report, “Figuring It Out for the Child: Coparenting Alliances Among Expectant Unmarried African American Parents,” was sponsored by the Brady Education Foundation, whose mission is closing the achievement gap for children at risk for poor school outcomes due to environmental factors associated with living in poverty. Principal Investigator McHale, Co-Investigator Vikki Gaskin-Butler from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and Gypsy Gallardo, publisher of the Power Broker magazine, advised by over a dozen African American community leaders and stakeholders in Pinellas County, Florida, authored, reviewed and adjusted the Figuring It Out for the Child (FIOC)curriculum so that it spoke to the realities of African American families in the community. FIOC implemented core principles of the Focused Coparenting Consultation model introduced by McHale and Karina Irace. It was well-received by participant families; 71% of families recruited into the study completed the entire 7-session intervention and 100% rated their experience positively.
“The number of births to unmarried parents has been rising in every racial and ethnic group in the United States,” said McHale. “We need to learn more about the family patterns and adaptations of this vital segment of our population. The term “fragile families” is one we inherited from the research literature concerned with the adjustment of unmarried families with young children. But the word fragile didn’t really speak to so much of what we saw. Our experience was that all the men and women we worked with were not only motivated to do best by their children, but worked diligently to successfully complete the prenatal intervention. The nature of the interactions we observed between parents and babies indicated that most children were having experiences of warm, supportive, and positive exchanges between their parents in their family triangle.”