In a new study of Syrian refugee families with small children, fathers viewed themselves as highly involved parents; their wives often begged to differ.

The study, co-authored by Catherine Panter-Brick, the Bruce A. and Davi-Ellen Chabner Professor of Anthropology, Health, and Global Affairs at the Jackson School, found that this disagreement between spouses predicted significant deficits in their children’s social and emotional development even though the fathers’ actual level of parental involvement had no measurable effect on those outcomes.

The findings, which are published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, provide insight into how family dynamics affect child development during forced displacement.

In a departure from most studies on father involvement, which often rely solely on reports from the mothers, the researchers interviewed both fathers and mothers of children aged 4 to 8 years old. They also collected data on the parents’ and children’s mental health and the children’s social and emotional learning (SEL), an important indicator of the trajectory of physical, emotional, and cognitive development.

The study found that a father’s involvement, whether high or low, had no measurable effect on their children’s SEL outcomes. However, it also showed that disagreement between spouses over a father’s level of involvement is negatively associated with both the mother’s mental health and the child’s social and emotional learning. In families with the highest levels of disagreement, children’s SEL outcomes were 43% below levels observed in families where spouses agreed.

SEL helps young children better cope with life’s challenges, enhances their ability to learn effectively, and improves their readiness for school, Panter-Brick said.

It’s striking that when spouses disagree about a father’s level of involvement, you see significant shortfalls in the children’s social and emotional learning, while fathers’ actual involvement is unrelated to those outcomes,” said Panter-Brick, who also directs the Global Health Studies Program at Jackson. “It could be that disagreement signals poor communication and troubled family dynamics, which creates burdens for both children and mothers. It suggests that it’s very important that mothers and fathers be on the same page in how they divide caregiving.”

For the study, the researchers looked at 160 Syrian father-mother-child trios living in Amman and the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. They initially interviewed the full sample, collecting reports on father involvement from both spouses, and then conducted a second round of interviews approximately four months later with 106 of the families. In both rounds, the researchers assessed the family members’ mental health and the children’s SEL, including how children learn to handle their feelings, understand others, set goals, and make responsible decisions.

Overall, fathers rated themselves 13% more involved with their children than mothers reported them to be. Their reported level of involvement did not affect the child’s mental health or SEL. Where spouses disagreed about parental involvement, mothers reported lower well-being and more symptoms of depression. When spouses exhibited high levels of disagreement about parental involvement, children had lower SEL scores.

You can have very low levels of fatherly engagement with small children and still have a perfectly functional household,” Panter-Brick said. “It’s when you have a divergence of parenting expectations or poor-quality communication between mom and dad that it creates a strained family dynamic that negatively affects the child.”

The results suggest that helping parents negotiate caregiving interactions and responsive parenting could benefit children’s mental health and social emotional learning, the researchers concluded.

If couples were provided support in navigating their stressful interactions about caregiving or strengthening their communication with each other, it could improve their children’s development,” Panter-Brick said.

This story originally appeared in Yale News