Erin Pougnet, a doctoral candidate at Concordia University in Montreal and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, says the study involved 138 children and their parents, who were assessed by researchers in three separate sessions.
Children were evaluated between the ages of 3-5 and again at 9-13. They completed intelligence tests, while their mothers completed questionnaires on home environment and couple conflict.
School teachers were also recruited as observers of child behaviors outside home.
"Teachers were a somewhat more independent source of information than mothers, fathers or children themselves, because a father's absence can result in home conflict, maternal distress and child distress," Pougnet says in a statement.
"Fathers make important contributions in the development of their children's behavior and intelligence. Compared with other children with absentee dads, kids whose fathers were active parents in early and middle childhood had fewer behavior problems and higher intellectual abilities as they grew older -- even among socioeconomically at-risk families."
The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, finds girls to be most affected by absentee dads, although the researchers caution that paternal absence can foster other problems such as lack of support or discipline.
"Girls whose fathers were absent during their middle childhood had significantly higher levels of emotional problems at school than girls whose fathers were present," Pougnet says.