In Part 1 of this blog I outlined some psychoanalytic ideas about the contribution a father makes to his daughter’s development. Here I am going to outline some of the research I have gathered on the impacts of father absence for children generally, and then specifically for a daughter. From the research it is clear there can be very significant deep emotional and psychological wounds from father absence. These can be worked with I suggest in longer-term psychotherapy rather than short-term counselling. The wounding and the healing I have seen in my own clinical practice with both male and female clients.
Wallerstein and Kelly’s (2004) 25yr longitudinal study of divorcing families starting in 1971 with 131 Californian children aged 3-18yrs when their parents divorced, found most of the children remained in contact with their fathers throughout their childhood but “children of all ages reached a conclusion that terrified them: personal relationships are unreliable” (p.359) and the central finding of the study was that parental divorce impacts detrimentally the capacity to love and be loved within a lasting, committed relationship (p.363).
Terwogt, Terwogt-Reijnders and Hekken (2002) found that in their research with Dutch people who do not know their biological father, identity problems develop. Emotional and psychological problems occur even with a substitute/social father. These authors identify problems with entering and maintaining close relationships, the feeling of not belonging, feelings of having little control over one’s life and problems with making decisions in life (p.258). Furthermore, the less information a person had about the genetic father, the more they were likely to fantasise about him and the more pronounced was the occurrence of identity problems.
Impact of absent father for daughters
The term ‘father hunger’ has been used by US psychoanalyst Herzog (2004) in relation to boys with physically or psychologically absent fathers, and by US clinical psychologist Margaret Maine in relation to girls. Maine (2013) says that father hunger is a “deep, persistent yearning that all children have for a close and loving relationship with their fathers” (p.61), which when unfulfilled, can lead to a variety of problems.
In their study with 9 adult daughters with absent fathers in Australia, East, Jackson and O’Brien (2007) found “the establishment of a father child bond is as important as the maternal child bond” (p.259) and that a “meaningful and fulfilling father-daughter relationship, was actively sought and desired” (p.259). Not having a strong bond with a father was a catalyst for emotional distress and pain.
Peyper, de Klerk and Spies (2015) found in their research into the experiences of daughters with emotionally absent fathers (11 White Afrikaans women aged 20-31yrs) that fathers influenced their view of other men, the women struggled to trust other people, suffered low self-esteem, did not reveal their true self and repressed emotions as well as sought father’s approval.
La Guardia, Nelson and Lertora (2014) say that the results of their study with 342 undergraduate females in southern US universities were consistent with previous studies that found girls from father absence homes experienced early menarche and were more prone to participate in sexual activity at a younger age placing them at risk of teenage pregnancy.
Nielson’s review of research on divorced fathers and their daughters (2011, p.78-9) says that “under-fathered” daughters are more likely not to do well academically, to engage in more anti-social behaviour, be arrested for breaking the law, have more self-image problems, abuse drugs and alcohol more and as teenagers and young adults, and have more emotional and psychological problems such as depression. Receiving too little fathering leads to more troubled and unstable romantic relationships later in life. Trusting and creating emotional intimacy with men can be problematic for young women. Fearing emotional intimacy, they may not communicate well with their boyfriends. Negotiating, compromising, controlling emotions and defusing anger can be more difficult [as Herzog found in his work with boys who had an absent father]. Daughters of divorced parents are more likely than a son to feel less trusting and less satisfied in romantic relationships given the disruption to the relationship with her male role model and a daughter is more likely than a son to feel unloved and rejected by the father.
Maine (2013), a Clinical Psychologist specialising in eating disorders, says absent fathers affect a girl’s sexual development, body image, self-esteem and identity. Maine argues that much of the work on eating disorders focuses on the mother-daughter relationship and how a mother passes down a complicated story of her body reflecting her interpersonal experiences, including those with men. Yet a daughter watches how her father and other important male figures react to women’s bodies and how they interact with her mother and other women. As such a girl’s emerging body image and sense of self is affected ultimately by her experiences with both parents (p.62).
Soth et al (1989) researched clinical notes in an adolescent psychiatric service in the US with young women who had a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, a term under dispute in contemporary times for being a misleading label that stigmatises and masks the nature of the problem it is supposed to address (Therapy Today, 2018, p7). Mothers of the young women in the service were themselves between 14-20yrs old when their daughter was born; fathers were absent from birth or left before the child was 4yrs old. The authors say that a father’s potential role during early years – to aid in the child’s separation from the mother and its individuation – helped to explain the development of many of the characteristics of the borderline personality disorder: unmodulated aggression, splitting and affective instability, as well as the symbiosis and the symbiotic battles which continued to be played out throughout the life span (p.340).
The father-daughter relationship is less written about than the father-son, but there is enough research to gain a picture of what this can be. The research on the absence of a connection between a father and his daughter highlights quite a range of negative emotional states and behaviours. It indicates wide ranging health and social implications of father absence and it seems that in the US at least, where there has been a lot of research on the topic, father absence is also a moral debate conflicting with conservative views of the family.
However, it is importance to bear in mind some caveats to these negative consequences of father absence. Biological father absence does not mean there is no social father present – stepfather, uncle, grandfather – who performs the paternal role to a child. Some researchers would argue that ongoing and vicious parental conflict is more detrimental to a child’s sense of itself and its future adult relationships than the absence of a relationship with a parental figure. How parents interact with each other is crucial for secure attachment, as is the innate personality and response of a child to its life circumstances. Additionally, the personality and resilience of the single parent is very significant, as this will be the fundamental relationship the child has, along with any sibling relationships and those in a wider family network.
Ultimately, there are many factors that contribute to an individual’s childhood experience that are also dependant on social and cultural contexts. If single parents are supported, not isolated, not stigmatised, this can mitigate the shame around being different from a perceived norm of the nuclear family.
Categories: Research on Fathers