As Father’s Day approaches, Americans recognize and honor the contributions of the wonderful fathers and father figures who are loving, raising, and mentoring children across our country. A father’s role is truly irreplaceable, and a strong father-child bond has tremendous benefits that are long-lasting. While many recognize that this is true for young boys, the importance of father-daughter relationships should not be overlooked.

The Importance of Father-Daughter Relationships

Here are just some of the countless ways that having a strong, father-daughter bond positively impacts a daughter’s mental and emotional development:

Mental Health Benefits

For starters, research has repeatedly shown that the benefits of a positive father relationship on a daughter’s mental health are undeniable. In fact, the results of a recent study (2018) demonstrated that close ties with fathers help daughters overcome loneliness! Specifically, the Ohio State researchers asked nearly 700 families to keep a record of their parent-child interactions over a five-year period of time. Parents evaluated their relationships with their children when the kids were in first, third, fourth, and fifth grade, and the children were asked to rate their loneliness levels at each stage as well. As a result, the researchers found that young girls tended to report less loneliness as they went from first grade to fifth grade, but loneliness declined significantly faster among girls who had a closer relationship with their fathers. These results reiterated that fathers should nurture their relationships with their children, particularly their daughters. The researchers encouraged dads to, “Pay attention to their feelings, especially when they are sad or unhappy, and help them cope. Our results suggest it can really help daughters feel less lonely over time.”

Additionally, other studies have shown that young women who reported healthy relationships with their fathers were less likely to become clinically depressed or anxious. They were also less likely to develop eating disorders, body dysmorphia, or be dissatisfied with their appearance or body weight. Overall, they reported better emotional and mental health. In fact, there is a markedly strong link between the relationships daughters had with their dads growing up and the way they deal with stress as adults. For example, undergraduate women who had good relationships with their fathers were shown to have higher than average cortisol levels, which serve as a buffer against stress and the body’s reaction to it.

Relational Benefits

Another notable link in the chain of the impact of paternal relationships is that the daughters with reportedly low cortisol levels (who did not have a strong relationship with their fathers) were more likely than the higher cortisol study participants to describe their relationships with men in negative terms. In fact, a strong father-daughter relationship in childhood can actually impact a daughter’s romantic life in adulthood. It is often said that a girl’s father sets the standard for how she should be treated and what she should expect and tolerate in relationships later in life. According to the Institute for Family Studies, a girl who has a strong relationship with her father is less likely to experience a teen pregnancy and far less likely to become sexually active in her early teens. During the college years, these young women are more likely to turn to their romantic partners for emotional support and are less likely to be coerced into risky sexual behavior. As a result with the healthy relationships these daughters have developed with sex and dating,  they have more satisfying, long-lasting marriages.

Father Absence

As we have already discussed, a father has a major impact on childhood development. While we have mentioned just a few of the positive impacts of a strong bond of a father and daughter, the importance of father-daughter relationships is truly exemplified by the implications of its absence.

Impact

Unfortunately, one of the most commonly growing characteristics of today’s families is paternal absence. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 19.7 million children, more than 1 in 4, live without a father in the home. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. Consequently, there is a “father factor” in nearly all social issues facing America today. Although maternal absence does exist and can have a profound effect on the children involved, the absence of fathers has a greater occurrence and, arguably, a greater detriment. Not only does this negatively impact the household overall (for example, 47.6% of these families with children live way below the poverty line), but fatherlessness has adverse effects on children and youth that are multi-facetted. While the effects of poverty on children are many, studies repeatedly show that children without positive father figures in the home also suffer greatly. While in the womb, “Fathers’ attitudes regarding the pregnancy, fathers’ behaviors during the prenatal period, and the relationship between fathers and mothers… may indirectly influence risk for adverse birth outcomes.” In early childhood, studies show that school-aged children without good relationships with their fathers were more likely to experience depression or to exhibit disruptive behavior.  

Former President George W. Bush even addressed this issue specifically, stating:

“Over the past four decades, fatherlessness has emerged as one of our greatest social problems. We know that children who grow up with absent fathers can suffer lasting damage. They are more likely to end up in poverty or drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out of wedlock, or end up in prison. Fatherlessness is not the only cause of these things, but our nation must recognize it is an important factor.”

Former President Obama also echoed these sentiments in a speech given on Father’s Day, stating:

“But if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes… We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from the home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

Furthermore, Vincent J. Bove, a recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award and a national speaker and author, explored this idea in a journal published in the Epoch Times. He expressed what were “alarming concerns” based on data retrieved from the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Justice, and Centers for Disease Control. They reported that fatherless homes account for 90% of homeless children, 85% of childhood behavioral problems, 71% of high school dropouts, 63% of youth suicides, 50% of teen mothers, and 85% of incarcerated youth. Bove argued that because the family is a citizen’s primary source of education and socialization, the problem of absentee fathers must be addressed head on in order to build healthy communities.

Mitigating the Risks

What, then, can be done to combat these “alarming concerns”? Currently, there is a copious amount of social services available in the United States that provide assistance to single-parent households and their children. Such programs include: the Health and Human Services Agency, Center for Social Advocacy, Family Resource Centers, Community Health Services, Teen Centers, Volunteers of America, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and numerous other organizations. However, there seems to be a service gap in mentoring and life skills training programs for adolescents from female-headed, single parent households. While the existing social service agencies have proved to be effective in the short-term (and have even experienced some long-term success), more direct, intentional, micro-practice services are needed to create lasting change in the community at the macro-level.

A study recently published by the American Journal of Community Psychology (2015) focused on five research questions concerning “The Long-Term Economic Benefits of Natural Mentoring Relationships for Youth.” At the conclusion of the study, the researchers stated, “We did not find that the presence of natural mentors was associated with higher future earnings in general. Instead, only youth without a father figure who had a male mentor had higher earnings. Having a male mentor was also associated with higher earnings for fatherless youth compared to having no natural mentor at all, whereas the same was not true of female mentors.” The journal continues the discussion by explaining that there is enough probable evidence to conclude that male mentors provide fatherless youth with unique and valuable mentorships. For example, information about labor markets, job skills, career options, social values, family functioning, and buffers against environmental and societal risks can be provided by male mentors serving as proxies for absent fathers or, at the very least, mimickers of the content that would have been provided by them. As stated by the researchers themselves, “Their presence may provide fatherless youth with a positive male role model who can fulfill some of the roles left by the absent father, such as guidance in social settings (e.g., school), meaningful experiences that lead to educational and occupational mobility, and prevention of engagement in risky behaviors.”

Therefore, it would be beneficial for communities to draw on the results of these studies to create an effective bridge in the previously mentioned service gap for the target population. Youth from single-parent, female headed households would benefit greatly from a male mentorship or other programs that would focus primarily on instilling life skills. Overall, when children and teens have a strong relationship with their own fathers or a father figure, they experience better outcomes as a whole.

How You Can Help

  1. If you are a father, first make your relationship with your own children a priority! Find creative ways to spend time together. There are many ways for parents to bond with children. Even the simple, everyday moments mean so much! Just being present and available in the day-to-day speaks volumes. Be a dad who is involved. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, most commonly known as “fatherhood.gov”, has countless tips and activities for dads regarding parenting, being intentional with your kids, and truly being involved. You can also get connected with a fatherhood program for additional support. Responsible fatherhood programs exist all over the country!
  2. Do your best to be available to kids in your community that do not have a good relationship with a father figure at home. This can be your nieces and nephews kids at your church, on your child’s sports team, or even your kids’ best friends. Model what a healthy, safe, and strong father relationship looks like.
  3. If you’re not currently a dad, you can do the same! Volunteer in your community, become a mentor, get involved in foster care, coach a sports team, attend a father-daughter dance as a father figure, or connect kids in your life to positive male role models.
  4. Support single moms! Single parenthood is tough – working, paying bills, school drop offs, extracurricular activities, meal planning, grocery shopping, doctors appointments, love, nurturing – it all adds up! Bring a mom in your community a meal, offer to watch her kids for a night off, or run errands for her. Also, if the fathers of the children in your life are not around, resist the temptation to speak poorly of them. By speaking badly of one of the adults who helped create a child, the child often comes to believe there is something inherently wrong with them, too.
  5. Give what you can of your time, energy, resources, support, and finances to local and national organizations that support fatherhood programs and initiatives.

Overall, we all have a role to play in making sure that every child in our nation is loved, safe, nurtured, and cared for. This Father’s Day, whether you are a father through biology, foster care, adoption, guardianship, mentoring, leadership, influence, or love, we here at Children’s Bureau honor and celebrate you!