How involved fathers improve the mental health of their daughters

I found this article in Scientific American via tweet from Stand to Reason.

Excerpt:

In a series of studies beginning in 1999, he found that when girls had a warm relationship with their fathers and spent a lot of time with them in the first five to seven years of their lives, they had a reduced risk of early puberty, early initiation of sex and teen pregnancy. As Ellis continued this work, however, he became increasingly frustrated. Clearly, the association between fathers and daughters was profound. Yet he could not determine whether the parental behavior caused the consequences he was seeing in the daughters. An alternative was that girls who begin puberty early and engage in risky sexual behavior do so because they inherited certain genes from their parents. Fathers might pass on genes linked to infidelity to their daughters, in whom they could be associated with risky sexual behavior and early puberty. Or something else in the family’s environment could be responsible for the changes in their daughters.

Ellis came up with an innovative way to pose the question. He considered families in which divorced parents had two daughters separated by at least five years in age. When the parents divorced, the older sister would have had five more years with a father’s consistent presence than the younger sister. If father absence causes early puberty and risky behavior, then the younger daughter should show more of that behavior than her older sibling. Also, genes or the family’s environment would not confuse the results, because those would be the same for both daughters. It was close to a naturally occurring experiment, Ellis realized.

Ellis recruited families with two daughters. Some were families in which the parents divorced; others were intact, to be used as a control group. He wanted to answer two questions: Was the age at which girls had their first menstrual period affected by the length of time they spent with a father in the house? And did that age vary depending on how their fathers behaved? The second question was added because fathers with a history of violence, depression, drug abuse or incarceration can affect children’s development.

Ellis’s suspicions were confirmed. Younger sisters in divorced families had their first periods an average of 11 months earlier than their older sisters—but only in homes in which the men behaved badly as fathers. “We were surprised to get as big an effect as we did,” Ellis told me. The conclusion was that growing up with emotionally or physically distant fathers in early to middle childhood could be “a key life transition” that alters sexual development.

The next step Ellis took was to look at whether these circumstances could affect the involvement of girls in risky sexual behavior. This time he turned to Craigslist, a classified advertising Web site, and posted announcements in several cities that began, “SISTERS WANTED!” The criteria were very specific: he was looking for families with two sisters at least four years apart in age and currently between the ages of 18 and 36. He limited his search to families in which the birth parents separated or divorced when the younger sister was younger than 14 years. Ellis and his colleagues were able to recruit 101 pairs of sisters, some from families in which the parents had divorced and, using a different ad, some whose parents had not.

This time the researchers found that risky sexual behavior was not related to how long daughters lived with their fathers but to what the fathers did in the time they spent with their daughters. “Girls who grew up with a high-quality father—who spent more time as a high-investing father—showed the lowest level of risky sexual behavior,” Ellis said. “Their younger sisters, who had less time with him, tended to show the highest level of risky sexual behavior.”

And a bit later:

Ronald P. Rohner of the University of Connecticut has spent some years looking at the consequences for children and teenagers of being either accepted or rejected by their parents. He thinks that parental acceptance influences important aspects of personality. Children who are accepted by their parents are independent and emotionally stable, have strong self-esteem and hold a positive worldview. Those who feel they were rejected show the opposite—hostility, feelings of inadequacy, instability and a negative worldview.

Rohner analyzed data from 36 studies on parental acceptance and rejection and found that they supported his theory. Both maternal and paternal acceptance were associated with these personality characteristics: A father’s love and acceptance are, in this regard, at least as important as a mother’s love and acceptance. That is not necessarily good news for fathers—it increases the demands on them to get this right. “The great emphasis on mothers and mothering in America has led to an inappropriate tendency to blame mothers for children’s behavior problems and maladjustment when, in fact, fathers are often more implicated than mothers in the development of problems such as these,” Rohner says.

Empathy is another characteristic that we hope teenagers will develop, and fathers seem to have a surprisingly important role here, too. Richard Koestner, a psychologist at McGill University, looked back at 75 men and women who had been part of a study at Yale University in the 1950s, when they were children. When Koestner and his colleagues examined all the factors in the children’s lives that might have affected how empathetic they became as adults, one factor dwarfed all others—how much time their fathers spent with them. “We were amazed to find that how affectionate parents were with their children made no difference in empathy,” Koestner says. “And we were astounded at how strong the father’s influence was.”

Melanie Horn Mallers, a psychologist at California State University, Fullerton, also found that sons who have fond memories of their fathers were more able to handle the day-to-day stresses of adulthood. Around the same time, a team at the University of Toronto put adults in a functional MRI scanner to assess their reactions to their parents’ faces. Mothers’ faces elicited more activity in several parts of the brain, including some associated with face processing. The faces of fathers, in contrast, elicited activity in the caudate, a structure associated with feelings of love.

So how do we avoid damaging our children? Well, we choose to have sex with people who are capable of long-term stability and commitment. And how do we do that? We test them before we have sex with them.

My approach to dating and courting has always been an engineer’s approach. A project manager’s approach. I am used to working with teams to deliver bug-free software that will exist in an enterprise environment. There, the software will have to survive unexpected disasters, peak usage and other challenges. If we are serious about avoiding harm to children, we should drop emotional/spiritual approaches to dating and courtship and stick with interview questions and performing tasks (tests). Marriage should be like software engineering projects – at least we know how to deliver quality software on time and on budget. The lazy, emotional hedonistic approach doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in relationships. It doesn’t work in engineering.

5 thoughts on “How involved fathers improve the mental health of their daughters”

  1. Also from the article:

    “When a girl’s family is disrupted, and her father leaves or is not close to her, she sees her future: men don’t stay for long, and her partner might not stick around either. So finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she is ready to have children, the better. She cannot consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously. “This would help facilitate what we call, in evolutionary sciences, a faster reproductive strategy,” Hill said.

    In contrast, a girl who grows up in a family in which the bond between her parents is more secure and who has a father who lives in the home might well (subconsciously) adopt a slower reproductive strategy. She might conclude that she can take a bit more time to start having children. She can be more thorough in her preparation.”

    Playing right to your point about wisely choosing a mate.

    I would like to have a better understanding of what they mean by “parental acceptance” and just how far that goes. Children—humans—actually want and need boundaries, something else my child psych prof drilled into us. Without them a child feels not only adrift but completely exposed, and the ramifications—well. Look at the children of very permissive parents and you see all you need to, sadly.

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