The Power of Stereotypes
As a psychologist and a father of two, I probably spend too much time thinking about the impact dads have on their children and how that role and relationship develops over time. This is not easy when western society, research, and the media are only just starting to focus on the importance of fatherhood and move away from gender stereotypes.
In truth, the concept of the ‘Father Daughter Gap’ is often routed in these parent stereotypes. For decades psychological research has emphasized the mother-child bond as the primary influence on a child’s development, and western media has supported this. Even in 2021 the BBC’s Motherland portrays dads as more focused on work and football, and the ‘stay at home dad’ is characterised as weak, insecure and always getting it wrong.
What this implies is that father’s are only there to play, have fun and dote on our children, but when serious parenting is required it is time for mums to take over, and because it doesn’t get more serious than managing adolescent daughters, this is often when father’s take a significant step back, and begin to devalue their contribution and buy into this male stereotype.
The Father Effect
The first important step is for all of us is to realise that the messages we are receiving from the media, culture, and government policy are simply wrong. The reality is that dads can have a powerful impact at every stage of their child’s life; from pre-birth right through to tween and teenage years and beyond. This is the Father Effect, and there is now extensive research looking particularly at how it can impact a child’s development. We now know that kids who grow up with a present, engaged dad are less likely to struggle at school, they tend to avoid high-risk behaviours, have healthy, stable relationships when they grow up, and endure fewer psychological problems throughout their lives.
Most studies suggest that, until children hit puberty, the Father Effect is roughly equal for boys and girls, those who are fortunate enough to have engaged Dads in their lives tend to excel. However, an engaged or absent father can really impact their daughter’s life through teens and into adulthood. Research has shown that daughters who had strong relationships with their fathers growing up (no matter their economic or educational background, race or religion) get better grades, go on to make more money, and are more emotionally resilient as adults.
The realisation of the Father Effect is extremely affirming as a dad, but I often find it very overwhelming! What does it mean to be an engaged father? In my work with families I simply describe this as those dads who behave warmly and interact meaningfully with their kids. This is not about time, the quantity of interaction doesn’t really benefit our children. It is the warm, high-quality, engaged parenting that relates to positive outcomes for our children. What is important here is, whether you are all living together, or you only see your child on the weekend, you can still have an extremely positive impact on your child’s development.
Maintaining the Dad-Daughter Connection
Despite all the science, I am fully aware that remaining engaged with any tween or teenager is one of the ultimate parenting challenges, and by no means easy. Even daughters and dads who enjoyed a close relationship during childhood can stumble at the onset of adolescence. So, what can help? Here are five tips I have shared with families:
1. Dads need to be honest with themselves
You need to start by noticing and acknowledging that you are backing off, and then try and work out why. Many fathers have talked to me about feeling powerless when trying to respond to the often rapid emotional, hormonal, and physical changes in their ‘little’ girls. Whether it is feeling unqualified in ‘growing up female”, on not managing the transition, many dads begin to feel the urge to shy away from their moody and suddenly standoffish daughters. However, avoidance is not the answer. Don’t forget that the little girl you love is still behind that eye-rolling tween. If you notice and know why you are creating distance, you can begin to make changes.
2. Be open about how this is new for both of you – communication is key
There is absolutely no reason that you can’t make these changes together as a team. Many of the dads I work with have benefitted from simply sitting their girls down and saying “I know you’re growing up, and you not a little girl anymore, so you might need different things from me, or I might need to change how I deal with stuff, but can we keeping working on this together?”. One dad even booked in monthly pizza nights for him and his daughter to have a check in conversation about how they were getting on.
What is important here is that you are validating your child’s experience and broadcasting that these changes are normal and don’t have to impact the core of your relationship, just how you manage it. Stepping back is just communicating that you don’t want to be a part of the next stage, and therefore your daughter will often spend more time with her mother, believing that this is what you want.
3. Let her take the lead when it comes to Father-Daughter time
To be clear here, I don’t mean taking the lead in suggesting some quality time, in fact it very important that dads continually offer this, even in the face of repeated knock backs! Your consistency will be noticed. So, seek out opportunities to talk to her one-on-one, but try to relate to her on her level. Chats in front of the TV or on the way to or from school are nice, but to really make a connection you need to get involved with the things your daughter is interested in. This could be as simple as listening to her favourite music together, having a show you watch with her, or a sport you do together. By doing this you’re communicating that you value her interests.
4. You can be there even when you truly won’t understand
From managing periods, to changing bra sizes, or an unhealthy obsession with a boyband, there will all be things we as dads can never completely appreciate or understand, and that is fine. In fact, own that. Being up front about it is much more helpful. If your daughter experiences something outside your expertise, don’t panic or withdraw.
Instead, show your support by doing what you can. If you daughter has period cramps, get a hot water bottle, or if she’s embarrassed about buying tampons, let her know that you’re not, and you’ll be happy to buy them for her (check the make and type, there is a lot of choice!). We know that girls are most likely going to talk to mum about bodily changes, but we can still communicate that what they are going through is normal and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
If your daughter faces social struggles, or difficulties in relationships don’t minimize or dismiss her feelings. Instead, listen, offer support (don’t problem solve!) and comfort her by letting her know that even though you haven’t been in her position, you take her seriously and you’re willing to listen anytime she needs you.
5. Mums need to support your relationship!
For many mothers I have worked with, ‘Daddy’s little girl’ growing up and finally wanting to do “girl stuff” with mum is a very exciting and heart-warming time and should obviously be embraced. But mothers, together or divorced, you play a key role. We need you to fight and challenge the stereotypes. Be open to your daughter talking to dad about relationships, and don’t respond with “that’s a mother job” if her dad has plucked up the courage to go tampon shopping. Work together to create a shared parenting experience. If nothing else, this will significantly benefit your daughter’s development.
Dr Oliver Sindall, Clinical Psychologist, specialising in child and adolescent mental health.