As I work longer with clients, it is clear that the parenting style that they were subjected to as a child is extremely important in determining how they see the world. This conditioning is often taken into adulthood and causes dysfunction in relationships and in life generally. The role both parents play is important but new research has shed light on the role of a father in child development. This is borne out by my own experience with my clients.
The image of the traditional father is not necessarily a warm and fuzzy one when it comes to parenting. Though times have changed, and an increasing number of fathers are more involved with their kids than ever before, the stereotypical role of the father remains that of the detached breadwinner. He is a symbol of strength and reliability, but not necessarily someone a child can turn to for warmth, comfort, and sensitivity.
While this separation of parenting roles has, for the most part, withstood the test of time (for better or worse), an increasing body of research is finding that fathers do indeed play an important role in their child’s lives. When a father chooses to be more involved, the benefits to his kids can be huge.
A new study has revealed that a child’s ability to achieve and nurture intimacy as an adult might be affected by how that person interacted with their father. Social researchers arrived at their findings by studying over 200 men and women between the ages of 22 and 32 who grew up under various familial conditions. By comparing the quality of their paternal interactions, they were able to identify a connection between having a father present in their lives and their intimate relationships as adults.
According to the findings, 82% of the subjects who had a fatherly presence reported involvement in intimate relationships, versus 62% for orphans and 60% for children of divorced parents. The orphans in the group had lost contact with their fathers between the ages of 6 and 12, as did the children of divorced parents. Specific guidelines were used to gauge the father and child relationship, while intimacy as adults was measured by closeness, sexual activity, and commitment with their adult partners.
The different groups experienced various levels of paternal contact, which were then tied to different levels of emotional connectedness. This in turn affected a person’s level of intimacy with their mates. So, when a person had a balanced relationship with their father, they tended to have a greater ability to form and maintain relationships, whereas a childhood marked by an absent father seemed to instill a stronger sense of negative emotions and distancing.
The authors noted that another possible consequence of absent fathers was a feeling of loss coupled with strong fears of abandonment. This, in turn, led to an avoidance of relationships as adults as well as difficulty in engaging in physical intimacy.
However, when orphans and children of divorced parents were in fact able to develop close relationships with their partners, they actually achieved a higher level of commitment, thus displaying an ability to overcome their emotional barriers.
In the end, the issue is a complex one, involving more than just a single explanation. However, the results of the study lend support to the notion that when a child grows up with both parents involved in their lives, everyone benefits: children have a balanced interaction with two adults, mothers get some much-needed help in raising their children, and fathers have the privilege of taking part in what is really the most important and rewarding (and maybe the most difficult) job they will ever have — being a dad.