Breaking through

 
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You say mum’s standing in the way, And all she wants is for you to pay.

Maybe that’s true, But what can I do?

I’m your daughter, And you’re supposed to be my father.

~from“Daddy Why”

by Heidi A Hopson

Your children need you. Never give up on them. Do everything you can to be significantly involved in their lives in a healthy and loving relationship, even if your marriage is over. And never ever disrespect the mother in front of the children—she is half their DNA. There is nothing the child can do about that.

Sadly, parental conflict is a negative predictor of child wellbeing. Statistics reported in the UK’s Daily Mail in 2013 make interesting reading about parents’ perceptions versus children’s perceptions. In answer to a survey asking divorced families how they’d fared, 75 per cent of the parents stated that their children coped. But 72 per cent of the children stated they did not cope at all. It was revealing that while 35 per cent of children said one parent had tried to turn the child against the other parent, only 8 per cent of parents admitted that they’d done so. Sadly, 25 per cent of the children surveyed stated they had not seen their father since the separation.

I see so many tragic stories of kids separated from parents. However the custodial parent must realise that it’s always the children who suffer. The poem (left) is just an example. In Australia, Parliament tried to alter this situation legally, ruling that the court must apply a presumption that it is in the child’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents, except in circumstances where there has been sexual abuse or violence. The idea was to encourage parents to co-operate in child-rearing in the hope that this would lead to less acrimonious disputes, which are spiritually and financially costly for all parties and affect a child’s right to know and love both Mum and Dad.

what’s so special about dads?

A father’s involvement, long term, in children’s lives is significant. Through my many years fostering children as well as my studies in psychology, I’ve come to believe that, as mothers are significant in their child’s lives through nurture, a father’s significance is through autonomy and competence. Let’s take a look at some of the research in psychology and family studies that suggests why this is the case.

dads get rough

Canadian psychologist Daniel Paquette proposed in an article on rough-and-tumble play that fathers have a tendency to excite, surprise and momentarily destabilise children. Fathers also tend to encourage children to take risks, while at the same time ensuring their safety. This permits children to learn to be braver in unfamiliar situations, as well as to stand up for themselves. This is in contrast to the mother-child attachment relationship, which is aimed at calming and comforting children in times of stress. Also to be considered is that father-child rough-and-tumble play encourages obedience and the development of competition skills in children. Obedience extends a child’s capability to be autonomous safely.

“Safely” can even extend to matters of life and death. Educational psychologist Jonathan Butner concluded in a study of diabetic children that a biological father is more likely than a mother to help a child develop confidence and competence in self-administering insulin.

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dads love daughters

Studies show that a daughter’s perception of her father’s unconditional regard is significantly related to her self-esteem, whereas her mother’s unconditional regard is only weakly related to self-esteem. A likely reason for this is that self-esteem is built on autonomy and not on nurture. So for a daughter to have a significant self-esteem she should have regular and meaningful contact with her father. Some experts reason that this only needs to be a significant male presence. However, family researcher Sandra Hofferth’s findings suggest that biological fathers tend to be warmer and to monitor their children more carefully than stepfathers or mothers’ boyfriends, with stepfathers tending to be more authoritarian, and boyfriends more permissive. (And then there are the sobering statistics highlighting the increased risk of child abuse perpetrated by stepfathers/boyfriends in comparison to biological fathers.)

There are also differences in the way daughters are affected by the loss of a father as opposed to sons. An interesting point is that girls are more likely to blame themselves for their parents’ problems. Girls are often particularly encouraged to maintain a close connection with family, whereas boys receive praise for being autonomous and establishing their own identities. It stands to reason that girls—who have emotionally invested in the life of the family—will be particularly crushed by a parental breakup. Child psychologist Ross Parke observed in 2002 that girls growing up in homes from which the father is absent display internalising behaviours—depression, withdrawal, anxiety and loneliness. Boys struggle too, of course, but their behaviours tend to be more externalised.

dads hurt too

There is also a danger for fathers in being separated from their children. They often experience continued conflict with their ex-spouse, which produces psychological distress, and, too often, eventual disengagement from their children. In Dunedin, New Zealand, a poverty study by psychologist Phil Silva showed that young men who experienced a stressful upbringing and had a history of conduct problems were more likely to become fathers at an early age but spend less time living with their children. Young fathers who lived apart from their children reported the most social and psychological difficulties as they confronted the challenges of adulthood.

the take-home message

A lot of these studies point in the same direction: fathers are particularly equipped to teach their children to make independent decisions—autonomy and competence. I would suggest that the best methodology would be to teach the child using small steps. Teach them about finance and values, as this prepares them for a bigger world. Unfortunately in today’s society most millennials state that their greatest influences come through their peer group rather than their parents. However studies still insist that Mum’s nurture and Dad’s competence training are still extremely significant long term.

If you are estranged from your children take a risk and do everything you can within the law to get in touch with them. They need you. It may take many attempts, but they will appreciate that you tried.

Patrick O’Neill has fathered six of his own kids, two step-kids and more than 30 foster children. He has qualifications in psychology and business management and lives on NSW’s Central Coast.