Father’s Day is quickly approaching. Even in the 21st century, far too many children living in reconstructed families are suffering from being separated from their fathers or not reaping the rewards of shared parenting.
What do most divorced dads want this Father’s Day? My guess is more time with their children. As the numbers of single dads continue to grow, so does their presence in the lives of their children. Currently, there are about 1.8 million single fathers in the United States – a 27 percent jump in the past decade, according to the latest census. I believe that the vast majority of mothers want their children to maintain a close bond with their fathers post-divorce but may struggle with how to help them navigate this relationship.
In fact, I recently received this message on Twitter: “Please write a blog to help me support my daughter in healing her relationship with her dad after our divorce.” This sensitive mom knows what several studies have shown: The “loss of a parent” is the most harmful consequence of parental divorce. Most often the “lost parent” is the dad.
My blog “The Forever Dad: Shattering the Myth of the Self-Centered Dad” struck a nerve with many readers on Huffington Post. One dad wrote: “The bias against fathers in the courts and in the media are incredible. The cultural norm of the mother knows best and is the most important person in the child’s life has to be uprooted. As a father going through a divorce myself with two young boys, the most frustrating part of the process has been trying to overcome gender bias on every level, from my lawyer (fired), to the Custody Investigator, to the judge.”
Men’s roles have changed radically in recent years. According to author Grant Brown, father’s involvement with their children has been on the rise for a couple of generations. He writes, “Whereas stay-at-home dads were unheard of 100 years ago, today they are not uncommon. Among dual-income families, fathers now undertake virtually the same number of hours of hand-on childcare as mothers.”
However, we don’t necessarily embrace the idea of men being an equal partner in divorce even though we applaud them for being an equal partner in marriage, posits author Vicki Larson. She writes, “The divorced dad who shows up for his kids in meaningful and obvious ways, such as taking a daughter to a midday, midweek dance class, is still considered odd.”
What’s in the best interest of children after divorce? Dr. Joan Kelly, a renowned psychologist and parenting researcher confirms that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have equal access to both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. Clearly, the literature demonstrates numerous benefits to children when their living arrangements enable supportive and loving fathers to be actively involved in their lives on a regular basis, including overnights.
Studies show that conflict is what creates the most pain and anguish for children after parents’ split, and that keeping parental disagreements to a minimum is a key aspect of helping kids become resilient. There is evidence that shared parenting actually reduces conflict between divorced parents – which has a beneficial impact on children into adulthood. Scheduling appropriate parenting time for both parent’s post-divorce and keeping lines of communication positive can be a challenge but it’s paramount to building resiliency in your children. Psychologist Robert Bauserman’s study showed that joint custody couples reported less conflict than sole custody ones, possibly because both parents could participate in their children’s lives equally.
There are many compelling reasons for moms to foster a strong father-daughter bond after their family dissolves. Unfortunately, a daughter’s relationship with her father is often the one that changes the most after divorce. Dr. Linda Nielsen, a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships, found that girls tend to spend more time with their mothers (and less time with their dad) after their parents’ split. In her extensive research, Dr. Nielsen found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of joint custody post-divorce.
Why is the father-daughter relationship so vulnerable to disruption after a parents’ divorce? Many experts point to the importance of moms playing the role of gatekeepers. According to Eileen Coen, J.D., “When trust in a marriage is lost, fathers often see the gates closed to them.”
Whenever possible, mothers need to encourage their daughters to sustain a close connection with their dads – through phone calls, regular contact, holiday time, and special occasions – to promote a loving attachment that endures through rough patches.
Here are 5 reasons for moms to support their daughter’s relationship with her dad:
- Your daughter will gain trust in both parents and feel more confident about her relationships with both of you.
- You will build trust in your ex’s ability to effectively parent your daughter.
- You may enjoy the benefit of more relaxed leisure time – since your daughter will be spending more time with her dad.
- Your daughter may have better access to extended family and possibly more intergenerational support.
- Your daughter’s bond with her father will reduce the risk of low-self-esteem and trust issues in intimate relationships throughout her life.
Recent research on the brain demonstrates that females are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress and are more likely to remember the details of the stressful events or negative stories than males are. Daughters, in particular, may find themselves feeling emotionally upset by the news of their parents’ split. According to Louanne Brizendine M.D., women value emotional expression more than men do and their memory is stronger for stressful events – such as divorce – due to their amygdala (the oldest part of the brain) being more easily activated by emotional nuance.
When compared to sons, daughters of divorce may be more sensitive to disruption in a family. A recent British study of 5631 kids reported that a quarter of young girls with absent fathers grow into depressed teenagers if their father leaves before they are five years old, while controlling for a range of confounding factors. In this study, boys coped better with early parental separation than girls.
My research for my book Daughters of Divorce spanned over three years and was comprised of 326 interviews of young women who reflected upon their parents’ divorce. The most common themes that emerged from these interviews were low self-esteem, trust issues, and a wound in the father-daughter relationship. My previous study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage concluded that lack of access to both parents and high conflict between them contributed to low self-esteem in young women raised in divorced homes compared to those raised in intact homes.
There’s no denying that a woman’s relationship with her father is one of the most crucial in her life. The quality of that connection – good, damaged, or otherwise – powerfully impacts daughters in a multiple of ways. A father’s effect on his daughter’s psychological well-being and identity is far-reaching. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close bond with her father.
By Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW movingpastdivorce.com