If a father provides loving affection – scientists predict – his girl will grow up to be more successful and smarter, and also less anxious, less promiscuous, and less likely to use drugs. From their early years, girls look to their fathers for love, admiration and reassurance. A father’s responses significantly impact his daughter’s ability to trust and weave positive relationships with other men.
Scientists also report that a daughter’s level of self-esteem is strongly influenced by her relationship with her dad.
So, what happens with aloof or absent fathers? Or when daddy becomes over-involved?
Attachment to father
While having lunch in a restaurant, I overheard an interaction between a father, a mother and a little girl. The mother was trying to spoon-feed her daughter some mac-and-cheese.
“Not you,” the little brat shouted, embracing and pulling the plate away with her two little arms, and turning to command her father, “Daddy, do it!”
The mother crossed her arms in front of her chest and leaned back, disappointment showing in her eyes, when the father submissively and adoringly started to feed the girl.
We’re probably all familiar with scenes like this. Between ages three and seven, girls naturally relinquish their attachment to the mother and want to marry a daddy – turned into handsome prince.
Comparable to the Oedipus complex described by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the Electra complex (term coined by Carl Jung and rejected by Freud who preferred to use “feminine Oedipus attitude”) is used to describe girls’ competition with the mother for the affection of the father.
It’s part of a normal stage in all girls’ development, psychoanalysis says. But normal development has been disturbed by changing family configurations, with more divorcees than ever (45 to 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce), leading to increased single-parent homes (27 percent of children live with one parent, according to the 2010 census), and blended families.
Whether the Oedipal complex really exists is a matter of debate among scholars, but what seems clear is that girls’ attachment to her parents is determined by cultural and situational factors. And the quality of such attachments shapes girls’ personality and outcomes.
Ideally, the father should have given the girl a clear directive like: “You don’t give orders to your father,” or “You ought to be kind to your mother.”
Without forcing the situation too much, the “order” would have been restored and the girl could have learned that mother and father partner in an educational enterprise that comprises respect and boundaries.
However, this father seemed subjugated by the child and distant from his wife. Some men mistakenly believe their wives should see and treat them the way their daughters do, as “perfect heroes.” They obey and please their girls in order not to lose their reverence.
Early experiences mark our lives. Rejection, abandonment and betrayal in our childhood might drive us into a lifelong quest to heal our wounds. However, parenting deficiencies also make a score.
For different reasons, spanning from being the divorced parent who doesn’t live with the child to being dissatisfied with their partners, men can get overly-involved in their girls’ life.
If overprotective and permissive, they create a situation that can spell serious psychological trouble for their girls.
“Una hija de papi,” as sometimes we call a daddy’s girl, is sheltered from danger – real or perceived – but her independence will be hampered. This girl, with little tolerance for frustration, grows up knowing that daddy will provide her with whatever she wants and that, no matter what, she’ll be innocent in daddy’s eyes. She learns to take advantage of the situation and develops risky behaviors and a dramatic slant. Eventually, she will not pay the consequences of irresponsible behavior and will get her whims satisfied.
Interestingly enough, a spoiled girl may also become ingrained into a male-dominated society, learning to tolerate oppression. She will seem to play by the rules, and use her charms to seduce men and get things her way.
Daddy’s girls paradoxically end up having long-term and seemingly successful relationships with men who resemble their fathers. They play by patriarchal rules but sacrifice independence.
Abusive or absent fathers
In the case of girls who didn’t have a close and loving relationship with daddy, the void makes them expect male partners to satisfy their unfulfilled emotional needs, but what they do or give is never enough.
While a girl growing up with an absent father might look for fatherly figures elsewhere, an abusive father wounds the girl’s life permanently.
It’s not uncommon for traumatized people to compulsively seek situations that resemble the original traumas. A completely absent, aloof, abusive or unreliable father makes a girl grow up seeking resolution for her pain. She might cling to her mate, unconsciously seek abusive partners or isolate out of fear of entering another painful relationship. This is partly due to an unconscious effort to find resolution, but also because we’re attracted to what is familiar.
Among Hispanics, for example, it’s not infrequent to see women marrying men who resemble their fathers. Bound by strong religious beliefs, family values, and typical authoritarian gender roles, life creates a trap for women who wouldn’t dare to challenge men’s authority.
Could mothers make up for an absent father?
Examining the relationship between juvenile delinquency and a father’s role in the household, researcher Deborah A. Cobb-Clark found that girls’ behavior doesn’t seem as affected by a father’s absence as does boys’ behavior.
But on the other hand, mothers “[D]o not appear to compensate for the complete absence of a father figure by increasing their involvement with their children. In fact, it is those children without a father figure in their lives who engage in fewer activities and talk about fewer issues with their mothers,” according to Cobb-Clark.
Fathers make all the difference, for better or worse.