What a Daughter Needs From Her Dad

Examining what the research tells us.

Posted Dec 20, 2020

This is the first entry of a four-part series of blogs focused on empirical evidence related to parent-child relationships as stratified by gender. Let me begin by clearly stating that I recognize not all children are raised in traditional, heterosexual, two-parent homes, and it is not my intention to imply that these children are at a disadvantage. However, interesting research has been done on parent-child relationships by gender, and I would like to outline some of those findings in this series of articles. With that in mind, let's explore the evidence related to what a daughter needs from her dad while growing up. (Also see What a Son Needs From His Mom.)

Permission to be a child—or risk future relationship consequences. Responsible parents should be careful not to rely on their children to assuage their own psychological insecurities. Evidence from a sample of over 500 adult women recalling their childhood experience with their dad suggests that many experienced "parentification," the maladaptive process wherein a child begins to take on typical parental caregiving responsibilities and feels responsible for meeting their parent's own psychological needs—such as for validation. For these women, adult romantic relationship satisfaction and relationship security were significantly lower than their counterparts who grew up without feeling parentified [1].

Warmth, acceptance, availability, and positive affect—or risk predisposition to depression. In a study that compared a group of depressed adolescent girls with a group of never-depressed adolescent girls, results highlighted the importance of the father-daughter relationship and the communication quality therein. Girls who were diagnosed with depression were significantly more likely to report that they felt rejected and neglected by their father and had a cold, detached relationship. These findings held regardless of whether the girl's parents were married or separated. Furthermore, while fathers' own reports indicated that they agreed with their daughter's assessment of poor communication quality, fathers of depressed teen girls did not seem to recognize the lack of warmth and parental attachment felt by their daughters—possibly due to the poor communication quality [3].

Shared physical activity and overall positive parenting skills. Admittedly, the above line is an oversimplification of this research. A group of dads was trained using a program called Dads and Daughters Exercising and Empowered (DADEE) [5], which focused on improving their basic positive parenting skills, maximizing dads' investment into their daughters' socio-emotional well-being, and engaging fathers and daughters in active, collaborative, fitness-related play. Compared to a wait-list control group, daughters who participated in this training group with their fathers experienced larger increases in social-emotional competency, decision-making skills, social awareness, relationship skills, personal responsibility, and self-management skills after 9 months had passed. Overall, this study does an excellent job highlighting the valuable outcomes for daughters of dads with high-quality parenting skills [7].

Closeness, reliability, benevolence, and permission for autonomy—or risk disordered eating. In a methodologically strong investigation of three groups of women (diagnosed with an eating disorder [ED], diagnosed with a non-ED psychiatric disorder, and free of any psychiatric diagnosis), researchers had participants recall the nature of their relationship with their father while growing up and answer a wide variety of quantitative and narrative response questions. Results indicated that women who had a psychiatric disorder (ED or otherwise) were more likely to describe their father as less caring, overprotective, unkind, and punitive. Particularly for women diagnosed with an eating disorder, fathers were described as avoidant, distant, and selfish.

Moreover, women who described their father as being high in control but low in affection were more likely to restrain their food intake, express concerns about their physical appearance, and experience more depression as compared to their peers who reported having relatively caring fathers [4]. In line with this finding, a very recent study found qualitative evidence that women who experience body image and eating distress reported a lack of supportiveness and permission for autonomy when growing up [6].

Involvement and communication—even for stepdads. It likely comes as no surprise that dad's involvement and communication are behaviors that benefit father-daughter relationships. What I particularly like about this study is how "involvement" and "communication" were measured: by asking daughters which of five shared activities they had done with their dad in the past month and which of four conversation topics had come up with their dad in the past month.

However, authors were pleasantly surprised to see that the beneficial effects of involvement and communication held even for daughters who lived with stepfathers instead of their biological fathers. Authors posit that stepdads who take a voluntary interest in their stepdaughter's life may also exhibit the traits necessary to establish and maintain a workable relationship with her moving forward [2]. For more recommendations on building and managing stepfamily relationships, I highly recommend the book, Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships.

Facebook image: Mladen Zivkovic/Shutterstock

References

Baggett, E., Shaffer, A., & Muetzelfeld, H. (2015). Father–Daughter parentification and young adult romantic relationships among college women. Journal of Family Issues, 36(6), 760-783. doi:10.1177/0192513X13499759

Campbell, C. G., & Winn, E. J. (2018). Father–Daughter bonds: A comparison of adolescent daughters' relationships with resident biological fathers and stepfathers. Family Relations, 67(5), 675-686. doi:10.1111/fare.12342

Demidenko, N., Manion, I., & Lee, C. M. (2015). Father–Daughter attachment and communication in depressed and nondepressed adolescent girls. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 24(6), 1727-1734. doi:10.1007/s10826-014-9976-6

Horesh, N., Sommerfeld, E., Wolf, M., Zubery, E., & Zalsman, G. (2015;2014;). Father–daughter relationship and the severity of eating disorders. European Psychiatry, 30(1), 114-120. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2014.04.004

Morgan, P. J., Young, M. D., Barnes, A. T., Eather, N., Pollock, E. R., & Lubans, D. R. (2018). Engaging fathers to increase physical activity in girls: The “Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered: (DADEE) randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/abm/kay015

Steinhilber, K. M., Ray, S., Harkins, D. A., & Sienkiewicz, M. E. (2020). Father-daughter relationship dynamics & daughters' body image, eating patterns, and empowerment: An exploratory study. Women & Health, 60(10), 1083-1094. doi:10.1080/03630242.2020.1801554

Young, M. D., Lubans, D. R., Barnes, A. T., Eather, N., Pollock, E. R., & Morgan, P. J. (2019). Impact of a father-daughter physical activity program on girls' social-emotional well-being: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(3), 294-307. doi:10.1037/ccp0000374