effects of absent fathers on child development

5 Effects of Absent Fathers on Child Development

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When a comedian whose story I heard was a toddler, his dad walked out on the family. After that, the comedian’s dad breezed in and out of his life when convenient. But he was never truly present. In fact, the comedian and his siblings didn’t even have a way to contact him. He would call or show up when he wanted, and sometimes even said he’d come and then not show up. Through all of that, this celebrity still wanted to have a relationship with his dad. But everything changed when he became a dad himself. When he looked at his child, he couldn’t imagine treating that child with the same type of immature, unstable cruelty he endured.

Filled with resentment, he stopped speaking to his dad. The anger was probably always there, but having his own kids brought it front and center. “My dad was messed up, so I was messed up,” the comedian said—and that was tough to hear. Many if not all people who grew up with absent fathers probably have thought that, too. But there’s hope. If you grew up without a dad, it’s good to think through how it affected you and impacted your development so you can heal. Here are 5 effects of absent fathers on child development.

1. Decreased Communication Ability

In the earliest years, a child with both a mother and a father experiences a lot more communication than a child who doesn’t have a present dad. The child has more direct communication, which includes more than just words: facial expressions, vocal tones, gestures. With a dad present, the child receives double the communication. But he or she will also witness communication between the parents.

Countering the effect: If you grew up without a dad or are caring for a child who has been fatherless, communicate as much as possible. Create opportunities for more interaction, especially with other adults.  

2. Decreased Cognitive Ability

A study by McGill University in 2013 revealed that mice that did not have a father present during development had a different brain formation than mice with both parents. The prefrontal cortex, which handles cognitive abilities such as impulse control, evaluating consequences, planning, and managing social behavior, didn’t develop well in mice that didn’t have fathers. Female mice without fathers even showed a higher sensitivity to amphetamines, so there could be a higher temptation for drug use. All of this is consistent with how kids with absent fathers behave. They have the same problems, and it results in truancy, low scores in school, and more. The decrease in cognitive ability can also influence the next several points.

Counter the effect: Do activities that increase cognitive ability, like playing chess, solving puzzles, and consistently learning new things.    

3. Relational and Behavioral Issues

Kids who grow up without a father often struggle socially. Feeling rejected by their dad, they fear abandonment and struggle with trust, commitment, and intimacy. A father’s absence also often leads to behavioral problems. Kids don’t know how to process their anger or anxiety, especially if they have a diminished ability to communicate, so they lash out. Ultimately, this continues to negatively effect their relationships.

Counter the effect: Find mentors who can help mold and shape healthy relational behavior. Also consider professional counseling to gain insight, perspective, and relational and behavioral skills. 

A dad’s presence and love give us a greater understanding of our identity and sense of belonging.

4. Mental Health

Children with an absent father grow up without the sense of security a dad provides. A dad’s presence and love give us a greater understanding of our identity and sense of belonging. When it’s absent, it can leave our world feeling shattered and unstable. Due to this fact, children with absent fathers suffer from anxiety and depression in far larger numbers than children with a present mom and dad.

Counter the effect: Seek out professional help to find the root causes of these issues and the tools to overcome them. 

5. Sexual Health and Behavior

Again, due to the fact that children with absent fathers have decreased development in their prefrontal cortex, they can be impulsive. Their ability to see the long-term consequences of their actions is debilitated. Many engage in sexual activity at young ages, which can have dire consequences, including teen pregnancy. Girls growing up without a father can develop an attachment disorder and see sex as a way to fulfill a male connection.

Counter the effect: Don’t let any kids under your care learn about sex on their own, especially kids who’ve spent time without a father present. Say goodbye to “the talk.” It’s talks—plural. Treat it as an ongoing conversation.

Sound off: What are some other possible effects of absent fathers on child development?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “How do you think you’ve been impacted by your parents?”