Dr. Linda Nielsen on the Gap Between Fathers and Daughters and How to Close It

June 24, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors

Wake Forest professor Linda Nielsen has some advice for parents and children who find themselves cooped up with each other during the COVID-19 restrictions (Institute for Family Studies, 4/30/20).  Particularly fathers and daughters should use their newly-expanded time together to get to know each other better.  Doing so would be good for both.

Nielsen has been studying father-daughter relationships for thirty years.  She’s asked her students to fill out questionnaires about their relationships with their fathers and used the accumulated information in her book on the subject coming out around Father’s Day.

What she’s found is that fathers and daughters often fail to create the type of depth in their relationships that would benefit both, but particularly daughters.  The dangers of not doing so can be dire:

[T]he impact of a distant, superficial, or estranged relationship with dad can range from mild to life-threatening for a daughter, including: leading to more troubled relationships with men and higher divorce rates, lower adult incomes and more poverty,  more stress-related health problems, and higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol problems, dating violence, teenage pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases…

Moreover, a daughter is more likely than a son to suffer from clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide, all of which are closely related to the quality of her relationship with her dad. 

In short, daughters need their fathers.  We ignore the importance of that relationship at our – and most importantly at their – peril.  How do fathers and daughters become estranged?  The distance between them comes about for several reasons.

One of the most common is the breakup of the parents’ relationship with each other. Another is the mom’s gatekeeping—behaviors and attitudes that close the metaphorical gate between fathers and their children and make it difficult to build strong bonds, especially with daughters. And particularly when the parents’ relationship with one another is coming apart, mothers are more likely to share damaging information or to bad-mouth the dad to their daughters. Then, too, there are a host of damaging, yet untrue, beliefs about men as parents, especially about father-daughter relationships, that work against dads. For example, some people believe there is a “natural” and stronger bond between mothers and daughters because they are both female—and that women have a maternal instinct that men lack. Some also believe that mothers have more impact than fathers do on their children, especially on their daughters.   

None of that of course is inevitable.  All those wedges between fathers and daughters exist because we allow them to.  Divorce courts too easily sideline one parent – usually the father – in their children’s lives by providing too little parenting time in the final order.  Maternal gatekeeping comes about because we’ve done too little to publicize its detriments to kids and train mothers to include fathers in child rearing.  And the educational system, news and popular culture do far too little to make us all aware of the vital role fathers play in children’s lives and healthy development.

For thirty years, Dr. Linda Nielsen has been fighting to correct all those shortcomings in public policy and culture.  We all benefit from her work.  It needs to start playing a larger role in public policy and the important ways we understand children and their need for two parents in their lives.

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