Study: Sons Benefit Later in Life from Close Relationship with Father

Sons who have fond childhood memories of their fathers are more likely to be emotionally stable in the face of day-to-day stresses, according to psychologists who studied hundreds of adults of all ages.

That’s one finding of a recent study by Psychology Professor Melanie Mallers of California State University at Fullerton (PhysOrg, 8/12/10).

Most studies on parenting focus on the relationship with the mother. But, as our study shows, fathers do play a unique and important role in the mental health of their children much later in life,” Mallers said during a symposium focusing on social relationships and well-being.

Mallers and her colleagues interviewed 912 people once a day for eight days. The subjects who were between the ages of 25 and 74, were asked about the emotional and psychological stresses of that day. They were later asked about their relationships with their fathers. The results are that those with close relationships with their mothers reported slightly greater ease in dealing with everyday stress.

“I don’t think these results are surprising, given that past research has shown mothers are often the primary caregiver and often the primary source of comfort,” said Mallers. “It got interesting when we examined the participants’ relationship with their fathers and their daily emotional reaction to stress.”

Men who reported having a good relationship with their father during childhood were more likely to be less emotional when reacting to stressful events in their current daily lives than those who had a poor relationship, according to her findings. This was not found to be as common for the women in the study.

Exactly why sons benefit so much from good relationships with their dads seems to be an open question.

Mallers theorized why healthy or unhealthy relationships may have an effect on how people handle stress as adults. “Perhaps having attentive and caring parents equips children with the experiences and skills necessary to more successfully navigate their relationships with other people throughout childhood and into adulthood,” she said.

She added it was difficult to come up with a concrete theory as to why men’s relationship with their father had such an influence on their emotional reaction to stress, especially since this study included adults of all ages who were raised during very different eras in the United States.

“The role of fathers has changed dramatically from the time the oldest participants were children,” added Mallers. “We do know that fathers have a unique style of interacting with their children, especially their sons. We need more research to help us uncover further influences of both mothers and fathers on the enduring emotional experiences of their children.”

Of course I can’t hazard a guess as to why sons particularly benefit from good relationships with their fathers. But Mallers’ remark about fathers’ unique style of interacting brings up an important point that is too often overlooked these days. It is that mothers and fathers parent differently and that children tend to need both to become fully formed adults, emotionally and psychologically.

To vastly oversimplify, mothers tend to give unconditional love which gives the child the sense of personal wellbeing. Dads, on the other hand, tend to demand things like compliance with rules and modes of behavior. That creates in the child the valuable understanding that respect and love must be earned, i.e. most people in the world aren’t going to “love you for yourself alone;” you have to act in ways that merit their love, friendship, respect, etc. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard adults complain about the “sense of entitlement” children and young adults exhibit these days. And every time I do, I wonder if the people those adults are referring to were raised in single-mother homes.

On the other hand, parents raise children differently when they’re in a couple than when they do the job alone. Single parents tend to adopt some of the parental qualities usually associated with the opposite sex; thus single mothers tend to become more demanding and rule-oriented while single fathers tend to become gentler and more nurturing.

Whatever the case, Mallers is certainly right in calling for more research into the effect of fathers on children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing later in life. The more we study, the more is revealed about the importance of fathers to children.

And that can’t be a bad thing.

Thanks to Victoria for the heads-up.

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