Father Abandonment: The Consequences, Reasons, and Resilience

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Dear Absentee,

That name means you should be here, but you are not. When you left, pieces of my life went with you. I needed to know that I could count on you. We were supposed to build something together—lots of things together. You could’ve played with me. That would have helped my confidence grow. You could’ve been there to build me up after a hard day at school. Instead, I got really mad. You could’ve helped me build important life skills. Mom is doing her best to fill the piece that was always meant for two. But there are some things only a dad can do.

Signed,

The child you never knew.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches, “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness…By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.” There are significant negative effects when these duties are neglected by absent fathers.

More than Just Testosterone

Fathers have more to offer than an added measure of testosterone under the roof. When a father chooses to be a reliable figure, this communicates to his child that they have the ability to explore with, play with, talk with, and depend on him to contribute to their healthy development.1 Kids are more likely to do well expressing emotion in a healthy way, develop a healthy attachment that leads to heightened self-esteem, and succeed in school academically when the father is present and reliable.4 Researchers have found these positive consequences flow into the child’s adulthood as they begin to enter the workforce as well.8

The role of a father is not just vital for children, but also for the mother. When only the mother is available, their life becomes consumed with caring for the children. This added stress can lead to unhealthy parenting practices and burnout. By having both parents present, roles can be better established while still allowing for autonomy to work on individual strengths and ambitions.5

When Dad Isn’t There

Research has found that when a father is not present it is likely:

  • The infant will be born preterm or low birth weight.7
  •  The mother’s stress is increased due to trying to fill the role of both “mom” and “dad”.5
  •  Many of these families will be low-income households.5
  •  Children may struggle with regulating emotions which can lead to an increase in aggressive behavior and difficulty with social skills.6
  • A child will become involved in risky behavior.
  • Daughters will explore sexual promiscuity at an earlier age.3
  •  Sons have the potential to struggle with gender identity and role confusion.4
  •  Even if the biological father role is filled by another, some of these figures become temporary or have the potential of being abusive.2
  •  Children will be left with feelings of blame or emptiness as to why their father left.4

 Where Did He Go?

What is the reason these fathers are not staying around? Though simply having children can suggest being a father, for many men there is more a father wants to provide for their family. Unemployment and lack of education can be contributing factors as to why fathers leave.5 When men feel they are not meeting the social demands that define fathers, the idea of achieving other fatherly roles decreases and it may seem easier to leave. Other reasons for father absence can include imprisonment, infidelity, and abuse.

How to Help Children of Absent Fathers

Though the negative consequences of father absence can be disheartening, there is still hope for these children.

  • Include positive extended male family figures in the child’s life. Children can form strong relationships as they have a safe, stable male figure to rely upon as they grow up.2 This could come from a grandparent, uncle, or another positive male family member. When these men are present for monumental moments in life, as well as day-to-day interactions, a void can be filled, and the child’s confidence can grow.4 Including extended family can also provide another resource for the mother to help reduce stress overload and feelings of loneliness.
  •  If there is no male family member available or near to help, try finding a mentor in the community. When a child is able to spend time with a successful individual in their community, different doors of potential are opened to them to see ways that they can become successful.8 Examples of mentors could be coaches, teachers, after school staff, ecclesiastical leaders, etc.
  •  Find support groups in the local area. Just like children can find mentors, single mothers can find others working through these difficulties.2 There truly is strength in numbers. Brainstorm, network, and help each other. Though the past may not change, the future trajectory can be a positive one. Make time for you.

 Growing up without a father brings risks, but that does not determine you or your child’s future. Fatherless families can become resilient in their circumstance. Let those who your child will be interacting with know of their struggles. Teachers, caretakers, and other community figures can help alleviate the difficulties your child may face. But they cannot help if they are not aware. Remember, there is hope for brighter tomorrows. There are fathers who chose to stay in their child’s life after growing up without their father. You do not have to let the absentee determine what your family will become. For stories of hope please visit the references below.

Written by Lindly Fernandez, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. July 25, 2018.

 References

  1. Bocknek, E. L., Brophy-Herb, H., Fitzgerald, H. E., Schiffman, R. F., & Vogel, C. (2014). Stability of biological father presence as a proxy for family stability: Cross-racial associations with the longitudinal development of emotion regulation in toddlerhood. Infant Mental Health Journal, 35(4), 309-321.
  2. East, L., Hutchinson, M., Power, T., & Jackson, D. (2017). A qualitative study of men’s recollections of growing up with father absence: Childhood father figures and family resilience. Contemporary Nurse, 53(4), 436-444.
  3. Hill, S. E., Leyva, R. P. P., & DelPriore, D. J. (2016). Absent fathers and sexual strategies. The  Psychologist, 29(6), 436-439.
  4. Lamb, M. E. (2010). How do fathers influence children's development? Let me count the ways. In M. E. Lamb (Eds.), (pp. 1-26). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc. 
  5. Marks, L. D., Hopkins, K., Chaney, C., Nesteruk, O., & Sasser, D. (2010). “My kids and wife have been my life”: Married African American fathers staying the course. In R. Coles & C. Green (Eds.), The myth of the missing black father (pp. 19-46). New York: Columbia University. 
  6. McLanahan, S., Tach, L., & Schneider, D. (2013). The causal effects of father absence. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 399-427. 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145704
  7. Salihu, H. M., August, E. M., Mbah, A. K., Alio, A. P., Berry, E. L., & Aliyu, M. H. (2014). Impact of a federal healthy start program on feto-infant morbidity associated with absent fathers: A quasi-experimental study.Maternal and Child Health Journal, 18(9), 2054-2060.
  8. Timpe, Z. C., & Lunkenheimer, E. (2015). The long-term economic benefits of natural mentoring relationships for youth.American Journal of Community Psychology, 56(1-2), 12-24.