Sunday, June 16, 2013

One reason why fathers matter

I'm pretty used to my life expecting me to be in two places at once. Today, unlike most days, I wish it was actually possible. I am spending the weekend in New York at the long-awaited and much anticipated wedding of two very close friends. However, as many of you know, today is Father’s Day in the United States and if I were not in attendance at this wedding, I would be spending the day with my dad and the rest of my family at the college graduation of my quite extraordinary cousin, Chip. As a consolation, I thought I would dedicate this week’s article to the importance of fathers.

I was raised in a non-traditional household by a single father. Now that I am an “adult” I realize what an impossible task this must have been for him, even without all of the extra umph our dad put into it as our soccer coach, limbo bar at birthday parties, and host to countless cheerleading sleepovers. However, within psychology research, fathers have been largely understudied. In some cases, this is because they are theoretically less important to the evolutionary-developmental story but in others it’s simply a matter of convenience. To put it simply, when you advertise that you are recruiting children for a research study, mothers bring the kids in, not fathers. In fact, studies specifically interested in fathers have found recruitment to be an almost insurmountable problem. Thus, we know very little about the special contribution fathers make to the psychological and social development of daughters.

Just a few months ago, Jennifer Byrd-Craven and her colleagues conducted a study at Oklahoma State University to ask: 

How do father-daughter relationships relate to how women deal with stress?

To do this research, she conducted two experiments. First, she had 88 undergraduate women complete a questionnaire on their relationship with their father. This questionnaire included information on positive aspects of the father-daughter relationship including warmth, support, and autonomy (“My father expects me to say what I really think.”), as well as negative aspects including rejection, lack of structure, and power struggles.  Then, these girls chose a day of the week to provide a morning saliva sample (20-45 minutes after waking up). The purpose of this saliva sample was to collect an index of physiological stress, cortisol. When we wake up each morning, there is a surge of cortisol that is measurable in saliva about 30 minutes after waking. Theoretically speaking, more cortisol = more stress. They found that young women who reported more negative aspects of their relationship with their fathers had higher cortisol in morning than young women who reported low negative aspects about the quality of their father-daughter relationship. This may mean that having more power struggles, less structure and more rejection by your father may be related to having more stress in your life when you are a young adult.

The second study was aimed at understanding how father-daughter relationship quality was related to response to actual stressors. In this study, the stressor was a discussion with a friend about a problem. To examine this relationship, 20 pairs of undergraduate women who were close friends came into the lab. They completed the same questionnaire about their father-daughter relationship quality, and then pulled a random problem from a pre-selected set of problems to discuss with their friend. Some problem topics used were romantic relationships, peer relationships, and academic concerns. The pairs were given almost 20 minutes to discuss these problems, and were video recorded during their conversations. Before and after these conversations, the women provided saliva samples which were used to index their stress (via cortisol) before and after their problem conversation with their friend. They found that young women whose father-daughter relationship was high in positive qualities had lower cortisol before the problem discussion task. This may show us that having a high quality relationship, characterized by warmth and support of autonomy, is related to adapting to new environments and novel situations with less stress. They also found that women whose father-daughter relationship was high in negative qualities, characterized by power struggles and rejection, had greater increases in stress (via cortisol) in response to the task. This may mean that having a low quality relationship with your father is related to experiencing stress when discussing problems with your friends.

This last finding is quite intriguing to me. We know that for women being able to discuss problems with another woman is very important, and helpful. However, some women don’t experience the benefits of same-sex friendships as others. In fact, discussing problems with other women may actual increase stress and cause many women to avoid close same-sex relationships as a result. Perhaps, this may be why in the first study, the women with poor quality relationships with their fathers had more morning stress; they have fewer outlets for dealing effectively with the stress of daily life (i.e. talking to a friend).

Until now, there had only been theories and speculation as to why this may be the case. Now, we have psychophysiological evidence to suggest that fathers play a role in helping young women maintain and enjoy friendships when they are adults, ultimately leading to lower stress in their lives. To explain this, Dr. Byrd-Craven wrote, “Father-daughter relationships appear to provide cues in regard to the potential social dynamics likely to be experienced in the future, and individuals [daughters] appear to adjust their psychobiology accordingly (page 92).”

This research is certainly new, and we are far from understanding the nuances of the father-daughter relationship and how it shapes who those daughters can be throughout the lifespan. Furthermore, keep in mind that none of this work is experimental, so whether the specifics of a father-daughter relationship causes a woman’s ability to cope with problems and how are still important questions to be addressed in time.

Basically, not only was my dad the reason I have been able to take on so many challenges and experience so many adventures, he is also the reason I find those experiences fun instead of stressful. And finally, little did I know that I have him to thank for the pleasure I take in talking through my problems with my best friends. On behalf of all the daughters out there today, Thanks Dad! This one's for you...

Byrd-Craven, J., Auer, B. J., Granger, D. A., & Massey, A. R. (2012). The father-daughter dance: The relationship between father-daughter relationship quality and daughters' stress response. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(1), 87.


Get the next post via email:

Believe in our mission too?