One of the generally accepted consequences of divorce is the potential negative impact on children. Over in the US, an expert in father-daughter relationships, Dr Linda Nielsen, has penned an interesting article for the Psychiatric Times, discussing the benefits of shared parenting. The article calls for a change in custody laws in the US. Specifically, it’s a call for more equally shared time. Nielsen also offers some insight into why the father-daughter relationship may be typically more damaged than the father-son relationship after divorce. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of dads.
Worried about the impact of your divorce on your kids? This is a really excellent article on the effects of divorce on children and how to prevent them. But meanwhile, let’s take a look at what Dr Nielsen is arguing. She says that damage to dad-daughter relationships is common and hard to repair. The impact can be devastating, especially because:
“Whether in married or divorced families, the quality of the father-daughter relationship has more impact than the mother-daughter relationship on the daughter’s romantic relationships with men, her sexual behavior as a teenager or young adult, her future divorce rate, her career choices, and her resilience in dealing with stress and adversity.”
When it comes to the impact of a divorce on the father-daughter relationship, Nielsen says daughters are more likely to:
- say their relationship with their dad has become “distant, strained, superficial, or altogether broken”
- report a greater longing for more time with their dads
- feel more ignored and rejected
- feel more dissatisfied with their relationship with their dad even years after the divorce
So why are daughters’ relationships with dads more fraught post-divorce?
Dr Nielsen suggests there are three factors. These are the nature of mother-daughter relationships before the divorce, unhealthy maternal behaviours and society’s false beliefs about fathers and daughters. In more detail, she says these factors are:
1. Pre-divorce family dynamics
Mothers and daughters are typically the most likely dyad of a family to have extra communication and closeness, even in intact families. Unfortunately when it comes to divorce, this means mothers can tend to share more damaging info with their daughters than their sons. This can lead to the daughter “siding” with the mother.
2. Enmeshments, role reversals, gatekeeping and alienation
These are unhealthy parent/child dymamics. With role reversals, a parent turns their child into their “adult confidant, advisor and emotional caretaker – a damaging situation known as role reversal, parentification or emotional incest”. Mothers tend to do this more with daughters than sons, meaning again the father-daughter relationship suffers, says Nielsen. Enmeshment occurs when the child takes on the parent’s views on the dispute. Gatekeeping behaviours can limit children’s time with a parent, and alienation can sever a child’s relationship with their parent permanently.
3. Society’s sexist beliefs
Persistent negative stereotypes and traditional beliefs that mothers and mothering time is more important than fathers and fathering time can still sometimes influence how courts allocate time with children.
The importance of shared time?
Nielsen refers to 60 studies over four decades that have been conducted in 14 countries. These studies compared children’s outcomes when they live with one parent (who is almost always the mother) and spend time with their other parent (almost always the father), and their outcomes when they live 35%-50% with each parent.
The results “show that children in the shared parenting families had better outcomes every measure of well-being in 34 studies, better outcomes on most measures in 20 studies, and equal outcomes in 6 studies.” Measures included depression, anxiety, school behaviour, delinquency, self-esteem, relationships with peers. Children in this group also had better relationships with both parents, stepparents, and grandparents.
The results stayed significant even “even in high-conflict families and even when family incomes were factored in, shared parenting benefited the children”. It would appear that socioeconomic status doesn’t make a difference, and also that there appears to be a beneficial effect from having a stronger relationship with both parents even when the parents were in high conflict with each other.
What about infants and toddlers?
Nielsen admits only five of the studies referred to above examined children under age five. But she says in those studies, infants, toddlers, and 4-year-olds were found to be as well off and generally better in shared parenting when it came to emotional, behavioural, and social development. She adds that “110 international experts on child development, early childhood attachment, and children of divorce reached a consensus on this point: Baby girls and baby boys, just like older boys and girls, benefit from shared parenting.”
Dr Nielsen says there are three conclusions that can be drawn from the research:
- children benefit most when they continue to live with each parent at least 35% of the time, even if co-parents don’t get along well;
- the father-daughter relationship has a major impact on daughters, both short and long term
- daughters are at greater risk than sons of ending up with father “wounds” (these being preventable psychological injuries, related to the divorce and custody arrangements, as well as the negative behaviours of enmeshment, role reversals, gatekeeping, and parental alienation)
She concludes: “The bottom line is that maximising fathering time after the parents separate is in many ways more important for daughters than for sons.”
The importance of dads
The importance of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents is set out in Australian law. Here, we have equal shared parental responsibility though, which is not the same as equal shared time. The courts begin with the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility, which can be rebutted if there are factors like violence or abuse or if, for another reason, the court determines it would not be in the child’s best interests if the parents had equal shared responsibility. If equal shared parental responsibility is ordered, the courts must then firstly consider if equal time is in the children’s best interests and if not, what arrangements would be in the children’s best interests. But there is no automatic presumption of equal shared time, as Dr Nielsen appears to be advocating.
Nielsen’s analysis would probably benefit from a little more balance, though. There is no mention of how paternal behaviours might contribute to damaging fathers’ relationships with their daughters (and sons) post-divorce. For example, through becoming absent, being diverted by a new partner or even second family, or through being unable to be civil, or worse being abusive, to their mothers. It’s likely there’s research showing that such behaviours are damaging to father-daughter dyads too. Instead, this analysis focuses only on maternal wrongdoing …what do you think of the analysis?
Source: Psychiatric Times
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