Not all kids are raised under the same circumstances. For example, some have two biological parents, others no biological parents at all, and yet, these children are not at a disadvantage. As of late, large bodies of research on biological child-and-parent relationships within and across genders has highlighted a range of “needs” mothers and fathers or other guardians are able to fulfill for children. Of course, there is more to “the story,” each represents one piece of a complex puzzle between parent and child. If one of these items goes unmet, it does not mean that a child is in jeopardy or cannot have a meaningful relationship with parents or guardians, or with others. In July, we will read about a daughter’s needs. In August, we will look at what a son’s needs are.
What a Daughter Needs From Her Mom
- Self-confidence and acceptance of their body image are important for mothers to pass on. Research suggests that a mother’s sense of shame and rejection of her own body closely connects to her daughter’s lack of confidence in her own body. Studies show that mothers who performed frequent checks of themselves for flaws (checking in the mirror, etc.) were more likely to raise daughters who did the same. Research encourages mothers to demonstrate to their daughters that “an adult woman’s body is acceptable” and to remember that daughters may be closely mirror body image-related behaviors, especially if they resemble or share physical traits with their mothers.
- Emotional burden-sharing and physical comfort are also a must. In a study that measured stress levels using galvanic skin response, teenage girls were instructed to make a 3-minute impromptu educational speech, to simulate social stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, the girls’ mothers were instructed either to hold their daughter’s hand while she spoke or to sit silently next to her. Evidence from galvanic skin response data suggested that when a mother held her daughter’s hand, the daughter did not experience as much anxiety during her speech as daughters whose mothers sat silently beside them. However, in mother-daughter pairs with reported high relationship quality, the emotional burden-sharing effect was felt even when physical contact was not present. The researchers concluded that confidence in a solid mother-daughter relationship may protect against emotional threats as well as does actual supportive physical touch.
- Parenting styles are often broken into categories such as authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, or uninvolved. Authoritative parents are pragmatic and flexible, setting clear boundaries but encouraging independence and employing supportive, not punitive, discipline. In studies of adult daughters, authoritative parenting in childhood showed positive connections to how someone thinks about herself and the world. For example, daughters who reported being raised by authoritative mothers were significantly less likely to hold beliefs related to shame or defectiveness, social isolation, dependence on others, and external locus of control (the idea that one has minimal control over one’s life experience), which have all been linked to the development of mental and behavioral health problems.
- Moms should provide high, but not impossible, expectations. Researchers who tracked a group of daughters for over 20 years found that a mother’s belief in her 10-year-old daughter’s ability to finish schooling on time predicted the daughter’s self-reported sense of control over her life when she was 30. This effect remained significant even after researchers statistically controlled for ethnicity, career choice, intellectual ability, mental health problems, socio-economic status, and parental family structure, among other variables. The truth-believe in your daughters; tell them that you do, then hold them to high standards. They may come to thank you, even if it is not until adulthood.
What a Daughter Needs from Her Dad
- A study that compared a group of depressed adolescent girls with a never-depressed cohort highlighted the importance of the father-daughter relationship. Acceptance, availability, and positive affect are important in the father/daughter dynamic. Girls diagnosed with depression were significantly more likely to report that they felt rejected or neglected by or had a cold, detached relationship with him. These findings held regardless of whether the girls’ parents were married or separated. Interestingly, while fathers’ own reports indicated that they agreed with their daughter’s assessments, fathers of depressed teen girls did not seem to recognize the lack of warmth and parental attachment felt by their daughter. This, likely due to poor communication between them.
- Shared physical activity is also important. A group of fathers was trained using a program called Dads and Daughters Exercising and Empowered (DADEE), which focused on improving their basic positive parenting skills, maximizing their investment in their daughter’s well-being, and engaging with her in active, collaborative, fitness-related play. Compared to a control group, nine months later, daughters who participated in the training group experienced larger increases in social-emotional understanding, decision-making skills, social awareness, relationship skills, personal responsibility, and self-management skills.
- Closeness, reliability, and permission for autonomy are also important for a father/daughter relationship. In a study of three groups of women—one diagnosed with an eating disorder, one diagnosed with a non-ED mental health disorder, and one with no such diagnoses—researchers had participants recall the nature of their relationship with their father while growing up and answer a range of quantitative and narrative response questions. Results showed that women who had a mental health disorder were more likely to describe their father as less caring, overprotective, unkind, and punitive. Women who described their father as being high in control but low in affection were more likely to restrain their food intake, express concerns about their physical appearance, and experience depression, as compared to peers who reported having relatively caring fathers.
- A dad needs to give his daughter permission to be a child. Responsible parents should be careful not to rely on their children to lessen their own insecurities. Evidence from a sample of over 500 adult women asked to recall their childhood with their dad suggests that many experienced “parentification,” the unhealthy process in which a child begins to take on typical parental cargiving responsibilities and feels responsibility to meet her parent’s own mental health needs, such as for validation. For these women, adult romantic relationship satisfaction and relationship security were lower than for counterparts who grew up without feeling like they were “parentfied.”