Growing up without a father figure has a profound effect on boys that lasts into manhood. Boys need a father figure to learn how to be a man. Without having this influence in their lives, boys are at risk of growing into men who have problems with behavior, emotional stability, and relationships with both significant others and their own children.
When a parent is absent, writes psychologist Alan Schwartz in his MentalHealth.com article “The Politics of Divorce: When Children Become Pawns,” children may blame themselves, believing there is something wrong with them. They believe that they must not be deserving or lovable. Children also develop the belief that the absent parent is bad and so, through genetics, they must also be bad. Children of divorce, where one parent has sole custody, grow up to have significantly lower self-esteem than children of parents who have joint custody or whose parents remain married. This is especially true in men, who learn to be men mostly through their interactions with a father figure. Without those interactions, men can grow up to be unsure of how they should behave as husbands and fathers.
Adolescent boys look to their father figures to tell them if they are good enough to be men, writes psychologist Frank Pittman, in an article for Psychology Today entitled “Fathers and Sons.” Without paternal approval, adolescent boys experience emotional pain, which can lead to attempts to prove themselves. These include intense competition with other boys, engaging in risky behaviors, and criminal “tough guy” behavior intended to scare the world into seeing them as men. Psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker reinforces this in her PsychCentral.com article “Daddies Do Make a Difference.” She reports that men who grow up without fathers are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and to get into trouble with law enforcement.
Men who grow up without a father figure also have more problems bonding with their own children, writes Hartwell-Walker. Having never experienced a father-son bond, they are unsure of how to develop that relationship with their own children. Men who had absent fathers are more likely to be absent fathers themselves. These men were also never taught how to have healthy relationships with women and tend to have higher break-up and divorce rates than men who grow up with a father’s influence.
Boys who grow up without a father show higher stress levels to daily challenges -- traffic or dealing with a boss, for example -- writes Kathleen Doheny in her PsychCentral.com article, “Good Dad, Good Coping Skills Later," A boy’s relationship with his mother also helps to reduce his stress levels as an adult, but the effect is smaller than that of a father. A good relationship with his father teaches a son to better solve problems, allowing him, as a man, to deal with everyday stress in more useful ways. According to Schwartz, men who grow up without paternal influence are also more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
Amy Guertin has a master's degree in counseling psychology and will earn her Ph.D. in 2014. Guertin is a licensed counselor and has 15 years of experience practicing psychotherapy, primarily working with children, adolescents and their families. She is also a college psychology professor and is the happiest when she is in the classroom.