By Susan Scutti

In her 1992 bookWomen and Their Fathers: The Sexual and Romantic Impact of the First Man in Your Life, Victoria Secunda concluded that a number of men and women grow up with a “remote and aloof father.” Those women who do not feel affirmed by their fathers develop a tendency, then, to respond to the men in their lives as they once responded to their elusive father: they desperately seek intimacy but are unable to believe that men can be trusted and so they remain always on guard.

Fathers, then, have a profound impact on their daughters’ lives. Yet many women, because of separation or discomfort, are unable to fully explore their relationship with their fathers and spend instead much more of their time examining their mother-daughter bond. Clearly, though, to fully develop her life and her self, a daughter needs to consider her relationship with dad. Understanding how that essential bond has shaped her, she can then face the challenge of accepting her life (and her father) and get on with the general business of becoming the woman she wants to be.

Easier said than done? Maybe. Two recent studies might help you better understand this process.

Empowerment

In a study published within the past year, researchers examined whether the quality of the father-daughter relationship is related to a daughter’s stress response. Specifically, the researchers measured activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis as well as activity in the autonomic nervous system among daughters considered to be emerging adults.

Physiologists define stress as how the body reacts to a real or imagined stimulus that causes a reaction of alarm, resistance, and then exhaustion. This three-stage reaction is defined as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). The HPA axis, a major part of the neuroendocrine system, is the mechanism for interactions among glands, hormones, and parts of the midbrain that mediate GAS, in addition to many other body processes, including digestion, the immune system, mood and emotions, sexuality, and energy storage and expenditure. When measuring activity in the HPA axis, then, the researchers were trying to discover the actual physical levels of stress and not just a reported level of stress, which might be either underestimated or exaggerated, depending on an individual woman.

The researchers divided the young women participating in the study into two groups: one group of women who reported their father-daughter relationships as characterized by rejection, chaos, and coercion, and another group of young women who reported their father-daughter relationships as characterized by warmth, autonomy, support, and structure. The researchers found that the first group had lower morning cortisol levels than the second, and they were temperamentally more sensitive to emotional changes. They also discovered the young women of the second group showed lower pretask cortisol levels and relatively weak cortisol responses to a discussion of problems with a friend in comparison to the women of the first group (rejection, chaos, and coercion). Among these women, pretask cortisol levels were elevated as were their cortisol levels in response to a problem discussion with a friend. Interestingly, they were also more likely to self-disclose their psychosocial stressors.

The researchers concluded that their findings suggest father-daughter interactions potentially influence a woman’s social cognition and her HPA reactivity to important stressors.

Yet, this was not the only measure taken by the researchers. They also examined the autonomic nervous system (ANS) of these two groups of women. The ANS functions for the most part below the level of consciousness and controls visceral functions: heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, micturition (urination), and sexual arousal. Most autonomous functions are involuntary, though some work with some degree of conscious control. Surprisingly, the researchers observed no differences between the two groups of young women and their ANS levels.

This result seems to suggest our deepest, or at least our most unconscious, level of functioning in the world is unaffected by our relationship with our fathers. Do women have more independence from their fathers’ opinions and therefore a greater abilty to shape our lives than purely psychological studies suggest? Another, very different study might shed light on this issue.

Perception Management

The purpose of another recent study was to examine three areas of father-daughter relationships — engagement, accessibility, and responsibility — within the context of daughters’ self-esteem, life satisfaction, and psychological distress. The researchers defined engagement as a father’s direct interaction with his child, accessibility as his physical or psychological availability, and responsibility as his provision for the care of the child (as distinct from performance of care). Each of these types of involvement directly relate to a child’s well-being, the researchers posited having reviewed literature on the subject. “What is important to the children in the long run and what most heavily affects children’s current and future behavior is the long term parent ‘residue’ within the children that is encapsulated within the children’s retrospective perceptions of their parents,” the authors wrote.

What is unique about this study, then, is that it is all about a daughter’s perception of her father’s involvement and not the facts of his involvement.

For the study, the researcher recruited female participants from general education classes at a public university in the western U.S. All participants were single females between the ages of 18 and 21 and the mean age for the participants’ fathers was 50.9. The students completed a 10-minute questionnaire during class time.

Overall, results supported the prediction that the retrospective perceptions of a father’s involvement have a moderately strong positive relationship with the self-esteem of emerging adult daughters. When emerging adult daughters’ retrospective perceptions of overall father involvement during adolescence are higher, the self-esteem of daughters is also higher. Additionally, there was a positive relationship between perceived levels of father involvement and the life satisfaction level of their daughters.

Yet, the researchers also addressed another component of psychological well-being in their study: psychological distress. In keeping with past studies, the researchers hypothesized that a negative relationship existed between psychological distress and perceptions of a father’s involvement. Contrary to what was expected, a negative correlation between perceptions of father involvement and the psychological distress of daughters existed, but it was statistically insignificant. Ultimately, the authors conclude that retrospective perceptions of nurturing fathering and expressive types of father involvement during adolescence might have strong relationships with self-esteem and life satisfaction of daughters in their young adult years.

Because these findings revolve around relationship perception and impact on a specific time of life, two things should be considered. First, since the actual accuracy of the father’s behavior does not matter and it is only a daughter’s perception that is significant, might optimistic daughters — those who see the possibly distant father as loving enough — be more inclined toward life satisfaction? If so, maybe we should all strive to see our fathers in as forgiving and positive a light as possible. Secondly, this study concerns a very specific period in a woman’s life. Perhaps over time, even those women with absent or truly unloving fathers find satisfaction in their lives as well and maybe even find an advantage in how their fathers shaped their lives.

Sources: Allgood SM, Beckert TE, Peterson C. The Role of Father Involvement in the Perceived Psychological Well-Being of Young Adult Daughters: A Retrospective Study.North American Journal of Psychology. 2012.

Byrd-Craven J, Auer BJ, Granger DA, Massey AR. The father-daughter dance: the relationship between father-daughter relationship quality and daughters’ stress response.Journal of Family Psychology. 2012.

Scheffler TS, Naus PJ. The relationship between fatherly affirmation and a woman’s self-esteem, fear of intimacy, comfort with womanhood and comfort with sexuality. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. 1999.

Victoria Secunda addresses relationships with women and their fathers.

Victoria Secunda addresses relationships with women and their fathers.

SOURCE: Medical Daily. Click here. June 12, 2013

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