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Fatherless Daughters: How Growing Up Without a Dad Affects Women

Ms. Meyers grew up with a dad who was physically present but emotionally absent. She numbed her pain with food and anti-depressants.

What happens to a daughter if her father doesn't love her?

What happens to a daughter if her father doesn't love her?

Growing Up Without a Dad Shapes Who You Are

It took six decades, but I can finally utter a huge truth that caused me tremendous shame and sadness: My father didn't love me. I never spoke that deep, dark secret, but it was always festering inside of me. It manifested itself in many ways throughout my life as I struggled with a food obsession, low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression.

Whether a dad was present but rejecting like mine or walked away from his fatherly duties entirely, his absence leaves an indelible mark on a daughter's psyche as she grows into adulthood. What does the research say about woman who grew up with fathers who didn't love them—daughters who were never daddy's little girl?

Below, you'll find six ways a daughter may be affected by an uninvolved dad.

Fathers provide their daughters with a masculine example. They teach their children about respect and boundaries and help put daughters at ease with other men throughout their lives. [...] So if she didn't grow up with a proper example, she will have less insight and she'll be more likely to go for a man that will replicate the abandonment of her father.

— Caitlin Marvaso, AMFT, a grief counselor and therapist in Oakland, CA

1. Fatherless Daughters Have Self-Esteem Issues

According to Deborah Moskovitch, an author and divorce consultant, kids often blame themselves when dad leaves the home and becomes less involved in their lives. When they aren't given an explanation about why dad left, they make up their own scenario and jump to the conclusion that it's their fault and that they're unlovable.

This is especially true for daughters. Countless studies have shown that fatherlessness has an extremely negative impact on daughters' self esteem. Her confidence in her own abilities and value as a human being can be greatly diminished if her father isn't there. Academically, personally, professionally, physically, socially, and romantically, a woman's self esteem is diminished in every setting if she did not form a healthy relationship with her father.

As a child, I watched television shows like The Brady Bunch and Happy Days in which the fathers showered their daughters with tremendous amounts of attention and affection. Because I never got that from my dad, I convinced myself it was because I wasn't cute enough. I thought if I had blond hair and talked with a lisp like Cindy Brady I would have my dad's devotion. I hated the way I looked because I thought it caused my father's lack of interest in me. As I got older, my self-esteem plummeted and I was sure no man would ever find me attractive.

Countless studies have shown that a father's abandonment has an extremely negative impact on daughters' self esteem.

Countless studies have shown that a father's abandonment has an extremely negative impact on daughters' self esteem.

2. Daughters With Absent Fathers Struggle to Build and Maintain Relationships

According to Pamela Thomas, author of Fatherless Daughters (a book that examines how women cope with the loss of a father via death or divorce), women who grew up with absent dads find it difficult to form lasting relationships. Because they were scarred by their dad's rejection of them, they don't want to risk getting hurt again. Consciously or unconsciously, they avoid getting close to people. They may form superficial relationships in which they reveal little of themselves and put very little effort into getting to know others. They may become promiscuous as a way of getting male attention without becoming too emotionally involved.

Ever since childhood, I've built walls around myself. I didn't open up to people. I didn't ask questions about others' families, jobs, or hobbies. I kept my life private, and I remained socially isolated. These were all self-protective measures so I wouldn't experience rejection like I did with my dad. Knowing this intellectually did nothing to help me change my behavior because my fear of rejection was more powerful than my desire to make connections.

3. Women With Absent Fathers Are More Likely to Have Eating Disorders

In their book The Parent's Guide to Eating Disorders, the authors Marcia Herrin and Nancy Matsumoto write eloquently about the fact that girls with physically or emotionally absent fathers are at greater risk of developing eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge-eating, body dysmorphia, unhealthy preoccupations with food or body weight, and other eating disorders are all more likely if a girl does not have a father figure as she's growing up. Daughters without dads are also twice as likely to be obese. Because her longing to have a close relationship with her dad is denied, she may develop what Margo Maine (author of Father Hunger: Fathers, Daughters, & Food) calls “father hunger,” a deep emptiness and a profound insecurity. Daughters are left wondering: What's so wrong with me that my own father doesn't love me? If I looked different—if I were thin—would I earn daddy's love?

I've struggled with "father hunger" throughout my life—stuffing my face to fill the void, dieting to get model-thin, and always obsessing about food. My days have been filled with thoughts of eating—either doing it or struggling mightily not to. When I accepted that my dad didn't love me and that he was an unhappy man with deep-rooted problems, I finally started eating normally and began maintaining a healthy weight. I began treating myself in a loving way by exercising, gardening, reading, walking in the woods, and spending time with family. For the first time in my life, I only thought about food when I was hungry. This freed me to enjoy my life in so many wonderful ways.

Eating disorders are more likely in daughters who don't have fathers.

Eating disorders are more likely in daughters who don't have fathers.

4. Daughters of Absent Fathers Are More Prone to Depression

Not surprisingly, girls who grew up with dads who were emotionally or physically absent are more likely to struggle with depression as adults. Because they fear abandonment and rejection, these women often isolate themselves emotionally. They avoid healthy romantic relationships because they don't feel deserving and fear getting hurt, but they might jump into unhealthy relationships that ultimately lead to heartbreak. In either scenario, the women are in emotional peril and frequently become depressed. If they don't deal with the cause of their sadness—an absent dad—they may never be able to develop healthy relationships with men.

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To top it all off, data suggests that children without fathers are more than twice as likely to commit suicide.

According to Denna Babul and Karin Louise, authors of The Fatherless Daughter Project, it's helpful to simply realize that we're not alone. In fact, one in three women see themselves as fatherless and struggle with feelings of abandonment. Knowing this helps us see that there's a whole sisterhood out there who share a common pain and a need to connect. When we open up and share our journey, we help both ourselves and each other. Whether we feel the loss of a dad through death, divorce, drug addiction, estrangement, or emotional neglect, we must grieve in order to move forward. Read How a Fatherless Daughter Can Recover From Her Dad's Rejection for ideas on how to avoid falling into depression. A gifted therapist can be key to helping us do just that and becoming happier people.

5. Dadless Daughters Are More Likely to Become Sexually Active Earlier

Studies have shown the many benefits that come from a strong father-daughter bond. Most notably, girls who are close to their dads are less likely to get pregnant as teens. They delay engaging in sexual relationships, wait longer to get married and have children, and when they do find a husband, their marriages are more emotionally satisfying, stable, and long-lasting.

Countless studies also show that women who have unstable or absent paternal relationships are more likely to start having sex earlier and engage risky sexual behaviors. Daughters are four times more likely to get pregnant as a teen if dad isn't in the picture. Studies show that more than 70% of unplanned teenage pregnancies occur in homes where there is no father.

My older sister (who, like me, did not have a relationship with our father) met her future husband when she was just 18 and married him when she turned 22, straight out of college. He was the only guy she ever dated. Without a doubt, she was looking for the love and validation she never got from our dad. She was looking for an alternative to a man who never said "I love you" or "you're pretty" and never gave the unconditional acceptance one craves from a parent. Although she is still married, her union has been a difficult one, and she discourages her own daughters from marrying young.

6. Abandoned Daughters Are Susceptible to Addiction

As with depression, eating disorders, and low self esteem, the absence of a father can trap a daughter in a negative repetitive pattern she can't easily break out of and turn to drugs to self-medicate and help numb the pain. She is more likely to find herself trapped in a cycle of substance abuse, for example. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, fatherless children are at a dramatically greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse. Not only are kids in father-absent households about four times more likely to be poor (which can trigger many negative cycles), fatherless adolescents were found to be 69% more likely to use drugs and 76% more likely to commit crimes.

Can a Daughter Survive Without a Father?

Try as I might, I was never been able to get any traction, always making a mess of this or that and never able to form long-lasting friendships. I rejected happiness because I never felt worthy of it. I did so much to sabotage my life and make myself miserable.

Then last year my older sister revealed to me that she, too, had felt unloved by him. I immediately felt enormous relief and then great euphoria. I realized it had never been about me—that I was bad, ugly, stupid and undeserving. It had always been about him—his unhappy childhood, his cold mother, his negative nature, and his dissatisfaction with being a husband and father. It had never been about me...never.

I could finally shout: “You were a piece of crap and now I'm done with you! I'm not your prisoner any more!" From that day forward, I practiced radical acceptance about my dad. I stopped thinking about the way I wished things had been. I stopped wishing that they could have been different. I ended a lifetime of suffering by saying the painful truth: "I never had a warm, loving father and I never would."

According to Caitlin Marvaso, AMFT, a grief counselor and therapist, to recover from a father's abandonment, a woman "must learn how to father herself, hold herself, and receive the type of love a father provides. It is a lifelong process, but with the proper support, tools, and patience, it is totally possible. That being said, the grief and pain never goes away, it just changes."

A daughter whose father abandoned her can grow, thrive, learn, excel, succeed, love and be loved, and live a wonderful life when she realizes that the problem isn't her, it's him. This is the first step toward healing.

Self-mutilation comes in the form of promiscuity and [...] it's violence against yourself. I never thought of it that way before!

— Oprah Winfrey

What Is Fatherless Daughter Syndrome?

"Fatherless Daughter Syndrome" (colloquially known as "daddy issues") is an emotional disorder that stems from issues with trust and lack of self esteem that leads to a cycle of repeated dysfunctional decisions in relationships with men. It can last a woman's entire lifetime if the symptoms go unacknowledged and ignored.

Does the Reason Affect the Result of Fatherlessness?

Half of the daughters in the US self-identify as having no father in their lives, but the reasons for that fatherlessness vary. Approximately 28% lost their connection to their dads via divorce or separation, while 26% cite emotional absence as the reason for the estrangement. 19% lost their fathers to death, 13% to abandonment, 13% to addiction, 12% to abuse, and 4% to incarceration. 6% say they never met their father.

Certainly, a daughter whose loving dad passed away when she was 15 will be affected differently than a daughter whose father abandoned her when she was born. Unfortunately, many studies do not account for the reasons for fatherlessness.

The effects of fatherlessness can be mitigated by many factors. Daughters who were brought up in households with two moms, a loving and very-involved step parent, or participating grandparents or other extended family members will probably not experience the same lasting wounds and negative impact of a father's abandonment.

What about you?

What Are the Emotional Effects of Being Abandoned by a Father?

Compared to those with healthy paternal relationships, fatherless women report...

  • feeling less happiness and lower levels of well-being,
  • higher levels of frustration, anger, and anger-related depression,
  • difficulty navigating the emotions of intimate relationships, and
  • overwhelming fears of abandonment.

The Fatherless Daughter Project: Understanding Our Losses and Reclaiming Our Lives gave me the necessary insight that helped me heal. It made me realize that I was living a shut-down existence. Because of my childhood without an involved dad, I had become an emotionally numb adult.

Like many fatherless daughters, I grew up with a mom who was overwhelmed and struggling. Because she was shouldering all the responsibilities of parenting by herself (except the financial), she felt alone. As such, she turned to me for comfort and support.

Dr. Karin Luise, the book's co-author, says that a daughter who tends to her mom's emotions often neglects her own. As a result, she might bottle up her feelings. As an adult, that can lead to both psychological and physical distress. Once I understood this, I was able to get healthier by embracing my feelings: writing about them, talking about them, and using them to heal.

What Are the Psychological Effects of an Absent Father?

To summarize, depression, suicide, eating disorders, obesity (and its effects), early sexual activity, addiction-formation, and difficulty building and holding on to loving relationships are all side-effects of an absent father.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My dad is a deadbeat. How do I emotionally get through all the years of tossing thoughts of only having my mother? I have neglected to recognize how truly alone I really am. How do I get through this?

Answer: I believe deep misplaced feelings of shame are at the center of a fatherless daughter's life. The paternal archetype—loving, protecting, advising—has a strong presence in all cultures throughout the world. Fathers portrayed on television risk their lives to save their children, are infinitely patient and giving, and are always warm and kind. When we don't have a dad like that, we blame ourselves when we're kids and even when we're adults.

I grew up watching Pa Ingalls on the “Little House on the Prairie” series. His devotion to his daughters was infinite. At the same time, though, I was a girl with a workaholic father who was rarely at home and, when he was, would call me names and berate my appearance. How does a kid wrap her brain around these disparate fatherly images? She blames herself and feels deep shame for her failures as a daughter. She thinks that if I were cuter, smarter, thinner, more charming, more petite, more athletic, and more talented, my Dad would love me.

Looking back now on my life, I see how it was molded by my feelings of shame, worthlessness, and never feeling good enough. These emotions resulted in my addiction to food, my low self-esteem, my neglect of my appearance and health, my inability to put myself out there to make friends, my willingness to settle for jobs that were below my abilities, and my reliance on anti-depressants. When I finally opened up to my sister about our dad, she confessed that she, too, felt unloved and unaccepted by him. Her admission lifted the weight of shame that I had been carrying on my shoulders, and I experienced a lightness I had never known.

I want you to experience this lightness as well. When you open up to other women about being a fatherless daughter, you'll feel so much better. Since 1 out of 3 of us identifies as such, you won't have a problem finding those who say, “I understand... I feel your pain... You're not alone...I went through the same thing.”

I'm the happiest I've ever been since I let go of the shame, and I never want to be bogged down by it again. Connecting with other women who've had a similar journey is the key.

Question: How can a guy help his girlfriend who didn't grow up with a father? How does he show love to her so she doesn't make a mistake of marrying young?

Answer: It's very sweet and noble that you want to help your girlfriend who's a fatherless daughter. But, let me give you a word of caution that I also give to my teenage sons: “When you rescue a damsel in distress, all you end up with is a distressed damsel.” Some men (kindhearted but foolish) fall into the trap of choosing a woman who needs to be “fixed.” That, however, is an impossible task. The only one who can fix her is herself. She must be highly motivated to change and willing to do the hard work—possibly with the help of a good therapist. Sometimes a fatherless daughter wants to stay in her victimhood and let it define her. It will be her identity throughout her entire life so please proceed with caution!

With that being said, you can encourage your girlfriend to do things that will build her self-esteem. With a healthier self-image, she won't be wallowing in the pain of being a fatherless daughter or wanting to fill the hole in her heart by getting married at a young age. Building her self-esteem is not some airy-fairy notion but involves taking concrete steps. You and she, for example, could tackle some goals together that involve getting in shape and learning new physical skills: training for a marathon, taking ballroom dancing classes, hiking to the top of a mountain, learning to ice skate, or pumping iron. You and she can tackle some ways to improve your mental well-being and career prospects by taking college classes together, joining a book club, or attending events at your local library. You and she can look outside yourselves and help others by volunteering at a homeless shelter, the SPCA, or a local elementary school. You and she can find peace through meditation, praying, attending religious services, and being in nature. By pushing herself and achieving goals, she will become stronger in body, mind, and spirit.

You sound like a caring boyfriend, and I wish you much luck in your relationship. Since one in three women identifies as a fatherless daughter, there are a lot of us damaged souls out there. If your girlfriend is motivated to move forward in her life, I think the two of you will be just fine. If she keeps slipping back into the hurts of the past, then that's a serious issue. You may need to end the relationship and ask yourself why you're attracted to a woman who needs fixing. You don't want it to become a pattern.

Question: My dad usually only in the summer, but he hasn't since 2015. I just can’t take it anymore. Does he not have any interest in me?

Answer: I'm sorry your dad is being neglectful and uncaring. No matter what's going on in his life (a new wife or girlfriend, deadlines at work, duties at home), he has a parental responsibility to see you regularly so a loving bond can be created and maintained. Unfortunately, some fathers are too self-involved to comprehend the hurt they cause their kids. My dad called me degrading names such as “Buffalo Butt” and “Rhino Rump” when I was a girl, damaging my self-esteem and causing me tremendous embarrassment. Now, as an adult and mother, I see how incredibly immature that was of him and I've let go of the misplaced shame I felt. But it took many years.

Your mother probably has some insight that would be helpful about your father's poor character. Perhaps, she hasn't wanted to disparage him in your eyes, but you need to know the truth. His behavior reflects badly on him, not you, and you need to know his past so you can understand why he's acting this way in the present.

If he doesn't see you in person, he should be staying in contact via phone, e-mail, or Skype. If he's not, you and your mom should set up a regular day and time for him to communicate with you. If he doesn't follow through with that, you have a tough decision to make. Do you want to stay connected with him even though it's sporadic, unpredictable, and only on his terms or do you want to take control, limit contact, or possibly even terminate the relationship? Talking with a counselor at school would be beneficial before making such a big decision.

In the meantime, focus on the positive things in your life. Keep a gratitude journal and write down five things you are thankful for each day (Oprah does this). Open up to your friends and family about your dad and get the love and support you need. Set goals for yourself and work hard to achieve them. Develop a rich spiritual life by meditating and spending time in nature. Be good to yourself by eating nutritious foods and exercising. Don't define yourself by your father's neglectful behavior. You are so much more than that.

I wish you the best. I know how painful it is to be shunned by a dad and have so little control over the situation. I'm glad you're reaching out. Please continue to do so. Many girls and women can relate to what you're feeling and experiencing, and we truly do care.

Question: My girlfriend's father abandoned her. Can I help her through her father's leaving?

Answer: Because you asked this question, I imagine your girlfriend's status as a fatherless daughter is causing her pain and damaging the relationship. Please be aware that it's extremely difficult for a woman to get over the rejection of her father and many never do. Some cling to it as a central part of their identity. Without it, they would have to take responsibility for their own lives instead of blaming their dads and that's much harder and scarier.

This is a crucial moment in your relationship when you should step back and ask: Is she really motivated to change? If the answer is “yes,” then encourage her to seek help from a professional. Going into therapy is the single best thing that she can do to grieve her dad's absence and to learn how to move forward from it. If she's not willing to do that, you should consider ending the romantic part of your relationship. You could remain friends, but she would not be a healthy candidate as a partner, wife, and mother.

If she chooses therapy, there are many ways you can be supportive. Encourage her to talk about what she's learning and write about it in a journal. Do activities together that promote her overall well-being such as spending time in nature, taking long walks together, cooking, and meditating. Volunteering in your community is also an effective way to help her move away from her own suffering. Most importantly, encourage her to “feel the feels” about her dad's rejection. Bottling up her emotions or numbing them with food, drug, or alcohol can lead to depression.

You sound like a caring boyfriend and I hope your girlfriend will seek professional help. I know you want what's best for her, but she must want it as well. I wish you two the best.

Question: Why does my father treat me like a little kid even though I am an adult?

Answer: Being treated like a child by our parents is not uncommon. No matter how old we get, our parents will always see us as being younger. I'm in my fifties and, when I complain about aches and pains or wrinkles and gray hair, my 80-year-old mother acts shocked and says she can't believe I suffer from those things. I would once get irritated by this, wondering why she couldn't see me for what I am—an aging woman. Then I decided to change my mindset. Instead of getting frustrated by it, I now see it as endearing. In her maternal eyes, I'll always be her little girl, and that's quite beautiful.