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Study: Dads have distinct, special role in helping kids weather adolescence, grow into mature adults

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It has long been understood that fathers play an incredibly important role in the lives of their children. Involved fathers are said to have a direct impact on the social and emotional well-being of their children and often significantly influence their measure of future success.

But in recent years — as support for traditional family structures has diminished and progressive ideology has attempted to downplay the valuable differences between men and women — a healthy respect for fatherhood has been denigrated.

A recent study by researchers at Penn State University, however, has rediscovered the distinctive role that fathers play in raising healthy, mature children.

The study found specifically that closeness with fathers serves a distinctive role in helping children weather the turbulent years of adolescence by positively affecting the self-esteem, weight management, and prevalence of depressive symptoms in both girls and boys, the Penn State report said.

Anna Hochgraf, a doctoral candidate in human development and family studies at the university, who led the research project, noted that while emotionally close relationships with both fathers and mothers had positive effects on children, fathers had a broader influence.

"Adolescents tend to feel emotionally closer to their mothers than to their fathers and mothers tend to have supportive conversations with their children more frequently than fathers do," Hochgraf said. "This may make emotional closeness with fathers more salient and, in turn, protective against these common adjustment problems experienced during adolescence."

To come up with the results, researchers recruited 388 adolescents from 202 two-parent families with both fathers and mothers and gathered data at three checkpoints between the time participants were 12 and 20 years old. At the checkpoints, researchers inquired about participants' weight concerns, symptoms of depression, and self-esteem, and measured the intimacy between parents and their kids.

The method allowed researchers to analyze the distinctive effects of relationships between children and each of their parents at different times during adolescence. They found that results varied:

  • For example, the study found that "father-youth intimacy was associated with fewer weight concerns across most of adolescence for girls and boys, and mother-youth intimacy was associated with boys' but not girls' weight concerns, and only in early adolescence."
  • "Father-youth intimacy was associated with fewer depressive symptoms for boys and girls across most of adolescence, whereas mother-youth intimacy was associated with fewer depressive symptoms in mid-adolescence," researchers said.
  • "Finally, father-youth intimacy was associated with higher self-esteem from early through mid-adolescence for boys and girls, whereas mother-youth intimacy was associated with higher self-esteem across most of adolescence for girls [but only] during early and late adolescence for boys," they added.
Researchers said the study highlights the special role fathers play in raising children and underscores the importance, generally, of parents establishing emotionally close relationships with their children.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health, and the Prevention and Methodology Training Program helped support the study, Penn State reported.
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