Why We Should All Care About The Fatherless Daughter Syndrome
I lost my father when I was 11. He died of a heart attack. The pre-teen girl I was had to grow at a very high speed. My life changed completely as my family moved to another city, my mother became a single mom who had to care for 4 children while I had to lead by example for my siblings. A shift happened not only in my life but also in my mind: I had to create a new paradigm where being strong was the only choice I had. The only way to survive. I was fortunate enough to still have my mother at this critical time. But this void my dad left, this painful and timeless trauma, remained unchanged. I was fatherless and broken, no matter what I would do to hide or forget it. “Daddy’s issues” ruined a big part of my life, but I was too busy being strong to notice. What started as a defence mechanism became my personality. 15 years later, the young woman I have become is changed, for better and for worse. My strength, resilience and courage became my greatest allies. My vulnerability, insecurities, fear of abandonment became my demons. My story is perhaps painful, but far from being isolated.
Many teenage girls and young women around the world suffer from emotional trauma due to father loss whether it’s caused by death, abandonment, divorce, imprisonment, addiction, emotional or physical absence. Whatever the circumstances causing the absence of the father are, the impact is critical as the father-daughter relationship strongly influences key factors of personal development among young women such as: relationships, self-esteem, aspirations, confidence and self-love. Over the years, they become vulnerable young women who find it harder to build healthy personal and professional lives as they are building their lives, relationships, aspirations, and self-representation on the basis of this trauma, especially when it occurs during adolescence. They suffer from trust issues, low self-esteem and fear of abandonment which create the unhealthy need to be accepted and loved at all costs. Most of the time, these symptoms usually go unnoticed and unacknowledged as these young women do not necessarily understand the root issue causing their behavior, and build a façade around themselves. From dysfunctional behaviors, unhealthy relationships to chronic depression, the fatherless daughter syndrome can take several forms over the years and even be forgotten for some time, without actually disappearing. Rather, it gives rise to a vicious cycle of self-destruction mechanisms, self-doubt, and unhealthy or abusive relationships in their lives. Because we feel unloved and unworthy, we search for love and validation in all the wrong places, which make us vulnerable and exposed to both physical and emotional abuse. The social and economic environment as well as the family structure are factors that influence or reinforce the impact of fatherlessness in the lives of girls and young women. In low incomes families where the father is absent, the mother is emotionally unavailable or unstable, and there is no positive male figure, daughters will most likely experience more self-worth issues, insecurities, abuse, sexual promiscuity and repeat the cycle of fatherlessness. Having a support system is crucial in this context as girls often feel vulnerable and struggle to open up about what they experience, yet millions of children around the world go through the same thing. A survey of the U.S. Census Bureau estimated at 24.7 million the number of children who live without the physical presence of their biological father in the United States. In this same country, 80% of father-deprived adolescents are in psychiatric hospitals. While in Canada, over 80% of single-parent families are led by women (www.imfcanada.org / Statistics Canada). Fatherlessness is the greatest social problem in North America according to 72.2% of the U.S. population (National Center for Fathering). Other studies show that 71% of teenage pregnancies comes from fatherless homes and 92% of girls who come from fatherless home are more likely to divorce. These statistics demonstrate that children thrive with the active and meaningful participation of both parents, and that fathers play an important role in child and teen development. Understanding the impact of fatherlessness in young women’s lives specifically, the emotional trauma caused by father loss and the consequences on society is key if we want to build a healthier society.
The father-daughter relationship has a strong impact on the mental construct of teenage girls. If this relationship is broken for various reasons whatsoever, the young woman suffers and it has an impact on almost every aspect of her life.
Since childhood, fathers have a critical impact on their daughters’ lives as they are both their first guides to the outside world and their first reflections of themselves, symbol of recognition of their own value. A healthy and uninterrupted relationship between a father and a daughter greatly helps to create a positive self-image and therefore will have a positive influence on her aspirations and relationships. When this relationship is suddenly broken for some reason, the daughter’s cycle of identity development is also interrupted. Adolescence and preadolescence are critical times where young women build themselves: their body change, they make a transition from girls to young women, and in this transition, the father’s role is important. The emotional trauma caused by father loss not only weakens the girl, but creates a void she will somehow try to fill by all means possible. Consequently, she becomes exposed to all forms of danger and abuse. Fatherless young women often become self-destructive, violent, vulnerable, sexually promiscuous, prone to abuse, unstable and develop a conflictual relationship with their femininity and sexuality. They find it difficult to trust and live in constant fear of abandonment which sometimes lead them to make unhealthy choices for themselves in order to please others and feel accepted. In their professional and social lives, the absence of a paternal figure, that of a guide and protector, manifests itself through a lack of self-worth and consequently create more difficulties for them to be stable and become autonomous. Or conversely, they become obsessed with their professional achievements that give them the illusion to fill that void.
Romantic relationships is undoubtedly the area in which the impact of father loss is felt the most in young women’s life. Growing up, a father figure is similar to that of the “Prince Charming”, a sort of masculine ideal in a girl’s mind. It’s her first male reference, one that embodies the values necessary for her to build her identity: guidance, protection, authority, discipline, kindness, confidence and absolute love. When they become adults, women’s choices of partners are highly influenced by this ideal (and illusory) image of the father figure and the relationship they had or would have loved to have with him, thus causing unhealthy and often abusive relationships. Many of these women will particularly struggle during separation and break-ups as they make an emotional projection of their dads on their partner, while others experience more difficulties to trust, express their feelings and commit. It is common that fatherless young women unconsciously repeat the same relationships patterns that manifest through a constant fear of abandonment, insecurities, difficulties to open up, a conflictual relationship to male authority and defence mechanisms. They usually create a shell around themselves that seems strong on the outside, but deep inside, they remain extremely vulnerable.
“What is complicated when a father dies, especially when his daughter is still young, it’s the fact that she’s no longer able, during her adolescence, to make him fall from his pedestal. And it’s frequent that, when she becomes a woman, she chooses a partner of the same age her father would have or the age at which he died, a sign that she remains committed to a certain image of him. As for the girls who were abandoned by their father, many grow up with the idea that they were unable to keep him, and no man will ever love them because they are not good enough to their eyes. “Didier Lauru, psychoanalyst
But relationships could also be where healing happens. I believe I’m a proof of that. After several chaotic relationships, being with the right partner finally helped me understand my trauma — a trauma I didn’t even know existed and patterns I never paid attention to. I became more aware, and it was the beginning of my healing journey. Being in a healthy relationship where you feel safe, you can trust and open up without the fear of being vulnerable can really be therapeutic. On the other hand, a lot of (broken) men take advantage of vulnerable young women with the Fatherless Daughter Syndrome: because they can see their wounds, they will use it against them. And that’s when relationships become abusive.
In this growing social issue, I believe everyone has a role to play. Mothers play a fundamental role in building a positive identity and self-esteem in young women and girls, but most of the time, they lack the tools to understand their daughter’s critical needs triggered by their father’s absence. And since they are not aware of it, they are not be able to fix it. In certain cases, the presence of a stepfather or a strong male figure can be positive in the lives of fatherless young women, without necessarily filling the void nor healing her wounds, it can provide the guidance, trust and safety they need. But the real work is within as it takes a real introspection and emotional support to undo self-destruction patterns caused by years of emotional suffering and denial. A trauma remains like an open wound as long as it is not addressed. It is important that parents, educators, psychiatrists, civil society, governments and society in general pay a closer attention to fatherless girls and young women, encourage them to open up and listen to them. One of the biggest challenges I experienced was not being able to talk to anyone about how I felt while I desperately needed guidance.
Creating a safe space for fatherless young women to open up about what they experience, and analyzing the roots of their behavior is the first step to finding adequate solutions.
We cannot build an equal society with broken people. Nor can we speak of women and girls’ empowerment without addressing such essential parts of their lives: the family structure and trauma provoked by father loss. As young women, the image we have of ourselves is largely influenced by the way — and environment in which — we were raised as well as our family structure: not only does it shape our character, but it also influences how the world perceives us. Many girls who have faced the death, abandonment, physical or emotional absence of their father will become broken young women with emotional and relationship issues. On the other hand, the number of single-parent families continues to grow but the focus is not quite on young women traumatized by the loss of their fathers and who, subsequently, face difficulties building healthy lives and thriving. Fatherlessness should be seen as a psychological trauma like any others that deserves special attention and care because of the impact it has on society as a whole. A woman with unhealed father loss trauma and dysfunctional behavior will most likely repeat the cycle of fatherlessness and abuse she went through, which will result in more broken children growing into broken adults. American psychiatrist Karl Menninger once said “What is done to our children, they will do to society”. The world we live in proves it to be true. We tend to focus so much on the consequences rather than looking at what triggers dysfunction in young women. We are so quick to judge and blame, without looking at ourselves and seeing our own responsibility in the problem. We build short-term solutions, we “cover it up”, then wonder why depression, suicide, crime, teenage pregnancies, abuse, incarceration, school dropout, mental diseases are so common among father-deprived children. It is crucial, as a global community, to raise awareness on this issue and support adolescents girls from an early age to minimize the negative impact on themselves and society.
Teenage girls with emotional trauma caused by father loss need guidance in the process of building their identities: by raising their self-esteem and aspirations, they will be better equipped to make healthy choices for their future.
I believe in the healing power of storytelling, which is for me a canal of hope, a vehicle of wisdom, a catalyst for change. I also believe healing starts with awareness: self-awareness, awareness of the world around us, and the fact that we all have a role to play in the healing of the world. As women, we have been so conditioned to be strong and cope with everything, but this is doing more harm than good. A lot of men underestimate the impact of their physical and emotional absence on their daughters’ lives, and perhaps lack the tools to do so. Storytelling is an opportunity to educate, inform, raise awareness. While this article was mainly based on my research, personal experience and those of young women I have met, I am aware that, depending on the circumstances, the impact may vary. I’m welcoming testimonies of young women from diverse backgrounds who have suffered emotional trauma related to their father’s absence, and who are willing to share their stories to enrich the discussion.