The psychological effects of our childhood experiences can have an outsized impact on who we become later in life. Earlier today, I read an article that provoked what one might describe as a panic attack. As I read this very disturbing article about the psychological ramifications of growing up fatherless, it all just sunk in for me—that I was damaged. My state of mind was completely altered when I finished reading about the scientific studies on fatherless sons.
Unfortunately, I have personally experienced many of the psychological consequences mentioned in the article. Most alarming for me was this statement: “Growing up without a father could permanently alter the structure of the brain.” Notice the word “permanently.” Maybe I’ve had my head in the sand (or the clouds.) I already knew that children from single-parent families tend to have more difficulties in life, but hearing it framed with these words? I was devastated.
This is what I learned about the likely psychological effects of growing up without a father.
- More Likely to be Aggressive
- More Likely to Be Depressed
- More Likely to Have Low Self-Esteem
- More Likely to Do Poorly in Schools
- More Likely to Be Incarcerated and to Commit Suicide
- More Likely to Use Drugs
1. More Likely Likely to Be Aggressive
Psychological studies show that children growing up without fathers are more likely to be aggressive and quick to anger. I’ve always had a copious amount of anger—not just loud anger, but quiet anger, as well. For me personally, quiet anger is more insidious and volatile. Silent anger doesn’t have a proper release valve, it just builds up like a growing monster, maturing right along with you. I’ve spent nearly all my life containing myself because I know it isn’t particularly productive or acceptable to be outwardly angry.
Anger makes you think and act with stupidity, and that’s just a bad way to release energy. Additionally, I have a greater chance of passing on my aggression to my children. Now I am forced to consider this if I ever decide to have a family. Do I really want to have children that are aggressive and prone to anger? Would I be doing the planet a favor by just letting it end with me? We all want to think or believe that we are in full control of our actions and goals—but are we really?
2. More Likely to Be Depressed
Teens growing up without a father are more susceptible to emotional distress. This is a hard subject for me to discuss because it forces me to recall very dark times in my life. I get bouts of depression that just seem to permeate every aspect of my life. My natural introversion magnifies the sense that I am alone in the world, and that no one can possibly understand what I am feeling.
Thankfully, I have always managed to pull through these bouts of depression. I attribute this to the ongoing support of my friends and their unrelenting efforts to help me restore balance in my life. I also remember high school teachers and college professors who went out of their way to urge me to apply myself and do better. In many ways, life is a team sport. Don’t be afraid to lean on your teammates for emotional support and reassurance.
3. More Prone to Low Self-Esteem
The psychological effects of growing up without a father can lead to self-esteem issues. Over the course of my life, I’ve had very few conversations with my father. I always believed there must be a reason why my father wasn’t ever there for me. I was introverted, and I never really opened myself up to others. I could never be myself with my friends or anyone in my social circle; I always carried the feeling that I was damaged or unwanted. Yet, I was lucky. I made healthy friendships that exposed me to a lot of positivity and optimism.
For a teen looking forward to college, I was also fortunate that I never had trouble dating. The women I’ve dated and had steady relationships with have taught me a lot about how to be a gentleman, and how to treat a woman with the utmost respect. Today, I feel good about myself; I’m content with not being perfect. Concurrent psychological effects have a way of compounding one another; the key is to be more self aware and battle your demons head-on.
4. More Likely to Do Poorly in School
Growing up without a father can affect your education. During high school, I did just enough to get by and get into a decent college. I’m embarrassed to say that so far I’ve dropped out of two colleges due to lack of effort and motivation. I’ve never felt good about this—I’ve robbed my mother of the pride and happiness of seeing her eldest son walk across a stage with a college degree.
I can’t go back and make things right, but I hope one day I will be able to achieve some success that will give my mother some assurance of my worth as a son. The negative psychological effects of being raised in a one-parent household can hold you back in life, but you still have a choice—sink or swim. It’s entirely up to you.
5. More Likely to Be Incarcerated and Commit Suicide
Even when factors such as income, race, and parent involvement were held constant, fatherless children—especially boys—are twice as likely to wind up in prison later in life. That is an alarming statistic. They are more prone to aggression, more likely to drop out of high school, and are more susceptible to negative influences. Given those tendencies, it’s not hard to see how that can lead to higher levels of incarceration down the line.
In addition, one of the most unnerving statistics is that nearly 65% of youth suicides are associated with fatherless homes. From my own experience I know that children who grow up fatherless are at a much greater risk for depression and, unfortunately, suicide.
6. More Likely to Use Drugs
Fatherless children are more likely to turn to drugs. When I was younger, I battled several addictions. My mother was justifiably busy holding down a job that supported the entire household. I would never portray my mother under a negative light; she loves her children, and she did the best she could. My two older sisters were preoccupied with their college studies. I was pretty much left to my own devices as a teenager.
I always had a circle of friends who were much older than me; whatever they did, I did. They got tattoos, I got tattoos. Suffice it to say, the things they chose to do to pass the time, I ultimately partook in, as well. You might be interested to know, however, that today I’m as sober as a priest. I was able to pull myself out of that tailspin, and realizing this fact gives me hope that I can overcome other hurdles in my life, too. At this point, knowing that I have that inner strength means everything to me. It means I can, in good faith, declare that there’s hope for me.
According to Dr. Mark Borg Jr, PhD, psychoanalyst and author of “How We Use Dysfunctional Relationships to Hide From Intimacy”, when children typically grow up fatherless there is an attempt by the child to compensate for whatever they feel, think, and believes is missing from the primary caregiver’s life. As a result, it is not uncommon for children to develop care-taking routines in an attempt to care for the caretaker (i.e., overcompensate).This developing of behavioral patterns is meant to help the primary caregiver do a better job of providing parental care to them.
Girls are more likely to ally with the caregiver by developing routines designed to make that person feel capable of providing care. Fatherless boys will allow themselves to be the family scapegoat by bearing the responsibility for issues that are going wrong with the family system in general. Both boys and girls are often compelled to take care of parents who they perceive as being unhappy, and boys and girls both, regardless of the circumstances that led to their fatherlessness, experience single caregivers as being in need of help.
The fatherless label is often simplified. Lots of variables and scenarios come into play when statistics are compiled. A feeling of helplessness can overwhelm us if we automatically react to every stat that we see. It is our duty to protect our own overall well-being from outdated or misleading studies by doing our due diligence. It is important to keep in mind that there are plenty of factors a statistic may not account for before we succumb to a victim mentality. With that being said there are many misconceptions associated with the issue of fatherless households:
1. Children in Fatherless Homes Have Fared Poorly Over the Past Three Decades
A collaborative report from different federal agencies have found that many indicators of a child’s well-being have increased while others have decreased. Youth are less likely to smoke, die, or be victimized while they have made fewer strides with variables that predict economic prosperity.
2. Research on Single Mother Households Proves That Fatherlessness Harms Children
Children’s perceptions of the relationship they have with both parents has a more direct influence on they psychological well-being than having then does physical presence (or absence) of their father.
3. Children Fare Worse in Fatherless Homes
On average, the differences in well-being between children from intact family homes and those from divorced homes tend to be small on average. The stress levels and psychological states of the parents are more powerful influences than income and if two parents are in the home.
There are many constructive ways to deal with the pain of growing up in a fatherless household. The measures are not always easy, but anyone committed to their own well-being can conquer the odds up against them. Dr. Mark Borg Jr. also had this to say on coping, “[i]t is important to express feelings rather than act them out. Self-sufficiency in relationships is a way of acting out old, unprocessed feelings about growing up fatherless or, growing up in a family where it felt like the care was not adequate. The problem is that it is so unsafe to grow up with inadequate care (whether fatherless or not) that most people push this out of their awareness and it does get acted out behaviorally (rather than processed consciously). The way to deal with this (adverse affect) is to–one relationship at a time–find and or create safe relationships to allow oneself to express the emotions and needs unmet in childhood.”
Other effective measures of dealing with fatherlessness include:
- Counseling and support groups are effective means for learning about ourselves and our own needs. These mediums assist us in interpreting the past in order to help us to perceive our future as brighter.
- Identifying role models and mentoring programs in the community that display moral ethics and ambition to influence children that grew up in fatherless households in a positive way.
- Acknowledging your anger and hurt feelings. It is never a good idea to rage quietly while putting up a front to the world. Be honest with yourself. Communicate your feelings from the heart rather than just expressing them. The key is to allow yourself the chance for growth.
- Forgiving anyone who has caused us harm takes a lot of grit. Doing it for closure can provide a much needed release and can potentially heal old wounds.
Through his absence, my father taught me that life isn’t fair. There are no guarantees that we will attain anything, achieve anything, or be loved by anyone. No matter what predispositions we are born with, or what psychological effects may be associated with our childhood experiences, we are the ultimate forgers of our destiny. I have to believe I can overcome the disadvantages of growing up without a father. I have to believe that I can still determine my future.
- National Fatherhood Initiative, “The Father Absence Crisis in America,” 2013.
- Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, “Father Absence in the Monogamous California Mouse Impairs Social Behavior and Modifies Dopamine and Glutamate Synapses in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex,” Oxford Journals, 2013.
- Sanchez, Claudio. (2017, June 18) “Poverty, Dropouts, Pregnancy, Suicide: What the Numbers Say About Fatherless Kids.” Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/06/18/533062607/poverty-dropouts-pregnancy-suicide-what-the-numbers-say-about-fatherless-kids
- Spencer, Ben., “Growing up without a father can permanently alter the BRAIN: Fatherless children are more likely to grow up angry and turn to drugs,” Daily Mail, 2013.
- Sutherland, Anna., “Yes, Father Absence Causes the Problems It’s Associated With,” Institute for Family Studies, 2014.
- Wilson, T., (2002). “Myths and Facts About Fatherlessness.” Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/79c4/ab7cc226d0db49fa4eb4e61181d12f4a9237.pdf
- (2017, July 20). Dealing With Anger From Having an Absent Father. Retrieved from https://firstthings.org/anger-absent-father