How Dads Influence Teens' Happiness

Posted on April 26, 2014

The influence of fathers on their teenage children has long been overlooked. Now researchers are finding surprising ways in which dads make a difference

In 2011 administrators at Frayser High School in Memphis, Tenn., came to a disturbing realization. About one in five of its female students was either pregnant or had recently given birth. City officials disputed the exact figures, but they admitted that Frayser had a problem. The president of a local nonprofit aimed at helping girls blamed the disturbing rate of teen pregnancy on television.

But psychologists Sarah E. Hill and Danielle J. DelPriore, both at Texas Christian University, took note of a more subtle fact about Tennessee. Nearly one in four households was headed by a single mother.

For Hill and DelPriore, that observation was a tip-off that something entirely different was going on. "Researchers have revealed a robust association between father absence - both physical and psychological - and accelerated reproductive development and sexual risk-taking in daughters," they wrote in a 2013 paper.

You might expect sexual maturation to be deeply inscribed in a teenager's genes and thus not likely to be affected by something as arbitrary and unpredictable as whether or not girls live in the same house as their father. Yet the association is quite clear. The problem comes in trying to explain it. How could a change in a girl's environment - the departure of her father - influence something as central to biology as her reproductive development?

I put that question to Hill. "When Dad is absent," she explained, "it basically provides young girls with a cue about what the future holds in terms of the mating system they are born into." When a girl's family is disrupted, and her father leaves or is not close to her, she sees her future: men don't stay for long, and her partner might not stick around either. So finding a man requires quick action. The sooner she is ready to have children, the better. She cannot consciously decide to enter puberty earlier, but her biology takes over, subconsciously. “This would help facilitate what we call, in evolutionary sciences, a faster reproductive strategy,” Hill said.


Source material from Scientific American

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