Missy Thompson, whose name has been changed for privacy, just closed the door on another rough day. Her 6-year-old son, Sean, was called into the principal’s office again because of his ongoing aggressive behaviors — punching and kicking other kids and adults. The kindergartner has already been suspended from school twice.
“My son craves male attention,” the Plano mom reveals. She and Sean’s father divorced when Sean was just 2, and he’s had no relationship with his father since, even though he spends every other weekend at his dad’s house. That’s because his father isn’t present physically most of the time and never emotionally. “When he has the kids (the couple also has a daughter, Grace, 4), he drops them off at his mom’s because he’s busy with work or lets his new wife tend to their needs,” Thompson explains. “My son didn’t even know who is father was until he was 3 because his dad was essentially a stranger to him.”
If fatherlessness were a disease, it would be an epidemic in the United States. Author David Blankenhorn calls the crisis “the most destructive trend of our generation.” More than 24 million children are being raised without the presence of their biological fathers. To put it in perspective: About one-third of the kids in an average American classroom live in a home without a father. And millions more have a physically and financially present father who is emotionally unavailable for his kids.
It’s a problem that touches all races and all socioeconomic classes. And there is well-documented evidence that fathers’ parenting failures and absences lead to an increase in behavioral, emotional and psychological problems in children.
Psychology of Fatherlessness
Conventional wisdom holds that two parents are better than one, and experts contend that the father part of that equation provides children with male role models who have the power to influence a child’s preferences, values, attitudes, while giving them a sense of security and boosting their self-esteem.
Dallas mom Shanjula Harris knows firsthand the impact that dads can have on their kids, especially their sons. When her son Trent, whose name has been changed for privacy, was 12, he was on the school’s football team. When he was doing well on the team, his dad was at every game cheering him on. Trent even switched from playing defense to offense, motivated by his desire to make his father proud. He wanted his dad to see him catching the ball and scoring a touchdown. When Harris’ son didn’t get enough minutes on the field, he quit. He didn’t want his father to see him on the bench. “If I don’t play today then how will dad feel?” she remembers him saying.
So in the fall, Trent joined the wrestling team, but wrestling didn’t capture Dad’s interest the way football had. In fact, “He told me wrestling wasn’t a man’s sport,” the now 18-year-old college student remembers his dad saying. So Trent’s dad was a no-show for matches, and once again, Trent was hurt by his dad’s lack of support.
“Fatherless boys miss out on a model for the masculine journey and may use aggression and reckless behaviors to define that for themselves,” says Pamela Hafemann, a licensed family therapist at the Ross Institute for Trauma at University Behavioral Health Hospital in Denton and Emotional Transformation Therapy Center in Dallas and Colleyville.
“I definitely acted out,” Trent admits. “I was one of those kids who tried to fit in with the wrong crowd. I became the class clown, and my grades started to slip. I was seeking acceptance from everyone around me when what I really wanted was acceptance from my father.”
When a fatherless boy feels pain, he tends to be disruptive. Girls tend to be less dramatic and often mask their emotional disorders.
Girls without a father’s presence, input and affirmation suffer in many ways too. Studies have shown that fathers generally have as much or more influence than mothers on many aspects of their daughters’ lives. Fathers have greater impact on his daughter’s ability to trust and enjoy and relate well to the males in her life.
Melissa Morris, whose name has been changed, now 23, can’t make it past the five-month mark with any man she dates. “I have trouble trusting men to take care of me, to love me the way I want to be loved,” says the college student who lives in Dallas. “I struggle with what’s acceptable with respect to how men should treat me.”
Kids, like all mammals, attach to their caregivers, Hafemann explains. “When a father is not emotionally available, the child is set up for deficits that can deeply affect their ability to attach in a healthy manner to others,” she says.
A good dad teaches his girls how men should behave.
Morris never saw that. Her parents divorced when she was 9. But even before papers were filed, her father was virtually absent. She says her weekdays were spent with her father coming and going before she woke up and after she went to bed each night. “And even when he was home, he never ate with us, and I just accepted this as our normal,” she explains.
Research shows that a dad’s emotional absence can give a girl psychological distress, depression and low self-esteem; affect her future romantic endeavors; and cause her to make poor or life-threatening decisions.
All true for Morris, who reveals that she developed an eating disorder and was suicidal when she was in the fifth grade.
Unfortunately, it starts young. “My daughter has not had a daddy treat her like a princess and adore her and tell her how beautiful she is,” Thompson says of Sean’s younger sister, Grace. “She’s already insecure with herself at age 4.”
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough. Scientists have also found that growing up without a father actually changes the way a child’s brain develops, making them more aggressive and more susceptible to emotional distress. Without a father, children tend to feel insecure, place blame on themselves, have difficulty adjusting to social situations and experience problems with friendships and other relationships.
Doomed without Daddy?
Society often rationalizes that children in fatherless situations are adaptable and that they can make adjustments to cope. And while experts say that, yes, kids do adapt, it doesn’t mean that they are not hiding immense pain that needs to be dealt with.
To be sure, kids without dads can grow up to lead successful, productive lives (children without fathers have grown up to become Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, Nobel laureates, even the president of the United States), but it puts that extra burden on the parent — typically, Mom — left behind. So what can single moms do?
First, find kids a mentor to serve as a positive role model. (See the sidebar below.)
Zachary Garza Sr., founder of Forerunner Mentoring, a program he started in 2011 in Lake Highlands for boys in fourth grade and older who come from father-absent homes, says a mentor completely changed his life around after his parents divorced.
“On the outside, I looked self-confident and secure,” Garza says of his young self. “But I was doing anything to please others and that meant struggling with drugs and alcohol. I was an angry, frustrated and rebellious kid.”
But all that changed when one man saw through Garza’s fake persona, spent intentional quality time with him and introduced him to other men (who would also serve as Garza’s mentors). “These men didn’t sit me down and teach me how to be a man,” he explains. “They led by example.” So one taught him how to be a husband, another showed him what confidence really looked like, another taught him how to forgive and deal with conflict and another showed him how to serve.
“The most positive impact my mentors had on me was that I became a person I liked,” Garza explains. “I gained self-confidence, respected who I was and no longer defined my identity by what others thought.”
But it didn’t happen overnight. It took five or six years for Garza’s 180-degree transformation. Now, an adult and father, he pays it forward through Forerunner Mentoring.
“A mom can be the best mom ever, but she can’t teach her son to become a man,” he says.
For girls, this can be a little trickier.
Gina Sanders, whose name has been changed, was a junior in high school when she became depressed and stopped going to class, she remembers. So her single mom sought the help of the one of the youth ministers at church.
“I didn’t realize it until years later because the mentoring wasn’t like a formal agreement,” says the now 37-year-old teacher and Ph.D student. “It was subtle, but my youth minister encouraged me to take on leadership roles, and he really built up my confidence.”
But because so many fatherless girls find it difficult to trust men, it might be more successful to seek the help of a strong and confident female mentor for your daughter. (Mentoring services typically match girls with women.)
Aside from finding a positive role model for the kids, seek out a network of support for your children — and for yourself.
“It really does take a village to raise a child,” Garza explains. “Single moms need to find a community with positive male influences to help her out.”
That might mean having the kids spend time with an uncle or older male cousin, or it might mean getting plugged in to an external community through church or a community center, places where kids can talk with others about their feelings and frustrations.
“Mom needs to be the gatekeeper for her household,” says Diana Bigham, a family therapist in Keller. “That means intentionally finding positive men to surround her children with — youth group leaders, teachers, mentors, coaches, even the friends she chooses.”
Help them Heal
“If a child shows signs of ongoing stress, find a therapist sooner rather than later so the issues don’t compound,” Hafemann advises. For smaller children, she advises seeking the help of a play therapist who is trained to get information through play when the child can’t articulate their feelings.
Which is true for Thompson’s son. “He doesn’t know why he acts out,” she says. “He’s too little to verbalize why he’s angry or frustrated so he expresses those emotions with his fists.”
For Morris, who admits that she’s still a work in progress, the road to healing includes a therapist she can trust (she currently sees two), having male professors who have really believed in her and finding other adults who have had similar struggles.
“It’s almost like you can spot someone who grew up without a dad,” she explains. “So I might share something about myself to get them to open up, and those relationships become in-person support groups.”
Moms need to “take care of yourself so that you can take care of others,” Hafemann stresses. “Single moms definitely have more of a challenge without the support of the father, and making emotional, physical, spiritual and financial health a priority is important.” She says that moms need to invest in their emotional health — whether that means taking time to nurture themselves or time to talk to a professional.
“If Mom is emotionally healthy, she is better equipped to help her child,” she says. So find a family therapist for you too, or join a support group specifically for single moms (see the sidebar below to find one near you).
“Family and friends always want to help, but they don’t necessarily know how,” Thompson says. “It’s easier to talk to women who know exactly what you’re going through. To them, your story isn’t shocking; it’s unfortunately the norm.”
Thompson’s involved with group therapy and is working on making herself more of a priority. “I was really caring so little for myself,” she admits. “But now I am getting help to learn how to take care of myself so I can be the mom my kids need, because I can’t change the person my ex is. I need to be the best version of myself to help my kids.”
This article was first published in the November 2016 issues of DallasChild, FortWorthChild and NorthTexasChild.