Study: Why Family Breakups Are Hardest on Girls

The absence of a father figure may have long-term negative effects on girls' health, according to a new study.

sad young girl at the window
Photo: Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock

A new study out of the University of Illinois, and published in the journal Review of Economics of the Household, finds family breakups are harder on girls' health than boys.

To reach their conclusions, researchers looked at data taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health over the course of 13 years. Specifically, they looked at participants who had single moms, and used overall health, depression, and smoking as indicators of well-being.

Researchers found when fathers leave their daughters at a young age, the long-term effects are the worst.

"Early father absence is adversely associated with smoking behavior, overall health, and depression well into adulthood," says Andrea Beller, an economist from the U of I. "And the pattern of findings for depression over the time periods suggests that family structure has a more complex role in girls' mental than physical health."

Beller goes on to explain how the absence of a dad early on impacts girls: "We find that if the biological father was never present, smoking, physical [health], and mental health are all worse. And if they leave when girls are in very early childhood (0 to 5 years old), we find a significant association with worse physical health, regardless of the presence of other males."

In fact, having another male role model in the home didn't necessarily equate to better outcomes for daughters. "The men may or may not have acted as a dad to the child. We don't know how they interacted, but we do know that the presence of such father-substitutes tends to be associated with much worse outcomes for girls, while the absence of father-substitutes leads to some of the worst family structure associations for boys," Beller says.

Beller says ultimately this study showed, "If you grow up in a non-traditional family structure—single parent or step-parent or a cohabiting relationship—girls are more likely than boys to be depressed and report worse overall health."

The takeaway? Family breakups happen, and non-traditional families can certainly thrive. But if your family falls into one of the categories above, you may want to pay close attention to your daughters' mental health and think about reaching out for help to support her healthy development.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.

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