The effects of Growing up with an Absent Father

How growing up with an absent father affects a child in reality

By Ashley N. Johnson
The effects of Growing up with an Absent Father

The meaning of Absent Fathers

“Absent fathers are those who, in the process of leaving the family, do not offer explanations to their children about the reasons for their departure.

Many children grow up without a consistent father figure in their lives. There can be many reasons for an absent father.  It can also be a temporary situation or a permanent situation, or it might ebb and flow.  Some children grow up having never met their fathers. All of these scenarios have different consequences for a child, some positive and some negative. And of course, there are stereotypes of the consequences as well.  But, what do we really know about the effects of growing up without a Dad around?

An absent father is simply a father who is, well, absent from a child's life.  While absence itself has consequences, the way in which a father is absent, the gender of the child, and the time in the child's life when the absence began have different consequences. In the scientific literature, absence is classified and distinguished as being either a physical absence or an emotional absence. 

Physical Absence

Physical absence is when Dad is missing in his physical form. The physical separation can be either temporary or permanent and can happen because of a variety of circumstances. A father might be physically absent because of military deployment, a job assignment, being separated, divorced, or remarried, or death, just to name some examples.

Emotional Absence

Emotional absence can accompany physical absence, however there is often more to the story than that.  A father can live in the same home as his child, yet lack any kind of bonding or nurturing qualities.  Maybe he is around physically but he drinks or uses drugs.  Maybe he is always working on projects or avoiding spending any time with the family for various reasons.  These are only some examples of how a father can be emotionally absent. 

Related Article: What Are the Different Parenting Styles for Raising Kids
What Are the Different Parenting Styles for Raising Kids
 Are you aware of your parenting style? It is actually quintessential for parents to know how to raise their kids in the right manner.

What is the difference?

The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Research shows that the different circumstances under which a father is absent yield different consequences for the children involved.  For example, a deployed military father might be physically absent, yet video chats with his children every day, or at least whenever he is able, showing he cares about them and what is going on while he is away.

The absence of a father on assignment, such as military deployment, is different than a father who has left the family or comes and goes for reasons personal to the situation.  A father with this kind of absence may or may not express care or concern for his children, and might also have more of a choice in the matter than a father who is absent because of work or duty.

Absence during childhood

During the formative years of childhood, having an absent father affects behavior and development.  Having both a male and female role model for behavior helps children navigate their own social interactions and practice building relationships without people outside of their households.  Developmentally, confidence can be hurt with the lack of having two parents involved. 

...evidence suggests that father love is as important as mother love and has a powerful influence on child health, cognitive development and social functioning…

Absence during adolescence

Research shows that an absent father after the age of 12 has little effect on behavior and development. Perhaps, by that age, a critical window for Dad's influence on behavior and development has closed.  That doesn't mean that adolescents aren't feeling the effects, however.  Adolescents are simply young adults, and this can be the first time in a fatherless teen's life they are dealing with the consequences the absence may have had during the formative childhood years.  Bullying, for example, might become a problem during this time.

Statistics of Absent Fathers in families

More than any other group studied in the past decade, divorced families and families where the father was never married to the mother experience the highest rates of absent fathers. There are many types of families affected by absent fathers overall.  In general, the rate of absent fathers remains fairly equal among various races, socio-economic statuses, education levels, and age groups.

Why are Fathers Absent?

Incarceration is one of the reasons why a father might be absent.  Being behind bars most certainly causes a father to be physically absent, but this can be a cause for emotional absence as well.  Depending on the crime that leads to the incarceration, both physical and emotional absence may have been factors long before illegalities caught up with him. Even if a father uses all of his resources to be emotionally absent during a prison sentence, his rights to communicate with and visit with his family are severely limited.  

Substance abuse might be another reason why a father is absent. Drug users can disappear for days at a time seeking highs and coming down.  Alcoholics spend a lot of time at bars instead of with their families.  These are ways that substance abuse leads to physical absence.  When dads who abuse drugs and alcohol live at home, they might be physically present, but emotionally they are absent because of their altered states. 

Divorce is a very common reason for absentee fathers.  In fact, data suggests that judges ruling custody arrangements in favor of the mother promotes absenteeism in fatherhood. According to Psychology Today, "Courts have a great deal of responsibility in custodial judgments between separated and divorced parents". 

Death is, unfortunately, one of the reasons why a father could be absent.  Many of the other reasons for absence listed, unfortunately, often lead to untimely deaths of fathers, as does active duty and disease.  

Are there replacements for a father figure?

Boys learn what it means to be a man in the world from their fathers.  This definition is changing constantly in modern times, but overall, learning to navigate masculinity is important for a boy or young man.

Girls learn about masculine energy and in turn about their role as a female from the interactions between themselves and their fathers. A lot of their feelings of self-worth, especially during adolescence, are shaped by their relationship with their father. 

The culture is so focused on young females as sex objects that it’s just as important for the girl as for the boy to get a positive male role model at that point—one who sees women as people. A girl needs to have a model of males in her life who are interested in her as a thinking and feeling person.

Close relationships with grandparents or other family members. It would seem obvious that a grandfather would make an excellent stand-in for a boy with an absent father, and research certainly supports that.  However, the is data to support the role of a grandmother in being an emotional support stand-in for a father.  What's more, in one study, not only did grandchildren benefit from the presence of their grandmothers, but the single mothers raising them found that Grandma made an excellent stand-in for their missing partners.

Role models can come in the form of a trusted school teacher. Unfortunately, with a divorce rate of roughly 50% in the United States, teachers are well-versed in the stresses and struggles of children who are in the middle of or survivors of a divorce. On the same token, this experience might equip teachers to be trusted confidants for fatherless children.

Coaches are another possible stand-in for some of the aspects of fatherhood. 

Sometimes a step-father might step in and act as a father figure for a child whose biological father is missing from the picture. 

Blended families are a great example of how an already father takes new children under his wing and raises them as his own. 

The effects on daughters growing up with an Absent Father

There’s an apparent relationship between a dad’s behavior and his daughter’s sexual and social development.”

Growing up without a father is hard for any child.  However, current research data suggests that the experience effects girls differently than boys.  There are a lot of assumptions about this in popular culture.  But what is true?


There's a term for girls who grow up with either a physically absent or emotionally absent father: daddy issues.  The assumption is that daddy issues cause girls to be wild, slutty, more likely to have an unwanted or early pregnancy, and seek relationships with "bad boys" or abusive men to continue the psychological cycle of what they believe they desrve. 

The Truth

We get almost everything from them that we use in our personal intimate relationships, thus when women with complex issues with their fathers finally go out of that training ground, she performs seemingly unusual things inside an intimate encounter that could really leave a mark on her partner.

Not all of the assumptions about daddy issues are completely accurate.  It truly does increase promiscuity and risky sexual behavior.  Subsequently, there is an increased risk of unwanted or early pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. Of course, the kind of guy who gets a girl pregnant or gives her an STD might be a "bad boy" too, so the assumptions are grounded in science, sort of. 

But what's more, science indicates that women can grow up to have daddy issues even if their father sticks around. So, this goes to show that absence is not the only factor in cultivating a healthy relationship between fathers and daughters.  Quality time and maintaining a quality relationship beyond a girl's childhood seem to be key in preventing daddy issues.

The effects on sons growing up with an Absent Father

We've seen how an absent father affects girls.  But what about boys? Like girls, fatherless boys carry stigmas that are commonly cited, yet may or may not carry scientific merit. 

Fathers abandon their sons for a variety of reasons: through divorce, death, absences due to employment or military service, addictions, incarceration, and chronic physical or mental illness. Society defines some as honorable, such as a father who is missing in action while in military service. Other reasons are felt as disgracing and stigmatizing, such as a father incarcerated for embezzlement, or a mentally disturbed one who commits suicide.


Assumptions about what you might call "male daddy issues" are that it causes aggression and violent behavior, bullying, gender confusion, and even homosexuality. 

The Truth

Father absence is pathological and severely affects the abandoned son’s capacity for self-esteem and intimacy.

Sons who had an absent father are more likely to leave their own families and thus perpetuate the vicious cycle of abandonment. Sons without father are also more likely to be divorced as adults and also more likely to have infidelities. 

Related Article:  8 Ways Single Mum copes with bringing up baby alone
8 Ways Single Mum copes with bringing up baby alone
 Being a single mother could be difficult sometimes as you begin to wonder about how are you going to cope raising your kid(s) alone? 


“Father absence is a term that is not well defined and much of the literature does not discriminate between father absence due to death, parental relationship discord or other causes.”

A father's role in a child's life is so much more important than simply donating half the chromosomes and putting food on the table.  A father simply being physically present makes a very big difference in the development of a growing child.  Being emotionally available, we now know, is also imperative.  There are many reasons why a father might be absent, and each individual reasons has a different consequence. 

References: Father absence and gendered traits in sons and daughters