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New Study: Early Relationship with Father Key to Men's Stress Management

By L.K. Regan

Feeling kind of stressed out? Maybe you should take a look at your relationship with... your father. That at least is the conclusion of a new study presented at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, where researchers presented evidence that men's emotional ability to handle stress may be largely shaped by their early relationships with their fathers.

Melanie Mallers, PhD, of California State University, Fullerton conducted daily interviews with 912 adult men and women over an eight-day period. In the interviews, she asked participants about their emotional states, including sadness, depression, nervousness, etc., and about stressful daily events, such as arguments, family tension, and even discrimination. She also asked participants to describe their early relationships with their parents. Questions included: "How much time and attention did your father give you when you needed it?" and "How would you rate your relationship with your mother during the years when you were growing up?" (All questions were asked with regard to both mothers and fathers).

Some of the results were pretty unsurprising. For instance, men reported better relationships with their mothers than did women. Likewise, people with good maternal relationships had three percent less psychological distress than those with poor mother relations. "I don't think these results are surprising, given that past research has shown mothers are often the primary caregiver and often the primary source of comfort," said Dr. Mallers. But, she added, "It got interesting when we examined the participants' relationship with their fathers and their daily emotional reaction to stress."

In general, people in the study who reported poor relationships with both parents experienced more stressful events across the days of the study than the happy-family participants. But men who had good relationships with their fathers were much more able to cope with stressful events in their daily lives—an effect not found for women. “Most studies on parenting focus on the relationship with the mother," Dr. Mallers pointed out. "But, as our study shows, fathers do play a unique and important role in the mental health of their children much later in life." And this effect was difficult to account for, since the study included participants aged 25 to 74—covering very different eras in American child-rearing practices. "The role of fathers has changed dramatically from the time the oldest participants were children," said Mallers. "We do know that fathers have a unique style of interacting with their children, especially their sons. We need more research to help us uncover further influences of both mothers and fathers on the enduring emotional experiences of their children."

In advance of that research, Mallers theorizes that men are so heavily impacted by their paternal relationships because men, more so than women, learn their basic coping skills from their fathers, where women may rely on a much broader network beyond their parents. "A big take-home message is that if there is a father present in a child’s life, he needs to know how important it is to be involved," Mallers says. "Father-son relationships are incredibly powerful. When they're healthy, it's hugely protective for boys." And, she points out, this is a message of hope, not criticism: "For dads who grew up without a dad, this is an opportunity to repair damage." Moreover, her research also emphasized the importance of male relationships in a boy's development—even if the father isn't around. It's never too late to be a role-model.