Are the effects of father absence on girls overlooked? In this piece, Louie Werth, a 3rd year student of Childhood Studies at CCCU and a research intern at the Research Centre for Children, Families and Communities, discusses the potential effects of father absence on girls and considers how current attitudes and school referral practices may result in many girls not receiving the support they may need.
Does father absence really have an effect on girls? And if so, do schools have to deal with it? There are a range of definitions and causes of father absence but by far the most common for children in the UK is an experience of father absence as an effect of divorce or parental separation. A large number of divorced couples have children of primary age, with 91% of single parent families being lone mother as opposed to lone father families. This is a common situation for our children.
Without laying blame or creating guilt, it is important to recognise that experiences of parental separation and in particular paternal absence can have strong effects on both boys and girls. Father absence is often the most salient and daily felt effect of parental separation for children.
Father absence is often conceptualised as a ‘boy problem’. There is, perhaps, a silent assumption that boys are hugely disadvantaged by father absence because they lose their male role model and then walk into a ‘feminised’ school environment. Whereas daughters on the other hand are perhaps assumed to be not so affected, as daughters still have mum at home and a swathe of female teachers to act as ‘role models’. But surely being a gender role model is only part of the parent package. Such a narrow view of fatherhood is not only false, it causes us to forget the potential effects father absence has on girls.
It is important to remember that both boys and girls are affected by their experience of paternal absence. However, whilst both boys and girls’ subjective well-being can be hugely affected by an experience of paternal absence, it is important to note that (generally) boys and girls do react to this experience in very different ways. Boys are typically more prone to respond at primary age by exhibiting externalizing behavioural issues and suffering academically. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to feel a strong sense of personal rejection and, as a result, develop a range of internalizing issues such as strong feelings of abandonment, unworthiness, anxiety and shyness alongside social withdrawal behaviours.
It is this difference of response that is crucial to the role of the school in this situation. The present system used for identifying children experiencing emotional issues is that of teacher referral. It’s a logical system, the teacher sees a pupil with an issue and they refer them to internal services, who in turn will work with the child and may refer the child to external services. But the issue is, studies are showing that teachers are not as great at identifying internalizing issues in comparison to externalising issues. This is common sense. The boy who may shout at the teachers, who is violent towards other children, and who is making little academic progress is far easier to ‘identify’ for support than the girl who is perhaps struggling with feelings of sadness and rejection. A more sinister spin on the issue of referrals is, which of the two examples is most likely to affect whole class and individual attainment?
This is not a critique of teachers as much as the system. Many teachers would love to support both boys and girls facing emotional issues, but the ultimate question is raised – what is the purpose of a teacher? Educator, social worker or both? And if both, where do we draw the line? Who or what decides when an issue is taken up and when it is left? Also, if statements and external support are only given for the most serious of cases, what value is there in seeking support for a girl who is academically succeeding, reasonably social, but struggling with internalizing emotional issues that are hard to quantify or link to damaging behaviour? Boys are more likely to get picked up for support by the nature of their reaction; similarly girls are less likely to get picked up for support, again because of the nature of their reaction to the exact same situation.
But internalizing issues when left unidentified and supported can lead to serious externalizing behavioural issues. It is interesting to note that whilst at the primary school age girls often react to experiences of father absence with internalizing issues, at secondary age girls who have experienced father absence are more likely to exhibit externalizing behavioural issues than those who have present fathers. These behaviours include early engagement in sexual activity, pregnancy and drug use, with girls who have experienced father absence also being more prone to developing long term psychological issues. Now, of course each girl is different but there does seem to be a relationship between girl’s experiences of father absence and later externalizing behaviours.
Could it be that a lack of identification and targeted support for girls who are experiencing internalizing issues as a result of father absence is resulting in externalizing problems later down the line? I think it certainly could be. We need to reassess referral systems in school, ensuring our measures for identification and support don’t only kick in when behaviour or attainment is dropping. More importantly we need to remember the broader role of fathers – dad is not just a gender role model for his sons, he means a lot to his daughters too and as a result, his absence can affect both.
But is this all just speculation and conjecture? A drawing together of lots of disparate bits of possibly related information, to make a (reasonably) coherent, emotive argument? Let me end with a brief story.
I went back to my old secondary school to teach an R.E. lesson and as part of the lesson I was asked to do a typical ‘I worked hard at school and this is where I am now’ spiel. As part of that spiel, I mentioned that I was presenting this issue at an upcoming education conference. No sooner had the title left my lips, the class exploded into discussion. The girls in the class didn’t need me to tell them that girls’ experiences of father absence are often overlooked – they remembered.