Globe and Mail

Teenage daughters still find Dad distant

Despite closer ties, communication gap persists

The Globe and Mail; Source: Health Canada
Monday, October 11, 1999

The new, involved father does not seem to have made much of an impression on his teenaged daughters, a new study has found.

Fathers have a big communication gap with their daughters -- a gap that has not changed much from 1990 to 1998, according to a Health Canada study based on national surveys of 2,500 teenagers.

In fact, while both boys and girls say they find their mothers approachable, they are far less likely to say the same about their fathers. Fathers did show some improvement between 1990 and 1998, but only in the responses from Grade 6 children.

Just 33 per cent of Grade 10 girls (ages 15-16) and 51 per cent of Grade 10 boys found it easy or very easy to talk to their fathers about things that really bother them.

When it came to their mothers, 68 per cent of boys and 65 per cent of girls said they could talk to them.

"It's difficult for fathers to talk to their kids, especially during those years of turmoil in early adolescence, when sexuality is a big issue that they ignore, when risky behaviour such as [drug experimentation] are prevalent, that they ignore," said Alan King of Queen's University in Kingston. He led the research team that wrote the study, called Trends in the Health of Youth.

Prof. King, a father of four adult boys (he coached their hockey teams), called men's emotional distance "a tradition that we'll probably have to get over, especially since the mothers don't have the same amount of time now to get to the kids, to make up for it."

The study expressed special concern about the lack of communication between girls and their fathers, saying that girls tend to value their fathers highly and need their support.

The gap grows, not surprisingly, as young people move through adolescence. Among Grade 6 children, 71 per cent of boys and 58 per cent of girls said they find it easy or very easy to talk to their fathers. The drop in the next four years is precipitous.

Sarah Reid, 14, of Vancouver, is an exception: She finds it easier to talk to her father as she gets older. When she was younger, and the family was living in Ottawa, her father would come home from his stressful job and quickly fall asleep, she said in an interview.

"When you just meet someone, are you going to open up with them and share your whole life story? As I get to know my Dad better, I'm finding we have a lot of stuff in common."

Her advice for fathers: "Just spend time with your kids and support them in what they do, even if you don't like it. If I fail a test my Dad is there. He says, 'I failed my share of tests, too. You're still smart and good.' And he still loves me."

She advised daughters to be open with their fathers, and honest about their feelings as they become young women. "I'm still Daddy's little girl and it's kind of hard for him to see me grow up. You have to show him that you're not still a little girl."

Her father, Darrel Reid, president of Focus on the Family, a Christian group, said that men feel confused about their roles in a time of changing ideas about fatherhood. He said he goes "on a date, individually with each of my daughters, every week. It's not a preoccupied Daddy saying, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' and getting back to paying the bills."

Paul Mineiro, a spokesman for Fathers are Capable, Too, a Toronto support group for divorced men, said the figures may reflect high rates of family breakups, in which few men have custody of their children. "Fathers to a large extent are removed from the children's lives," he said.

Robert Glossop, a spokesman for the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, said that fathers are playing out an old cultural script of emotional disengagement from the home.

That disengagement is evident, he said, when their children are still in diapers. "If the fathers are not involved at that early stage there starts to grow an emotional distance."

Traditionally, fathers handled the "instrumental" role -- that of breadwinner and disciplinarian, "the guy who keeps everything under control and brings home the bacon." Mothers filled the "expressive" role in dealing with the family's emotional needs, he said.

"This is a very classic, old distinction. It comes from the 1950s. To some extent we've been struggling with it for the past 40 years."

Women's roles have changed profoundly, he said, and most are now expected to help support the family financially.


Percentage of students who found it "easy" or "very easy" to talk to their father about things that really bother them.

          Male    Female

Grade 6

1990       63%     49%

1994       69      54

1998       71      58

Grade 8

1990       56%     41%

1994       56      39

1998       59      39

Grade 10

1990       48%     36%

1994       47      32

1998       51      33

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services