Daddy Issues: Psychology Behind Father Wound
From Lana Del Rey’s emotional ballads to Humbert Humbert’s disturbing obsession in “Lolita,” having troubled relationships with fathers is a common theme in popular culture. But while these examples may romanticize or sensationalize the concept of “daddy issues,” the reality is much deeper and more serious. What does it really mean to have “daddy issues,” and how do these issues shape your life and relationships? In this article, we’ll take a look at the psychology behind father wounds and explore the real impact of an unhealthy father-child dynamics on a person’s mental health and relationships.
What are “daddy issues”?
According to licensed mental health counselor Bisma Anwar, the concept of “daddy issues” refers to the psychological effects of a strained or absent father figure relationship on a person’s mental health and relationships. Psychology labels ‘daddy issues’ as the ‘father complex.’The term describes problems in adulthood that may be connected to difficulties with the person’s father during childhood. Clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Manly says, it can manifest in a number of ways. The experience is as complex as the name suggests. Commonly, there’s an inability to trust other men in your adult life. Though it is generally used in relation to women, the fact is, anyone who grew up with a dysfunctional father figure can develop “daddy issues”. The idea comes from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. It is named after the character Oedipus in the ancient Greek play, in which Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. Freud used this story to theorize that young children may try to get the love and attention of their opposite-sex parent by competing with their same-sex parent. And while Freud’s idea might be a good starting point, today we don’t really talk about the Oedipus complex anymore. So, according to modern psychologists, what are the origins of a father wound?
Modern theories – attachment, absence and abuse
Modern research suggests that the relationship between a child and their father can have a significant impact on their development and well-being. The one thing people with daddy issues have in common is that their relationship with their father did not offer the love and support they needed. Without an emotional attachment, the child develops a deep feeling of unimportance, or a lack of self-acceptance. Dr. Manly says, “In essence, the adult child with daddy issues unconsciously thinks and behaves in ways that are an attempt to repair or repeat psychic wounds that stem from the father-child relationship, or lack thereof.” For example, a 2008 study published in the journal Acta Paediatrica found that children who have a strong attachment to their fathers are more likely to have better social skills and emotional regulation, as well as higher self-esteem and self-confidence.
On the other hand, children who grow up with absent or abusive fathers may be at a higher risk for psychological and social problems. A dad who wasn’t present, or who didn’t offer up any attention, leaves you with the fear of abandonment, rejection, or constant worry that your partner might leave you, according to therapist Sonja Keller. A 2017 study published in Journal of Child and Family Studies has shown that children who grow up without a father are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Also, a 2021 study published in Journal of Family Theory suggests that the absence of a father can lead to attachment issues, where the child has difficulty forming healthy attachments with others. Additionally, children who grow up with abusive fathers may experience trauma that can affect their mental and emotional development. Did you have a strained or unhealthy connection with your father? If so, you may struggle with some difficulties in your adult relationships. Let’s explore some of these difficulties.
A troubled father’s legacy
Growing up without a nurturing and supportive father can lead a daughter to become insecure. In her paper titled “Fatherless Women: What Happens to the Adult Woman Who Was Raised Without Her Father,” Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D., says that a girl’s self-worth is often reflected in her father’s behavior towards her. A woman who had a positive relationship with her dad is likely to be self-confident, while a woman who lacked this validation may struggle with low self-esteem. This could make it harder for her to overcome challenges throughout her life.
Kortsch also discusses three types of love relationships that adult women may have if they experienced emotional absence from their fathers. In the first type, “The Multi-Faceted Arena of Relationships,” women who lack validation for themselves may seek it through sexual relationships with men until they feel accepted by the “right” one. In the second type “Marrying ‘Daddy,'” women may seek out older partners as a way to find the father figure they never had. And in the third type, “Avoiding Engaging Emotions,” women may choose to avoid emotional involvement with men and focus on their careers instead.
A complex relationship with a father can have a negative impact on sexual behavior as well. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when fathers are absent or not very involved in their daughters’ lives, it can lead to risky sexual behavior in women, such as being more sexually permissive and having negative attitudes towards using protection.
While the term “daddy issues” often describes women’s attachment issues in a relationship, it’s important to note that this is not a female-only problem. “Father Complex” was clinically used to refer to men who had distrusting, toxic relationships with their fathers and struggled with approval. Now psychologists realize it is not just related to males. Since then, society has colloquialized the term into “daddy issues.” A 2013 dissertation from Drexel University found that “men who grew up with an absent or emotionally distant father reported a range of issues, including the lack of a male role model, feelings of inadequacy such as a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, and a quest in adulthood to find father substitutes.”
If you’re reading this because you’re struggling with the impact of an unhealthy relationship with your father, know that you’re not alone. Many people have faced similar challenges and found ways to heal. It’s important to recognize that you can’t change the past, but you can work to improve your present and future. Seeking support from a mental health professional can be a helpful first step in working through your feelings and finding healthy ways to cope. Remember that it’s never too late to build a positive and nurturing relationship with yourself, and to seek out supportive and loving relationships with others. Remember that you’re worthy of love, and that you have the strength and resilience to overcome this challenge. We got your back!
DelPriore, D. J., & Hill, S. E. (2013). The effects of paternal disengagement on women’s sexual decision making: An experimental approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(2), 234–246. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032784
Field, B. (2021, June 29). Is there real psychology behind daddy issues? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/is-there-real-psychology-behind-daddy-issues-5190477
Inniss, D. R. (n.d.). Emerging from the Daddy Issue: A Phenomenological Study of the Impact of the Lived Experiences of Men Who Experienced Fatherlessness on their approach to fathering sons [Drexel University Libraries]. Retrieved December 24, 2022, from http://dx.doi.org/10.17918/etd-4318
Kim, S., Baek, M., & Park, S. (2021). Association of parent–child experiences with insecure attachment in adulthood: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 13(1), 58–76. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12402
Masoom Ali, Saima & Zia, Asbah. (2018). Positive Father and Daughter Relationship and Its impact on Daughter’s Interpersonal Problem. 53. 61-68.
Sarkadi, A., Kristiansson, R., Oberklaid, F., & Bremberg, S. (2008). Fathers’ involvement and children’s developmental outcomes: A systematic review of longitudinal studies. Acta Paediatrica, 97(2), 153–158. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2007.00572.x
Vinney, C. (2021, July 20). Daddy issues: History, impact, and how to cope. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-daddy-issues-5190911#toc-impact-of-daddy-issues
Yoon, Bellamy, Kim, & Yoon. (2017). Father involvement and behavior problems among preadolescents at risk of maltreatment. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(2), 494–504. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-017-0890-6