The absence of fathers in early life appears to be a more significant risk factor for girls’ early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy than previously believed, according to researchers at Duke, Indiana, and Auburn universities and in New Zealand. “We knew that a number of studies had identified the link between absent fathers and risk for daughters’ early sexual activity, but the risk had been ascribed to more generalized family problems, such as poverty and stress,” says Kenneth A. Dodge Ph.D. ’78, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Dodge was one of the principal investigators of the study. “Our research shows clearly that father absence itself during the first five years of life is a unique risk factor.”
Dodge, Bruce J. Ellis of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a team of researchers analyzed data from two long-term studies that followed 242 girls in the United States and 520 girls in New Zealand. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. and New Zealand have the highest and second-highest rates of teenage pregnancy, respectively. Based on multiple interviews and questionnaires administered over the years to both parents and children, the data covered everything from family demographics to parenting styles and child behavioral problems to childhood academic performance. The study results appeared in the May issue of Child Development.
Dodge, Ellis, and colleagues noted that girls whose fathers left the family earlier in their lives—before the age of six—had the highest rates of both early sexual activity and adolescent pregnancy, followed by those whose fathers left at a later age, followed by girls whose fathers were present. “Clearly, it is not just the father’s absence, but the timing of that absence that is critical,” Dodge says.
“ This issue may be especially relevant to predicting rates of teenage pregnancy, which were seven to eight times higher among early father-absent girls, but only two to three times higher among later father-absent girls, than among father-present girls,” says Ellis.
Even when the researchers took into account other factors that could have contributed to early sexual activity and pregnancy, such as behavioral problems and life adversity, early “father-absent” girls were still about five times more likely in the United States and three times more likely in New Zealand to experience an adolescent pregnancy than were father-present girls.
The researchers suggested several reasons to explain the results. One is that the longer the fathers are absent, the greater the daughters’ exposure to their mothers’ dating and future relationship behaviors; this exposure may encourage an earlier onset of sexual behavior in daughters. Another possibility is that girls whose fathers are absent may undergo early personality changes that orient them toward early and unstable bonds with men.
The research may also have strong implications for policymakers: “These findings may support social policies that encourage fathers to form and remain in families with their children (unless the marriage is ‘highly conflictual or violent’),” the study notes.