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Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child


Development
Shawn Wygant
Forensic Family Research
March 14, 2014

Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development


Introduction
Research into father-child relationships has revealed that fathers play a vital and
indispensable role in a childs emotional, cognitive, social, and physical development
(Lamb & Kelly, 2009; Allen & Daly, 2007; Cashmore, Parkinson, & Taylor, 2008; Sarkadi,
Kristiansson, Oberklaid, & Bremberg, 2008) and that their absence is associated with
causing significant harm (Bloch, Peleg, Koren, Aner, & Klein, 2007; M. Lamb & J. Lamb,
1976; Luecken & Appelhans, 2006) in the form of brain damage (Bambico, Lacoste,
Hattan, & Gobbi, 2007; Helmeke et al., 2009; Sobrinho et al., 2012), depressive disorders
(Cuplin, Heron, Araya, & Joinson, 2013; Jia, Tai, An, Zhang, & Broders, 2009), identity
problems (Lohr, Legg, Mendell, & Riemer, 1989; Lynn & Sawrey, 1959; Meerum Terwogt
et al., 2002), teenage pregnancy (Ellis et al., 2003), and aggression (Nichols, 2013).
Brain Damage from Neglect of a Childs Paternal Attachment Needs
From a child developmental perspective, the act of depriving a child of their
father is a form of child neglect (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child,
2012) since it ignores and rejects the childs basic paternal attachment needs for proper
growth and development (Cicchetti & Toth, 2005). One of these critical basic needs
comes in the form of sensory brain stimulation that is uniquely provided for by fathers
(Grossman et al., 2002). Several studies have shown that offspring who are deprived of
their father will suffer damage to the areas of the brain most responsible for making
important decisions (Bambico et al., 2013; Helmeke et al., 2009; Pinkernelle et al., 2009)
and regulating emotional reactions to ordinary stresses of daily life (Tyrka et al., 2008;
Luecken & Appelhans, 2006).
a. Bambico et al. 2013
In the Bambico et al. (2013) study, researchers demonstrated that parental
deprivation (PD) leads to abnormalities in social and reward-related behaviors that
are associated with disturbances in cortical dopamine and glutamate transmission
within the prefrontal cortex (p. 3). These neurobiological abnormalities occurred during
critical developmental periods and led to impaired social and behavioral functions in
adults (p. 16). The impairments were more pronounced in the females who exhibited a
decrease in social interaction and an increase in aggressive behavior (p. 17). The
authors believe that these observed anti-social behaviors are the result of a lack of
social play stimulation in the absence of the father (p. 17).
The import from these conclusions suggests that fathers are uniquely qualified to
teach their offspring important pro-social behaviors and that it is through the pro-social
Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

father-child behaviors (play stimulation) that children develop a sufficiency of dopamine


receptors in the prefrontal cortex necessary for learning how to socialize in wide variety
of contexts. The authors also point out that the females, more than males, who were
deprived of a father developed functionally hypoactive prefrontal cortexes because of
the lack of dopamine receptors which they argue undermines both prefrontal
facilitation of prosocial behavior and inhibitory control over drug-seeking behavior (p.
19).
b. Helmeke et al. 2009
Like the Bambico et al. (2013) study, Helmeke et al. (2009) performed a set of
experiments involved with depriving rodent pups of their father and then comparing
their adult behavior with pups raised with their father. The major results of the Helmeke
et al. (2009) study showed that paternal deprivation causes delays and suppression in
the development of the orbitofrontal circuits of the forebrain as confirmed by brain
imaging analysis (p. 790). The brain imaging analysis showed retarded dendritic and
synaptic development of the apical dendrites of layer II/III pyramidal neurons in the
orbitofrontal cortex of adult fatherless animals (p. 790). The orbitofrontal cortex,
according to the authors, plays an essential role in social behaviors, choice behaviors,
decision making and impulse control in both rodents and humans (Helmeke et al.,
2009, p. 791). Another important finding from this study was the observation that the
single mothers did not compensate for the lack of paternal care and that paternal
deprivation does not increase the frequency of pup-initiated maternal contacts
(Helmeke et al., 2009, p. 793). These observations confirm that offspring of biparental
environments who are missing a father during critical periods of brain development do
not receive any compensatory stimulation from the mother.
c. Pinkernelle et al. 2009
Pinkernelle et al. (2009) make the argument that the uniqueness of paternal care
is a critical source of neonatal sensory stimulation shown to be essential for proper
brain development (p. 663). They indicate on page 671 of their report that the fatherdeprived animals showed shrunken basal dendrites in the left somatosensory cortex
leading to a reverse hemispheric asymmetry when compared with animals raised with a
father (Pinkernelle et al., 2009). Thus, paternal deprivation results in retarded
synaptic development of somatosensory circuits (Id at p. 663). This type of reduction in
left brain development has also been found in human studies involving abused children
(Teicher et al., 2003). In the Teicher et al. (2003) study, the authors reported that in 15
pediatric psychiatric inpatients with a documented history of abuse the left hemisphere
lagged substantially behind the left hemisphere of healthy controls and that in a
previous study of 24 children (7-14 years of age) with a history of trauma. the abused

Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

children had attenuated frontal lobe asymmetry and smaller total brain and cerebral
volumes than controls (p. 36).
d. Tyrka et al. 2008
Both of these human and animal findings provide evidence that children who are
raised without their father suffer functional impairments to critical areas of the brain
which affects their ability to think and respond to their environment in emotionally
appropriate ways (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2012). The ability
of a child to learn how to respond to his or her environment in appropriate ways is
partially regulated by the stress system of the body which is controlled by the
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Bloch et al., 2007). In a 2008 study by Tyrka
et al. into how parental loss affects the HPA axis, it was shown that adults who were
deprived of the presence of a parent in childhood suffered damage to their
hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) functioning resulting in a decreased ability to
cope with the ordinary stresses of life similar to adults who have been abused and
maltreated as children as previously reported by De Bellis et al. (1999), Teicher et al.
(2003), and Cicchetti & Toth (2005).
The Tyrka et al. (2008) study involved testing the level of cortisol responses to a
stress test in 88 healthy adults with no current Axis I psychiatric disorders (p. 1147) and
concluded that childhood parental loss was associated with alterations in adult
neuroendocrine function causing significant increases in cortisol response to the
Dex/CRH test (p. 1152). The importance of these findings demonstrates that parental
loss in childhood, whether caused from divorce or death, results in permanent changes
in the way that children as adults respond and cope with normal adverse life events such
as losing a job or losing a long-term friendship (Cicchetti & Toth, 2005).
e. Luecken & Appelhans 2006
As adults, these changes manifest as extreme or chronic physiological stress
responses (elevated and sustained levels of cortisol) to normal life events which in some
way resembles past events associated with the original feelings surrounding the parental
loss (Luecken & Appelhans, 2006; Nelson, Bos, Gunnar, & Sonuga-Barke, 2011). In the
Luecken & Appelhans (2006) study, the authors stated that these neuroendocrine
impairments contribute to physiological dysregulation at rest and chronically elevated
physiological arousal in response to stress in adults who suffered childhood parental
loss (p. 304). It is quite clear from these findings that parental deprivation causes
damage to childrens HPA functioning (Shea, Walsh, MacMillan, & Steiner, 2005) making
them less capable as adults of adapting to moderate or even low level stressful life
events (Heim, Shugart, Craighead, & Nemeroff, 2010).

Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

Risk of Depression in Adolescence and Adulthood


Heim, Shugart, Craighead, & Nemeroff (2010) point out that heightened stress
sensitivity observed in adults who were neglected or abused as children is related to
persistent experiences of parental loss in childhood and leads to an increased risk of
depression (p. 676). Two important studies have shown that father absence in
childhood dramatically increases the risk for both adolescent depressive symptoms
(Culpin, Heron, Araya, Melotti, & Joinson, 2013) and adult onset major depressive
disorders (Noorikhajavi, Afghah, Dadkhah, Holakoyie, & Motamedi, 2007).
a. Culpin et al. 2013
In Culpin et al. (2013) study, 5631 children from the UK-based Avon Longitudinal
Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) were assessed for depressive symptoms at 14
years of age. For those children in the study whose fathers were absent during the first
5 years of childhood there was a significant risk of depressive symptoms at age 14
especially for girls (Culpin et al., 2013). The higher prevalence of depressive symptoms
found in adolescent girls is supported by previous studies that have shown that adult
women whose fathers were absent during early childhood (0-5) have a much higher
likelihood of depression in midlife (Maier & Lachman, 2000) and throughout the lifespan
(Personen & Raikkonen, 2012).
b. Noorikhajavi et al. 2007
In 2007, Noorikhajavi et al. examined the relationship between parental loss
under 18 and developing major depressive disorder in adulthood (p. 351). They
compared a case group of 64 adult patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital and who
met the DSM-IV-TR criteria for major depressive disorder with a control group of 68
non-depressive patients (Noorikhajavi et al., 2007, p. 347). Two important conclusions
were reached from this study: (1) parental loss experienced under the age of 18 is
considered as one of the risk factors in developing Major Depressive Disorder later
during the adult life and (2) that in spite of the presence of extended families and their
support. parental loss under 18 leaves certain inert major depressive effects in
persons paternally deprived (Noorikhajavi et al., 2007, pp. 352-353).
c. Slavich, Monroe, & Gotlib 2011
This type of adult-onset parental-loss related depression (Noorikhajavi et al.,
2007, p. 352) was examined in a 2011 study by Slavich, Monroe, & Gotlib (2011). They
concluded that individuals exposed to early parental loss or separation become
depressed following relatively lower levels of psychosocial stress (Slavich, Monroe, &
Gotlib, 2011, p. 1151). This association was found to be unique to stressors involving
Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

interpersonal loss which the authors refer to as selective sensitization (Slavich,


Monroe, & Gotlib, 2011, p. 1151). This selective sensitization is also associated with
higher levels of cortisol found in depressed patients (Shea, Walsh, MacMillan, & Steiner,
2004) suggesting that the dysregulating effects of parental loss on the HPA axis
predisposes a child to a life-long exaggerated physiological stress response to events
related to interpersonal loss (Tyrka et al., 2008).
Identity Problems
a. Lohr, Legg, Mendell, & Riemer 1989
Losing a parent, and specifically a father, in early childhood can also become a source of
identity problems during adolescence especially for girls (Lohr, Legg, Mendell, & Riemer,
1989). According to Lohr, Legg, Mendell, & Riemer (1989) girls who are deprived of their
father during the first 5 years of life have difficulty developing a sense of femininity (p.
351). They report that this was observed in latency aged and adolescent girls whose
parents divorced during their oedipal years resulting in the emergence of the following
four maladaptive coping behavioral patterns that complicated the consolidation of
positive feminine identification:
1. Intensified separation anxiety
2. Denial and avoidance of feelings associated with loss of father
3. Identification with the lost object
4. Object hunger for males (Lohr, Legg, Mendell, & Riemer, 1989, p. 357).
With regard to the second pattern, paternally deprived girls may develop an
intense and defensive type of anger toward the absent father as an oedipal object which
can present in two potentially destructive ways: (1) fear of entering into positive oedipal
relationships with men or (2) becoming overly seductive and overly familiar (Lohr,
Legg, Mendell, & Riemer, 1989, p. 359). Both of these patterns represent a threat to any
paternally deprived adolescent girls ability to establish a healthy sense of her own
feminine identity. Therefore, the authors concluded that girls have a clear need for
ongoing involvement with their fathers to facilitate healthy psychosexual
development (Lohr, Legg, Mendell, & Riemer, 1989, p. 364).
b. Lynn & Sawrey 1959
In an older study by Lynn and Sawrey (1959), identity problems in boys were
observed when studying how young boys and girls from Norwegian sailor families
reacted to the absence of their fathers. From a sample of 80 mother-child pairs (40
Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

father-absent and 40 father-present), they found that the boys in the absence of their
fathers behaved in an exaggeratedly masculine way which was considered to
compensatory (Lynn & Sawrey, 1959, p. 260). These absent father boys when given a
choice between a father-doll or mother-doll more often chose to play with the fatherdoll which the authors suggest implies strong strivings for father-identification (Lynn
& Sawrey, 1959, p. 260). This observed father-identification striving and compensatory
masculinity resulted in poor peer-adjustment behaviors (Lynn & Sawrey, 1959, p. 261).
Teenage Pregnancy & Aggression
Because of the development of identity problems observed in both boys and girls who
were paternally deprived during early childhood, some researchers have suggested that
this can lead to an increase in teenage pregnancy in girls (Ellis et al., 2003) and antisocial aggression in boys (Nichols, 2013).
a. Ellis et al. 2003
Ellis et al. (2003) conducted a longitudinal study of 762 girls (242 US & 520 New
Zealand) who were followed from age 5 through 18 and showed that father absence
was strongly associated with an elevated risk for early sexual activity and adolescent
pregnancy (p. 801). The girls in the study were classified into three groups: (1) early
onset father absent (missing at or before age 5=33%), (2) late onset father absent
(present through age 5 = 12%), and (3) father presence (present through age 13=55%).
The results indicated that approximately 60% of girls whose fathers were absent early in
life became sexually active prior to age 16 compared with 40% for fathers absent late
and 27% for fathers present through age 13 (p. 811). Similarly, girls whose fathers were
absent early became pregnant more often (34%) than fathers present (5%) and fathers
absent late (10%).
b. Nichols 2013
In the Nichols (2013) study, the researchers discovered that when young rodents
were deprived of a parent it induced hyperactivity of the HPA axis in both males and
females however this led to more aggression in the males and reduced aggression in
the females. These findings tend to support the hypothesis that with families who raise
their offspring in biparental environments, parental loss is experienced differently by
males and females (Noorikhajavi et al., 2007; Pinkernelle et al., 2009; Sobrinho et al.,
2012). In this last study by Sobrinho et al. (2012), it is interesting to note that paternal
deprivation for girls prior to adolescence was found to significantly increase their risk of
developing pituitary adenomas in adulthood and that this risk was associated with
persistent and sustained HPA hyperactivity in reaction to parental loss (OConnor,
Halloran, & Shanahan, 2000).
Wygant, S. A. (March, 2014)

Paternal Deprivation and its Harmful Effects on Child Development

Forensic Application of Paternal Deprivation Research


Within the context of applying the foregoing paternal deprivation research to
legal cases that involve children who are being denied access to a father, it is important
to evaluate the developmental needs of those children using current research as a
guide. Lamb & Kelly (2009) provide some insight into this issue when they reported the
following:
Children benefit from supportive relationships with both of their parents, whether
or not those parents live together. In order to ensure that both adults become
or remain parents to their children, post-divorce parenting plans need to
encourage participation by both parents in as broad as possible an array of social
contexts on a regular basis. Brief dinners and occasional weekend visits do not
provide a broad enough or extensive enough basis for such relationships to be
fostered. at least one-third of the non-school hours should be spent with the
non-resident parent and most experts would agree that 15% (every other
weekend) is almost certainly insufficient (p. 206).
These statements from Lamb & Kelly (2009) clearly indicate that children who are
only provided contact with their father every other weekend (15% of available time) are
being substantively deprived of their developmental attachment needs for the presence
of their father. These insights are the result of over 40 years of parent-child relationship
research which shows that children raised without a father are at nearly four times the
risk of needing treatment for emotional and behavioral problems including the
probability of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, poor educational performance and
criminal activity (Helmeke et al., 2009, p. 790). Accordingly, the minimum
developmentally appropriate threshold of time spent between a non-resident parent
and his or her children should be at least 33% (Lamb & Kelly, 2009, p. 206).
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