The Effect of a Father’s Absence

Figure 1 – Infographic about the effects of a father’s absence, specifically in America.

I was only six years old when I came home to my father leaving only a note I couldn’t even read behind. To this day, I don’t really know what that note said. All I know is it’s been 15 years and I still haven’t seen or heard anything from him. My brother and I have been raised by my mom ever since. This story is not an uncommon one, especially in America. About 25% of all Americans grow up without their biological father. As a result of how common it is, it’s often seen as normal. However, the way we comprehend this event in our lives can affect us forever.  There are studies talking about how the timing of the father’s absence can influence the impact of the effects, how a father’s absence can affect emotional intelligence, self esteem, and even the entirety of someone’s trajectory of life. What is especially interesting is that the effect of the absence of a father can affect an individual down to a neurochemical level.  

 Luo and his colleagues looked into the effect of a father’s absence and the timing of separation on self esteem and anxiety. (Luo et al., 2012) Participants were 11-23 years of age. The research team found that participants who had an absent biological father tested higher for anxiety and had lower self esteem than participants in other groups. This was true for both males and females. They also found that female participants who were separated from their fathers at 0-2 years of age had significantly higher self esteem than the other participants who were separated from their father later in life. As we get older, we form more secure and meaningful relationships and attachments so it makes sense that the older we get when we lose someone, the more we are affected. It reminds me of my brother and I. When our father left, he was three and I was six. According to my mom, when our dad left, my brother did not spend more than a few hours being upset while I was upset and crying for weeks. Not only does a father’s absence affect children but the timing of the absence changes the effect. Another study was with 24 -70 year old men. All of these men had absent fathers and they were asked to talk about how they perceived their life trajectory. They found that the men tended to experience a lot of challenges and also tended to experience a period of depression, feelings of rejection, low self esteem issues, and problems with trusting others in relationships. These studies have shown that there is a difference in people with their father present and those without a father present.

While there is still a lot we don’t understand about the neuroscience behind paternal depravity, this study looked at the effect of paternal deprivation on the social behavior of rats and also on the dopamine and glutamate synapses in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. (Bambico et. al., 2015) They were able to find that the rats that were paternal deprived had problems with social interactions. Additionally, female rats specifically showed signs of increased aggression compared to the control group. They also found that in females, the pyramidal response to dopamine decreases while the response to NMDA, a glutamate receptor, increases. In other words, the activity of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex is decreased for females while the activity of glutamate is increasing in both males and females. While glutamate is an important neurotransmitter to have, unusual activity in glutamate has been known to contribute to anxiety problems, depression, and stress disorders. (Graybeal, 2011) Irregular dopamine levels have also been known to contribute to increased aggression. (Friedel, 2004)

Figure 2 – The effect of paternal deprivation in rat’s dopamine activity. Females are on the right and males are on the left. CT is the control group and PD are the rats with paternal deprivation.

These studies all have a lot of findings in common. The ones that have both genders specify that the effect of the father’s absence is different depending on the sex of the individual. They also all agree that a father’s absence can affect the individual’s social skills and can be a factor that leads to future problems in life. I think there needs to be more research done about the effect of a father because of how important it has been proven to be and how little information we have on the subject. A lot of emphasis has always been put on the importance of a mother. While mothers are extremely important, these studies prove that a father is just as important too, just in different ways.


  • East, L., Jackson, D., Power, T., Woods, A., & Hutchinson, M. (2014). “Holes in my memories”: A qualitative study of men affected by father absence. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 35(8), 604–612. 
  • Luo, J., Wang, L. ‐G., & Gao, W. ‐B. (2012). The influence of the absence of fathers and the timing of separation on anxiety and self‐esteem of adolescents: A cross‐sectional survey. Child: Care, Health and Development, 38(5), 723–731. 
  • Bambico, F. R., Lacoste, B., Hattan, P. R., & Gobbi, G. (2015). Father absence in the monogamous California mouse impairs social behavior and modifies dopamine and glutamate synapses in the medial prefrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 25(5), 1163–1175. 
  • Friedel RO. Dopamine dysfunction in borderline personality disorder: a hypothesis. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2004;29:1029–1039.
  • Graybeal C, Kiselycznyk C, Holmes A. Stress-induced deficits in cognition and emotionality: a role for glutamate. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer; 2011. p. 189–207.

8 thoughts on “The Effect of a Father’s Absence

  1. Hello Yewande,

    Your blog post was engaging. While I vaguely knew the effects not having a father had on a child, I did not know the age the child was when their father left mattered that much. It was especially intriguing that children whose father left very early (from age 0-2) experience greater self-esteem than those whose father left later.

    I wonder if children who do not have a mother experience the same self-esteem patterns as children who do not have a father and if they also have the same neurochemical patterns (decrease dopamine in females and increase glutamate in females and males).

    Great blog post!
    Sincerely, Bashaina (Shasha)


  2. Hi Yewande, your post really made me reflect on the significance of parents/guardians. It was intriguing to see the infographic about the various effects a father’s absence can have on people. I would be interested in learning more about the reasons why the absence of a parent can impact the human brain on the neuronal level, potentially leading to greater aggression. How much do signals of neurotransmitters, particularly glutamate and dopamine, depend on social interactions? Does the lack of another close relationship reduce our ability to regulate responses in the brain? It was also fascinating to learn that there were gender differences in the rats for dopaminergic responses in the prefrontal cortex. I would be interested in learning if this may be true in humans, and if there are brain activity changes across the lifespan.


  3. Hi Yewande, your post made me think about the neurochemical basis of attachment styles. I know that the first 2 years of life are essential in the formation of a distincti attachment style, but I’d imagine an indiviual’s entire childhood / adolescence plays a key role in forming schemas that an individual will utilize to view the world. As research on attachment styles are expanding, I would be interested to see if there is a concrete biological basis to the attachment styles and if an individual is more prone to developing a certain attachment style based on the absence of a mother or father.


  4. Hello Yewande, I enjoyed reading your blog post and learning more about the effect of a father’s absence. Although I believe that it is impossible to fill the void created by a parent’s absence, I am curious if there are any potential ways to reduce the adverse effects that parental deprivation can have on children. For example, could a close relative, teacher, or mentor help fill the void created by a parent’s absence, buffering the adverse effects of parental deprivation on children? In addition, would a stepparent be more effective than a close relative, teacher, or mentor?


  5. Hi Yewande,

    Thank you for this blog post. I think I can speak for others when we say we feel your emotion. I agree with earlier comments stating that it is impossible to fill a parent’s absence – but you and your family have done what you can. You all are stronger individuals because of it, and do not deserve an ounce of what happened to you. I think that research on this topic would be really interesting – perhaps clinical studies about one parent households as opposed to two parent households. Nevertheless, this blog post was very moving and informative and I am glad that I got the chance to read it.


  6. Hi Yewande,
    Your blog post discussed the prevalent occurrence of paternal absence in the context of neuroscience, which I imagine is much less often discussed or thought about. The infographic regarding the effects of a father’s absence caught my attention as it reminded me of a discussion of adverse childhood events (or ACEs) that I had in an education class at colby. Notably, research on how ACEs (an example of which would be a father’s absence) affect children as they develop has pointed to the increased activation of the HPA axis and the “stress response.” I wonder how these findings regarding the stress response relate to the dopaminergic and glutaminergic systems that you discussed in the context of paternal deprativty studies? Does the role of the HPA axis and the stress response contribute to the sex difference that has been observed in the effect of paternal absence on behavior?


  7. Hello Yewande, thank you for writing such one appealing blog! Your post is really informative and provides one exciting perspective about the importance of the father. I’m extremely interested in the behavior changes you mentioned in Bambico et al.’s study that female rats specifically showed signs of increased aggression. I am curious about why this phenomenon only happens to females, and I wonder if the aggression is towards males or all other rats. In addition, I would be interested in learning more about the gender difference in the effects of paternal deprivation on other levels.


  8. Hello Yewande,

    I am so glad I got to read your article following the release of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album. In this album, Kendrick explores the issue of a fathers presence in an adolescents life with the song Father Time. It is fascinating how many of the effects of an absent father may also be present in the situation with an emotionally absent father. Hopefully society can heal past these trends and work to develop the following generations as healthy as possible.


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