A study of sisters has shown that the longer a girl is exposed to her father during her childhood, the more influence his parenting has on her adolescent sexual activity. The study compared sisters who were exposed to their fathers for different proportions of their childhood because their father left during their childhood. (For example, if a father of sisters aged 9 and 3 leaves the home, the older sister is exposed to his parenting for six more years than her younger sister is.)

The study recruited 101 adult sister pairs an average of six and a half years apart in age and questioned them about their childhood. Some had experienced the departure of their fathers during their childhood, while other pairs’ fathers were present throughout their childhood.

The researchers found that higher-quality father-daughter relationships in divorced/separated families – less harsh/coercive and more warm/supportive – correlated with a higher level of parental monitoring (how much the parents knew about what the daughter was doing when she was aged 14-17) and to a lower level of exposure to peers’ sexually risky behavior (promiscuity, sexually provocative dressing, unintended pregnancies). This correlation was stronger for girls who had more exposure to their father during their childhood – that is, for the older sisters.

The researchers’ methodology rules out several other factors that could possibly influence girls’ sexual behavior, such as genetic differences (both sisters had the same genetic inheritance) and differences in mothering (both sisters had the same mother). The effect was independent of the quality of the mother-daughter relationship. Nor was the difference was due to birth order, because in families where the father stayed throughout the girls’ childhood, there was no difference between older and younger sisters.

Thus the quality of the father-daughter relationship may actually cause differences in a teenage girl’s exposure to sexually risky peer activity.

These findings have implications for services that support teenage girls who may be sexually active, suggesting that the quality of the father-daughter relationship may be at least as important as the quality the mother-daughter bond.

Header photo: Jeffrey Avellanosa. Creative Commons.