The father-son relationship may affect how sons, when they've grown into adults, deal with day-to-day stress in their lives, a new study suggests.
Men who characterized their childhood relationship with their fathers as "good" were more likely to be less emotional in handling stressful events on a daily basis, the U.S. research shows.
The findings emerged from a nation-wide sample of about 1,000 men and women who were questioned every day for a week on a wide variety of topics, and who had provided information not only on their relationships but health, medications, socioeconomic status and more.
"Men who on days where they have a stressful situation are more reactive to it - they're more likely to be in a bad mood and have higher levels of psychological stress - these are the men who reported having poor relationships with their father in childhood," said psychologist Melanie Mallers, a stress health researcher at California State University-Fullerton.
Ms. Mallers presented her study at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in San Diego on Thursday. The work has been accepted for publication in an upcoming journal, she said.
Most of the parent-child literature focuses on the importance of the mother in the future success of a child. Ms. Mallers said she wasn't digging for the link that emerged between dads, their adult sons, and coping with stress.
"It reared its head all on its own, and showed that dads really, really matter for their sons," she said in an interview from Fullerton before heading to the conference.
"They matter for their daughters too, but they're especially significant for how adult men, the children who grow up to become adults, how they react to stress.
"There's a strong link between having poor relationships with your dad in childhood and how you do react to stress as an adult."
To determine the strength of their relationships, subjects were asked questions such as: "How would you rate your relationship with your mother during the years when you were growing up?" and "How much time and attention did your father give you when you needed it?"
The daily phone calls asked, among other things, about the participants' health, what they were angry about and what stressful issues they had dealt with: "Did they get in a fight with someone, did they get in a car accident, did they forget to pay a bill, did they lose hours from a job, did they have to work longer?" Ms. Mallers said.
These kinds of day-to-day issues have an impact on health, sometimes more than major happenings like a divorce or the death of a loved one, she said.
The findings are powerful from a research point of view, Ms. Mallers said, but she also sees them through the lens of motherhood.
"As a mom, when I see the way my husband interacts with my son, I realize this is having lasting effects on how he's going to cope, my son, how he's going to cope when he's older," she said. "And he's learning things from his dad that I can't necessarily teach him."
Overall, participants were more likely to describe their childhood relationship with their mom as better than the relationship with their dad. And more men reported a better mother-child relationship than women, the study found.
Ms. Mallers said she believes we need to have men more involved in children's lives as role models, whether it's as a parent or in child care and school settings.
"What men can do for boys, the way they play with them, the way they talk with them, the way they teach them to be assertive, the way they teach them to problem solve, it has profound lasting implications."