A good relationship with Mom helps reduces psychological distress, too, but the relationship with Dad seems key in a man’s ability to cope with everyday hassles such as traffic and financial pressure, says Melanie Mallers, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, who presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Diego.
”Men who experienced a good relationship with their fathers are doing better at coping with stress,” she says.
She’s talking about ”daily stressors that are the things literally make or break the ebb and flow of our lives,” such as coping with traffic or a boss who piles on too much work.
For the study, she interviewed 912 adult men and women, ages 25 to 74. Survey respondents described their daily experiences over an eight-day period, telling whether they were nervous, sad or depressed. They reported each day if they had a stressful event, such as an argument, tension related to work or family or a disagreement with anyone.
The survey takers also told Mallers’ team about their childhood and the quality of their relationship with their mother and father while growing up. Mallers adjusted for factors that might influence the results, such as age, income and whether parents were alive or deceased.
Those who had a good relationship with their mothers said they had 3 percent less psychological distress in their lives now, compared to those who reported a poor relationship with their moms.
Having a good childhood relationship with their fathers was linked with better coping skills for men, but was not as strong for women. Men who had a good father-son relationship were more likely to remain stable emotionally when stress hit.
What’s happening? “We think it has to do with the way fathers play with their sons,” Mallers speculates.
She’s talking about the tendency for dads to get down on the floor and roughhouse with their young sons. “It’s good, healthy competitive rough-and-tumble play, which teaches them to be active, think outside the box, take more challenges, and adapt to things not necessarily familiar.”
Mothers, she says, tend to give their children a sense of security and safety. “We make sure they get to bed on time,” she says.
But dads, she says, may be especially skilled at teaching children how to deal with challenges.
The study, Mallers says confirms that dads ”play a long-lasting role in the emotional lives of their children, especially their sons.”
The new research follows an emerging trend of giving dads some research attention, says Toni Antonucci, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who is familiar with the research but not involved in it. “I think we’re beginning to understand more and more that fathers have a critical role,” she says. “This [new study] shouldn’t be seen as fathers are important and mother aren’t.”
What can men do who didn’t have a good relationship with their father while growing up do now to improve coping skills?
Simply having awareness that the poorer relationship could affect the way they cope with stress can help, Mallers says.
Antonucci suggests they might consider joining men’s groups on coping with stress, reading books that address the issues, or reaching out to meet the needs of their own children in teaching them to cope with stress.
In single-parent families in which the father is absent, Mallers suggests finding a male role model to help kids learn stress management.