Ask the Shrink: What is the impact on boys not having a father or father figure?

Jamie Greene

Question:  What is the impact on boys not having a father or father figure?

This is one challenge that often arises during the teenage years. It’s hard enough for teenage boys to navigate the seemingly random changes of puberty and growth spurts, let alone the hormone surges and mounting peer pressures. This is also the phase where self-esteem and comparisons with other young lads particularly rears its head. 

As a Family Therapist, I have facilitated many a family intervention with a defiant rowdy adolescent “Identified Patient” (IP) who might be acting out by smoking pot, stealing or frequently getting into fights. In the vast majority of cases, it is the lack of effective boundary setting and general discipline that is clearly missing. Not that all the disciplining is the prerogative of the father, but it is important here to make the distinction between “mothering” and “fathering.” 

We refer to fathering as a masculine approach to relationship with boys and men alike. Being direct, cutting to the chase, holding others accountable with consequences and following through with them every time. It’s a father’s job to make life tough enough for his son so he is prepared for life. Spoiling a boy is setting him up for a potentially narcissistic future of entitlement and apathy. 

This is where the complement of mothering works very well. The “tough love” approach of the father (while also expressing his love and affection throughout his relationship with this son) is blended with the loving, nurturing reassurances from his mother. Not to contradict or undermine, but to soften some of the tough lessons that life will inevitably bring.

When an effective father figure is missing in the home, we will often see a lad with an inflated sense of himself who tests boundaries and attempts to live life beyond accountability or conscience. Typically, boys like this discover accountability the hard way through law enforcement – one of the tough lessons that his absent father could not provide.

Another impact to consider growing up without a male mentor is the difficulty in trusting men as an adult. In our men’s work we hear story after story of men who don’t know how to trust other men because they never had a role model for what it looks or feels like. It becomes a relief for them to develop trusting relationships with men on their teams over time, and the crucial factor that allows them to trust them is the direct, fathering no-nonsense care that men bring.

Of course, there will be exceptions to these generalities, boys who have no father figure, yet are super-responsible, have their own integrity and take care of their siblings and household. Chances are, these boys have found some kind of modeling for this behavior, be it a relative, neighbor or teacher who has become an “unofficial” mentor to them and whom they can trust and feel the fathering care.

Or, it just might be that they have a mother who has effectively accomplished the very difficult task of combining her mothering and fathering role in a way that beautifully blends together in the home. 

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