Fathers’ gender-specific concerns about their paternal role

Fathering court-involved daughters: fathers’ gender-specific concerns about their paternal role

Angie M. Schock

The fatherhood literature has expanded over the past several decades, yet the role that fathers may play in their relationships with their problematic adolescents has not been fully examined. Furthermore, because previous findings have suggested that fathers of court-involved daughters may be experiencing intrapsychic and interpersonal difficulties of their own, the present study examined a range of issues that fathers might be facing in their attempts to parent a daughter engaged in problematic behaviors. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposeful sample of 14 fathers who had been referred to a family-based diversion program for at-risk adolescents. Several gender-specific themes emerged from the interviews. Fathers of female adolescents, in particular, expressed feelings of uncertainty in their parental role in four main areas: (a) a deficient understanding of their daughter’s “female” issues; (b) communication barriers involving topics and style of communication; (c) limited involvement due to a lack of shared interests; and (d) indecision regarding how to effectively address their daughter’s problematic behaviors. Future research is discussed that would further explore the impact that fathers’ parenting concerns have on their own view of their parental role, their mental health, and their adolescent’s well-being as well as how familial and community-based supports could aid in improving the father-daughter relationship in families with court-involved adolescents.

Keywords: father, daughter, parenting, adolescent, delinquency, qualitative research


While scholarship on fatherhood has greatly expanded over the past several decades (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2001; Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 1999), father/young child dyads have received considerably more attention than have father-adolescent relationships (Hosley & Montemayor, 1997; Updegraff, McHale, Crouter, & Kupanoff, 2001). Furthermore, one area in particular that has been neglected is the father’s contribution to his adolescent’s problematic behaviors (Dadds, 1995; Phares, 1999), and researchers know almost nothing about the differential roles that fathers may play in their relationships with at-risk sons versus atrisk daughters (Connell & Goodman, 2002; Phares & Compas, 1992). It has been suggested that fathers of court-involved daughters are likely to feel much less prepared to address their daughters’ behaviors due to the general distancing that many fathers experience with their daughters during adolescence (Steinberg, 1987), coupled with the even more ambiguous situation that is created for fathers in terms of how these men should address their daughter’s problematic behaviors–behaviors that are much less common among daughters than sons (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998).

The purpose of the paper will be to examine gender-specific issues fathers have identified regarding difficulties in fathering their court-involved daughters. First, relevant literature pertaining to fathers’ individual characteristics and father-adolescent relationship characteristics found in families with court-involved versus noncourt-involved adolescents will be discussed. Second, results from a qualitative study involving interviews with fathers of court-involved adolescents will be discussed that seem to highlight fathers’ feelings of uncertainty in their parental role with their daughters in four areas: (a) a deficient understanding of their daughter’s situation/experience of being a female adolescent; (b) communication barriers involving topics of conversation and style of communication; (c) limited involvement due to a lack of shared interests; and (d) indecision regarding how to effectively address their daughter’s problematic behaviors. Third and finally, implications for future research and family-based programming will be presented.


The study of father-offspring relationships has largely focused on the father’s role during infancy (Lamb, 1997) and early childhood (Biller & Kimpton, 1997; Coley & Morris, 2002; Lewis, 1997), yet father-adolescent relationships have received considerably less attention (Hosley & Montemayor, 1997). The limited research in this area has included a variety of relationship characteristics, namely, the fathers’ level of involvement and overall time spent with his adolescent (Larson & Richards, 1994; Miller & Lane, 1991; Montemayor & Brownlee, 1987), father-adolescent communication (Hauser et al., 1987; Larson & Richards; 1994; Nollar & Callan, 1990; Youniss & Ketterlinus, 1987), fathers’ connectedness with their adolescent offspring (Barnes & Olson, 1985; Kenny, 1987; Miller & Lane, 1991), and father-adolescent conflict (Hill & Holmbeck, 1987; Smetana, 1989). In general, these studies suggest that fathers are much less involved (i.e., less time spent together, less communication, lower levels of connectedness and conflict) than are mothers with their adolescents. Furthermore, fathers are even less involved with their adolescent daughters in comparison to their sons (Larson & Richards; Montemayor, 1982; Nollar & Callan, 1990; Youniss & Ketterlinus, 1987). In fact, in one study of gender differences and family relationships during adolescence, Steinberg (1987) has commented: “The father-daughter relationship at adolescence is an outlier: It is distinguished from the other three parent-child dyads by its affective blandness and low level of interaction” (p. 196).


Most of the family-centered research that has been conducted on court-involved adolescents has focused on a variety of family-level variables, such as poor family attachments (LeBlanc, 1992; Johnson & Pandina, 1991; Rankin & Kern, 1994), parental rejection (Simons, Robertson, & Downs, 1989), poor parental monitoring (Dishion, Patterson, Stoolmiller, & Skinner, 1991; Farrington, 1990; Henry, Moffitt, Robins, Earls, & Silva, 1993; Sampson & Laub, 1994), and inconsistent discipline practices (Farrington, 1990; Sampson & Laub, 1994; Henry et al., 1993).

When parents’ individual contributions to their adolescents’ problem behaviors have been examined, the majority of the work has focused on the mother’s role rather than the father’s role (Caplan & Hall-McCorquodale, 1985; Dadds, 1995; Phares, 1997, 1999; Phares & Compas, 1992). In fact, Phares (1997) notes that research on maternal contributions (primarily negative contributions) far outweighs the study of paternal contributions and that “mother blaming reflects the tendency to consider and investigate maternal contributions to the development of psychopathology in children while not considering or investigating paternal contributions to the same phenomena” (p. 262).

Although there is much less data about the father’s specific role in his adolescent’s problem behaviors, “inadequate fathering” has become a variable of interest to researchers interested in the connection between father characteristics and delinquent behavior. Reviewing this area of inquiry, Biller and Kimptom (1997) have noted that while “the inappropriate behavior of some mothers is a major negative influence contributing to their children’s delinquent behavior patterns … the lack of an adequate father-child relationship is a far more common factor in the backgrounds of troubled and acting-out sons and daughters” (pp. 154-155).

The construct of “inadequate fathering” has been conceptualized through the measurement of several paternal characteristics. For example, some research has examined fathers’ psychopathology and criminal activity in relation to adolescent delinquency. Phares (1997) noted that adolescents with a diagnosis of conduct disorder (and older adolescents with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) both tend to have fathers with a history of their own antisocial behavior, alcohol problems, and higher levels of aggressiveness. In fact, a significant portion of the literature about fathers and youth with conduct-disorder (CD) youth has focused specifically on paternal antisocial personality disorder and substance use (Frick, Lahey, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, Christ, & Hanson, 1992; Hamdan-Allen, Stewart, & Beeghly, 1989; Jary & Stewart, 1985; Malone, Iacono, & McGue, 2002; Stewart, DeBlois, & Cummings, 1980) as well as paternal criminal history (Bailey, 1996; Graves, Openshaw, Ascione, & Erichsen, 1996; Lewis, Pincus, Lovely, Spitzer, & Moy, 1987; Truscott, 1992). In addition, a recent meta-analysis reviewed 174 studies that have examined the link between paternal (and maternal) psychopathology and child and adolescent internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Findings showed that fathers’ psychopathology (paternal depression and alcoholism, in particular) was more closely related to problematic behaviors in older children and adolescents than to problematic behaviors among younger children (Connell & Goodman, 2002). Additional paternal factors, other than psychopathological characteristics, also have been examined in families with court-involved youth. For instance, both male and female delinquents perceived their fathers as less caring and more overly protective than did controls (Mak, 1996), and African-American and Latino adolescent males who were serious chronic offenders described their families as greatly disrupted and conflictual (Gorman-Smith, Tolan, Loeber, & Henry, 1998). In another study that investigated individual dyads within the family system, Conger and Conger (1994) found that the sibling treated with the highest level of parental hostility within the family displayed greater delinquency over time. Also, observational studies comparing the interactions of couples who did and did not have adolescents with CD have shown that the parents of youth with CD engage in more overt conflict (Whittaker & Bry, 1992) and the fathers in these families behave in a more dominant manner to their wives when compared with controls (Henggeler, Edwards, & Bourdin, 1987).


Paralleling the research on fathers of nondelinquent adolescents, it may be the case that the father-adolescent dyad among problematic teens may vary based on the adolescent’s gender; namely, that fathers of sons and fathers of daughters should be considered as two very unique family dyads. Unfortunately, the limited number of studies on this issue have not yielded clear conclusions (Henggeler, Edwards, & Bourdin, 1987; Johnson & O’leary, 1987). For example, Heneggeler and colleagues found differences based on the adolescent’s gender: fathers of delinquent daughters, versus fathers of delinquent sons, reported higher levels of neuroticism and experienced more conflict with their adolescent daughters (Henggeler, Edwards, & Bourdin, 1987). In another study, researchers found that maternal but not paternal behavior was related to the female adolescent’s behavior patterns (Johnson & O’leary, 1987). Hence, additional research that examines the link between fathers and their delinquent sons versus fathers and their delinquent daughters is warranted.

To better understand gender-related differences that fathers may exhibit toward their delinquent offspring, it may be helpful to review research on expectations that parents have for their sons and daughters during adolescence. In fact, some of the literature on female adolescent delinquency has discussed how certain parental expectations and parenting practices may be related to the development of their daughters’ misbehavior. For example, in reviews of female violence and delinquency (Chesney-Lind, 2001; Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 1998), the authors present and discuss research on sex differences that has shown that parents’ differential gender-related socialization of their offspring reaches a high during adolescence (Maccoby, 1966), which may result in much more highly restrictive parenting practices used with daughters versus sons. In turn, while mothers and fathers have expressed hesitation to punish their daughters, yet engage in closer supervision of their daughters (Block, 1984), evidence also has been reported that fathers exerted a higher level of pressure and more strict expectations for “ladylike” behavior on their daughters to adhere to sex-appropriate behaviors than did mothers. It would follow, then, that daughters who are not acting in traditional female ways would create a very confusing situation for fathers that would result in a great deal of uncertainty about how to handle such anomalous things as their daughters’ delinquent behavior.

Clearly, there is a noticeable lack of information about the father-daughter relationship during adolescence. Similarly, studies focusing on paternal contributions to their delinquent adolescents’ problem behaviors are very limited, and it may be necessary to explore specific concerns that fathers have when parenting their problematic daughters.



Within the limited number of studies that have investigated characteristics of the father-adolescent relationship, the common methodology that has been used is the collection of questionnaire data. However, it has been argued that the large majority of this research suffers from several methodological limitations. In particular, in their comprehensive review of research that has focused on positive father involvement and child/adolescent outcomes, Amato and Rivera (1999) discussed two problematic issues that need to be addressed in future studies. First, most of the studies have not controlled for the mother’s contribution (i.e., quality of the mother-offspring relationship) when estimating the father’s impact on his child/adolescent’s well-being. Second, shared method variance poses a problem: when quantitative data is obtained from the same source (e.g., the father or the child), significant associations among the variables are likely to exist that may obscure a clear interpretation of the studies’ findings (Amato & Rivera, 1999).

As these limitations may have tainted results that have been found in existing research on paternal contributions to adolescent outcomes, it can be argued that alternative methods need to be implemented to better examine the father’s subjective view of his relationship with his adolescent daughter. In addition, existing parent-adolescent measures may have failed to capture the unique way in which fathers relate to their adolescents that is distinct from mothers’ relational styles (Palkovitz, 1997). Thus, a qualitative methodology is thought to be a useful approach that can be utilized in the exploration of father-adolescent relationship characteristics that are not affected by those methodological limitations found in purely quantitative research.

A modified grounded theory approach was used in the present study. Consistent with a grounded theory methodology, the main research task is to interpret and begin to build theory based on, or grounded in, participants’ meaningful experiences. Also, no a priori assumptions are placed on the data; rather, theoretical categories are allowed to emerge from the data. Stated another way, Strauss and Corbin (1994) contend: “Interpretations must include the perspectives and voices of the people whom we study…. Interpretations are sought for understanding the actions of individual or collective actors being studied” (p. 274). Thus, a modified grounded theory methodology was appropriately used in the present study because: (a) the study is exploratory and represents a new area of inquiry, and (b) no preconceived theory was forced upon the data, but rather the data informed and guided the development of theoretical categories (Stern, 1980; Strauss & Corbin, 1994).

Thus, the use of a modified grounded theory approach allowed the men participating in the present study to identify salient issues and to prescribe meaning to certain situations that they have experienced as fathers of adolescent daughters. Specifically, ongoing content analyses were conducted to create theoretical categories to organize fathers’ responses. In other words, a conceptual framework was developed to meaningfully classify men’s descriptions of salient issues that are relevant to their relationships with their daughters and, in particular, how they viewed their fathering roles.


The sample consisted of fathers of adolescents who had participated in a family-based diversion program in a large Midwestern metropolitan area. The family diversion program focuses on families of at-risk adolescents who have been referred by the juvenile courts for (a) delinquent behaviors, (b) truancy, and/or (c) incorrigible/unruly behaviors (Gavazzi, Yarcheck, Wasserman, & Partridge, 2000). The main purpose of this family-based program is to strengthen the family’s ability to recognize and support the adolescent’s developmental needs in negotiating his or her way through the transition to a healthy, successful adulthood status (Law & Gavazzi, 1999). Consistent with recent research that acknowledges numerous types of father figures, such as stepfathers, cohabitating fathers, adopted fathers, and other surrogate fathers (e.g., uncles, grandfathers; see Tamis-LeMonda & Cabrera, 1999), the present study utilized a broadly defined classification of “father” within the sample. Specifically, all men who considered themselves to be significant parental figures in the adolescent’s life were permitted to participate in the study.

A total of 14 fathers from families participating in the family-based diversion program were selected through use of a purposeful sampling procedure (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Purposeful sampling, or theoretical sampling, refers to the intentional selection of participants to maximize the variety of experiences shared regarding the research topic under investigation (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998; Strauss & Corbin, 1994). This method was used (a) to obtain representation of descriptive, multiple perspectives from a diverse sample of fathers and (b) to allow for cross-case analyses of the data based on certain descriptive variables. However, due to the lack of availability/limited contact with ethnically diverse families referred to this program, the sample of fathers in the present study was relatively ethnically homogenous.

A brief questionnaire was verbally administered to the fathers to obtain demographic information about the father and his daughter. The mean age of the fathers in the sample was 46.6 years, and their ages ranged from 37-72 years. The fathers’ ethnic backgrounds consisted of 10 Caucasian fathers, three African-American fathers; and one Native-American father. The fathers’ reports on their family structure at the time of the adolescent’s referral included four single-father headed households; three married, biological parent households; one stepfamily, resident-father household; two stepfamily, nonresident father households; two single-mother headed households; and two households classified as “other.” Annual household incomes reported by the fathers ranged from $15,000 to $100,000 or more: two were in the range of $15,000-$25,000; two were in the range of $25,001-$35,000; four were in the range of $35,001-$45,000; one was in the range of $45,001-$55,000; four were in the range of $55,001-$100,000; and one reported $100,001 or more.

The daughters’ mean age was 15.6 years, and the sample included the following age ranges: one adolescent was between the ages of 11 and 13 years; six adolescents were between the ages of 14 and 15 years; and seven adolescents were between the ages of 16 and 18 years. The daughters’ reasons for referral to the program included: 10 were incorrigible; two had been referred for theft; one had violated curfew; and one had been reported as a runaway.


Semi-Structured Interviews. The face-to-face interviews lasted approximately 60 to 90 minutes and were conducted in a private conference room on a university campus, typically in the afternoon and early evening hours. The interviewer was adequately trained in qualitative interviewing techniques (Bogdan & Biklan, 1998; Patton, 1990), and she was also well familiarized with the semi-structured interview protocols. In addition, although the interviewer was an adult female, an adequate level of rapport was thought to have been achieved with the fathers during the interviews, as evidenced by the lengthy and personal stories that fathers openly shared throughout their interviews. Fathers who were referred to the program within nine months prior to the onset of data collection were contacted and asked to participate in the interviews. The nine-month period was selected as a reasonable amount of time for fathers to still have the ability to provide detailed information about their experience with the diversion program and also to allow for the primary investigator to obtain a varied population of fathers to contact. Although it is possible that the varied lengths of time that had passed between the adolescents’ actual referrals to the program and the interviews with the fathers may have resulted in less emotionally candid discussions with many of the fathers, most of the fathers spoke about ongoing issues that they had been experiencing with their daughters up to the time of the interview. Hence, problems related to the fathers’ retrospective recall were not anticipated.

The initial set of research questions focused on a variety of topics, such as (a) fathers’ general perceptions of their relationships with their adolescents; (b) fathers’ unique skills or characteristics that they possess as a father that can help the family cope with the adolescent’s problematic behavior; (c) fathers’ previous experiences with prior family-based programming/services and their perceptions of their present role in treatment; and (d) potential barriers/facilitators to fathers’ program participation, within and outside of the family, and additional helpful services that specifically could be offered to fathers. For the present paper, fathers’ discussions of the unique ways in which they described relating to their adolescent based on the adolescent’s gender were coded and analyzed.


All interviews were audiotaped and fully transcribed at a later time, post-interview. The verbatim transcripts were entered in a word processing program and served as the major source of data that was analyzed. Initially, the primary investigator, who had been trained in qualitative methodology, used hand coding of the transcripts with paper and pencil methods, and a codebook was constructed, revised, and used throughout the data analysis to record emerging concepts and subcategories. In addition, the use of the computer program NVivo (NUDIST Version 5) assisted in data management and subsequent analyses of the interview text.

Procedures for investigating the data consisted of ongoing content analyses used to identify and organize themes within the interview text (Glesne & Peshkin, 1999). Specifically, the transcripts first were read thoroughly several (two or three) times, with the initial reading conducted in tandem with close review of the audiotaped interview. After several reviews of the interview, preliminary (or open) coding occurred. Open coding is “the analytic process through which concepts are identified and their properties and dimensions are discovered in the data,” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Following the open coding, axial coding took place. In axial coding, “categories are systematically developed and linked with subcategories” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Next, selective coding, or the integration of themes into a conceptual framework, was used. For example, within the overall father interview data, data specific to the “father’s role in parenting his daughter” was identified during open coding; the category of “communication issues” was developed during axial coding, and the subcategories of “communication topics” and “style of communication” were created within the theme of “communication issues” to further organize the data into a meaningful framework. In sum, the analysis evolved from labeling concepts to grouping concepts into categories and subcategories and then to integrating categories into a conceptual framework. These steps occurred in a circular manner, each informing the other, throughout data collection and analyses of all of the transcribed interviews (Glesne & Peshkin, 1999).


Among the many topics that were addressed during the interviews, most of the fathers in the father-daughter dyads (11 of the 14 fathers) discussed, to some extent, how the gender of their adolescent had an impact on aspects of their father-adolescent relationships. Specifically, analyses of the themes that surfaced during the fathers’ interviews revealed unique gender-related issues of concern. Fathers of female adolescents expressed feelings of uncertainty in their parental role in four areas: (a) an unclear understanding of their daughter’s situation/experience of being a female adolescent; (b) communication barriers involving topics of conversation and style of communication; (c) limited involvement due to a lack of shared interests; and (d) indecision regarding how to effectively address their daughter’s problematic behaviors. It is interesting that fathers who also had sons often made spontaneous comparisons and realized how differently they have parented and related to daughters versus sons, and these fathers’ responses echoed several of the same issues.


In the course of the interviews, fathers expressed feelings of uncertainty about being able to understand the general life experiences of a female adolescent, thus creating distance in their father-daughter relationships. For example, one single, resident father of a 17-year-old daughter who had repeatedly run away expressed feeling unsure of his parenting behaviors in many ways throughout his generous interview. Reflecting on how he currently felt about the advice that he had received immediately prior to his daughter’s move to permanently live with him, Mike stated:

I don’t know; it was tough and everyone warned me about getting

my daughter. They said, “Your sons, fine, but your daughter is

tougher. They’re tougher to deal with, man.” I see what they say

because, even though I understand what’s going on, I guess there’s

something missing there between a man trying to relate to a young

girl like that.

During the conversation, Mike also suggested that, although he did not believe that his problem with understanding his daughter had directly contributed to her running away, he did feel that he would be more available to her, and perhaps be able to prevent her fleeing, if he could better relate to her problems as a parent.

Similarly, a longtime single, resident father of two adolescent daughters expressed concern about their mother’s complete absence from their lives since the parents’ time of divorce seven years earlier. According to Chip, his 18 year-old daughter, who had unexpectedly been caught shoplifting, had always been a “good kid” prior to this offense. In this instance, Chip talks specifically about deferring to a mother’s experience in connecting with other females. However, his ongoing doubt and discomfort about understanding his daughter, as well as the examples he used to illustrate his constant effort toward being a better father for his daughter, were evident throughout the interview:

I would probably defer to the mother in almost every respect. I

don’t know anything about being a girl. I don’t know what they go

through when they’re that age. I think the mothers would probably

be better at knowing what their needs are.

One married, biological father of a 15 year-old daughter who had been caught stealing a purse out of a classroom at school mentioned his ignorance about women in general. Often throughout the interview Randy, who was a police officer, would share how he would seek advice from other women on the police force, in addition to consulting with his wife, about how to best parent his increasingly unruly daughter:

Because everybody keeps telling me that Lizzie is a normal

teenage girl. And I find that hard to believe sometimes, but

everybody keeps telling me that 90% of her behavior is normal for a

teenage girl. I had no sisters, I’m 45, and I still don’t understand

women. I don’t know if it’s normal or not.

Sam was a father of a 15-year-old female who had been experiencing high levels of both internalizing and externalizing behaviors (and who had been referred to the diversion program for drug abuse). During the interview, he clearly articulated his doubt about effectively understanding his daughter and also understanding the female teens who attend his church youth group, partially due to the fact that his mother typically parented his sisters during his youth and he did not learn about parenting females from his father. It is interesting that, throughout the conversation, Sam often reflected upon his own father’s role and noted, several times, that his father had very minimal involvement in parenting any of the children in his family of orientation:

I know that my father never had anything at all to do with whatever

my sisters went through. That was always delegated to mom

to do. I don’t really feel comfortable, even when I worked as a

youth pastor, I did not feel comfortable in talking with the girls

in the youth group. I don’t feel comfortable talking to my daughters

right now because I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman.

The fathers clearly expressed a lack of understanding regarding their daughters’ experiences and behaviors as a female teenager, noting that they were unaware of what constituted “normal” behavior. Consequently, the fathers felt uncomfortable relating to their daughters, and many thought that the mother would be a much more appropriate parental figure for their daughters. In addition, most of these fathers were aware of their uncertainty and had either (a) speculated on why they were unsure in their paternal role or (b) considered how their difficulty relating could be improved upon to help prevent their daughters’ problematic behaviors.


Another theme that surfaced was the existence of common barriers in the areas of conversation topics and communication style. First, many of the fathers expressed the concern of not sharing common topics of conversation with their daughters. Sam, the father of the daughter involved with drugs, was very specific in describing his disconnect with many of the female issues, such as dealing with the onset of her menstruation, that his daughter experienced during adolescence. In addition to sharing communication problems with his own daughter, Sam also mentioned feeling uncomfortable talking with the other female teens in his Sunday school class because he has not experienced these concerns firsthand:

It doesn’t sound like locker room talk, so I don’t know how to

relate to the other girls at school, and when it comes to the female

cycle and everything else, it’s like, “guys, I’m sorry,” I’ve had no

experience from this side of the table; I’ve had experience from

the other side. It’s real uncomfortable.

One single father, who shared sporadic visitation between his ex-wife with their 16-year-old daughter due to a physically abusive mother-daughter relationship, expressed his recent problems talking with his daughter now that they were temporarily residing together. Rett, in particular, was quite concerned about not being able to engage in conversations with his daughter because he wanted to foster a strong parental relationship that would protect his daughter from her abusive relationship with her mother:

If she was a boy, we’d probably be closer to the point where she

could come talk to me about things versus being a girl. It’s going

to be harder for me because Abby is a girl. She’s with dad.

Mike, the resident father of the 17-year-old runaway, also talked about how his very close relationship with his daughter in their earlier years had changed in many ways, most evidently in terms of how he was unable to relate to the conversation topics that were important to her. In this example, he suggests that her mother now might be the more appropriate parent to listen to their daughter about dating issues:

It’s not like we didn’t have a good relationship, but I think when

it comes towards the end, when she started getting older, boys

become an issue. Then that’s where she wasn’t listening so much

to me and was listening to her mother.

Also, fathers felt compelled to use a different style of communication when talking with their daughters versus their sons, such that they expressed the need to be much more careful and sensitive in their conversational approach. For example, Hal, a remarried, biological father of two acting-out teens (one male and one female adolescent), noticed how he censored more when talking to his daughter. Specifically, when asked to describe parenting approaches that he uses with his adolescents, Hal quickly identified his usage of gender-specific communication styles, such that he is much more sensitive to his teenage daughter when engaging in conversation:

You gotta be a lot more careful what you say to a girl than you do

a boy. Oh, man, you really gotta watch what you say.

Similarly, a very verbose uncle of a 16-year-old teen, who had recently gained custody of his niece after several years of her unruly behaviors, shared emerging difficulties that he and his wife were experiencing in their new parental roles. It is interesting that Monty and his niece were referred to the diversion program during a voluntary tour of the juvenile justice system, in which Monty had intended to “scare” his niece into “cleaning up her act.” In this quote, he refers to his sense that there is less need to be sensitive when talking with young men:

I would say, uh, there would be more … my sensitivity level would

be less. I wouldn’t have to put such a curve ball on my pitch. I

wouldn’t have to take some of the steam off it. Sometimes as men

we can talk amongst each other and knock each other down and

get back up and be like, “That’s a pretty good hit. I like that.”

But with her, it’s like it’ll take her a week to get over that

bruised feeling or emotion.

Chip, the father of two teen girls, one of which is 18 and had been caught shoplifting, talked about his ongoing difficulty in communicating with his daughters over his many years of being their resident and sole parent. In particular, he recognized that he must use a different style of communicating, one with a heightened level of sensitivity, with his girls as opposed to how he might have talked with teenage boys:

One issue I have struggled with in my entire career as a single

father is the self-esteem thing with adolescent girls. It would be

one thing to tell a kid, “You’re a little chubby, why don’t you

exercise more?” if it was a guy, or say, “What’s the matter, slob?”

or something like that; I mean, I could get away with that with a

guy. It is very difficult, as a father, to keep the girls’

self-esteem and approach them differently than you would approach a

son. And that even with my younger daughter, an athlete, a big

basketball player, it’s the same thing with her, trying to tell her

she needs a little more work on her shot or something like that. For

me, if it was a guy, I could yell at him and say, “You idiot! You

lost the ball! Go practice for four hours.” You can’t do that to a


Again, fathers often felt that they were in a difficult, uncomfortable situation because they were unable to converse about many of the “female” issues (e.g., menstruation, dating issues) with which their daughters were concerned. Additionally, fathers noted that they had to closely monitor the way in which they communicated, such that their communication required a heightened level of sensitivity and caution to protect their daughters’ emotional well-being. It is interesting that these fathers were able to easily identify salient and specific issues that are relevant to most female adolescents (e.g., menstruation, boys, body images) yet felt ill-prepared in verbally addressing their daughters’ concerns about these topics. In addition, most of these fathers expressed a sincere desire to improve their communication skills, and one father, Mike, shared a recent situation in which he had implemented a new strategy–not to offer his usual advice, but just to listen:

I listened and she spoke for, she was probably there for an hour

and a half, maybe two hours, just going on about this and on about

that … and I just listened and listened. I made a little comment

and then listened, but I don’t know if that worked.

Mike was especially interested in the interview topics and was visibly mindful and attentive throughout the conversation. His love for his daughter and intent on bettering his fathering role was made evident in his responses, such as in the previously cited example.


Some of the fathers discussed limited involvement with their daughters and attributed it to a lack of shared interests. In addition, some fathers tentatively identified adolescence as the period in which they initially noticed a disconnect in terms of common interests. Mike shared how, in addition to his problem with relating to communication topics that had become salient to his daughter, he also felt that he was a less fitting parent than her mother to engage in activities that their daughter presently enjoyed (i.e., shopping):

And Dominique was getting older, and dad doesn’t go shopping

and buy things with the daughter, you know with a daughter.

‘Cause she would always mention they would go to certain stores

and look at the panties and stuff like that. I can’t relate to


One married, biological father of a 15-year-old daughter who had been referred to the program for truancy and running away from home (due to an “unhealthy” relationship with an older boy, according to Andrew) states that he was very involved with her older brother’s sports career during their childhood. However, especially since his daughter had entered adolescence and her interests had changed (sadly, from sports to boys, according to Andrew), this father expressed his unhappiness with his currently limited fathering role and weakened relationship with his daughter:

Christopher is in baseball real big … basketball, soccer, a little

bit of this, a little bit of that. I coached him. I coached baseball

a total of about 15 years. Um, so I was real involved in everything.

I wasn’t real involved with her sports like I was her older brother.

This father went on to explain that even though he was less adamant about encouraging his daughter to participate in sports than he was with his son, their shared interest in sports during her childhood helped them to sustain a closeness that has recently diminished a great deal. In fact, most examples that Andrew gave pertaining to talking or spending time with his daughter made reference to sporting events.

Randy, the police officer and father of a 15-year-old daughter who was caught for theft at school, was aware of the difficulties he experienced in his fathering role due to his unawareness of how to relate to and spend time with his teenagers now that their interests have changed since childhood:

I find it very difficult right now to be a father because they both

have their own things they want to do. It’s hard to get them to

have time to spend with me when I ask them to do things with me.

And, I mean, they’re both at that age where they want to run, they

want to grow, they want to learn, they want to do things that they

want to do. Um, it’s not the same as when they were eight or ten,

and they want to go to the zoo with mom and dad. Or they want to

go down and feed the ducks. I find it to be harder now.

In this instance, Randy referred to a lack of shared interests between himself and his adolescent daughter and his teenage son as well.

Similarly, Bart, a divorced father of a 17-year-old daughter, had been awarded full custody several years previously after she had run away from her mother and stepfather’s house due to ongoing family conflict. In his interview, he expressed his sincere sadness over how their relationship has changed over the past several years. For instance, Bart repeatedly talked about how their very close relationship had become strained upon her entering adolescence, and particularly due to her recent interest in dating and running away from home with older, delinquent boyfriends:

It was great. Every night we would relax and stuff. She would

always come up to me and sit beside me. She always had to be

touching me with her feet or something. The bond, the closeness.

It was just a great relationship. I couldn’t believe from that

relationship to where she’s at now. We was [sic] fine. You couldn’t

have seen a better relationship. I just don’t understand how an

overnight thing like this happened.

Fathers identified the problem of not being a part of the activities that their daughters presently enjoyed (e.g., shopping) and that this lack of similar interests has had a negative impact on the amount of closeness shared in their relationships. Many of the fathers also recognized that their daughters’ preference changes have coincided with their development into adolescence.


Another concern that fathers voiced involved the use of appropriate discipline strategies for daughters versus sons. These men had fathered both daughters and sons, and during the interviews they identified significant differences in how they would and have addressed problematic behaviors of their teens based on gender. One stepfather of a 15-year-old teen, who had been referred to the program by the adolescent’s school due to physical evidence of an abusive mother-daughter relationship, tended to be vague and hesitant during the interview. Clearly, due to the family’s tumultuous home life, this stepfather carefully evaded questions about many details related to his stepdaughter’s situation. However, Samuel did mention that even though he often allowed their biological mother to be the primary parent and disciplinarian of his three stepchildren, he believed that he held a more prominent fathering role in his relationship with their younger son versus their two teenage daughters:

Now, with Michael, Michael is a boy, and he’s the youngest, too.

So I think I came into his life at a time when he was young enough

to be able to benefit from my presence more than the other two.

So, by them being girls, we made the agreement that their mother

would be the disciplinarian of them.

It is also important to highlight that, in the present case of Samuel, parenting as a stepfather could have contributed to how he defined his role and decided upon his paternal responsibilities in fathering his stepchildren. Certainly, his view and his wife’s view of the appropriate role of a stepparent should have been more fully explored during the interview. Unfortunately, as previously noted, Samuel was less vociferous and less willing to share during the interviews compared to the other fathers.

In another interview, Hal, the remarried, biological father of the two acting-out male and female adolescents, briefly mentioned discipline strategies that he used with his teens and how his approach toward punishment might be related to their gender. After careful thought, he offered the following example:

The only thing I would say I do different is I’m probably a little

stronger at voice with Anthony then I am with the girls. I

shouldn’t, but I am. I’ll be deeper threatening with Anthony than I

am with the girls.

Also, Bart was the father of a 17-year-old, incorrigible daughter, and he currently had custody of her and her younger brother. In his discussion of how he has attempted to handle his daughter’s repeated running away with older boys, Bart expressed how much more difficult it has been for him to discipline his daughter versus his son:

He [his son] does really good with me. I’m never physical with

him, either; I’m a hollering dad. I have grounded my son for two

weeks at a time, and that was his punishment, and it seemed to

work with him. He’s easy to deal with.

However, when discussing his problematic daughter, Bart mentioned several failed techniques that he had used with her–namely, using physical discipline (even though he denies using this approach later in the interview) and placing restrictions on her, such as removing telephones throughout their home. Finally, Bart described his most recent tactic of attempting to scare her by involving the police:

Then she was gone about three weeks with this guy, and when I

got her back, I went down to file an unruly on her. Because there

were some other instances, not right away, but sneaking out, so I

tried to scare her and see what they would do.

In contrast to the different disciplinary strategies that Bart used with his daughter and his son, Matt, a rather stern father of several children, described his own parenting approach that he has used with all of his children, regardless of their gender. When explaining how he has addressed his 16-year-old daughter’s incorrigibility, Matt states:

You know, I got a switch at home that I threaten them with, you

know, all my kids I threaten them with–whatever it would take to

get my child straightened out. Short of an old fashioned ass

whipping. She’s kinda big for that. I don’t want to have to go

there. But she’s not the only child I’ve got, and it won’t be the

first time I’ve had to discipline them when they thought they were


Clearly, Matt has a very definite stance toward disciplining his children, regardless of their gender. It is interesting that, later in the interview, Matt discusses another instance in which he, too, mentions using police intervention with his daughter if she fails to act like a “lady”:

She talks like a lady, so I’ve given her the option to be one. I

don’t want to have to hit her. I’ll let her go to the state first.

I’ll let her go to jail first before I have to beat her up.

Some of these fathers, who were simultaneously parenting daughters and sons, were able to recognize the differential discipline approaches they used with their adolescents that appeared to be influenced by the adolescent’s gender. Although some of the other fathers (of only daughters) in the sample also mentioned various disciplinary strategies that they had used, such as placing restrictions/grounding, using physical discipline, and involving a third party (e.g., police, juvenile courts, child services), it is unclear from the interview data as to whether or not their disciplinary decisions were somehow related to their offspring’s gender. However, one noteworthy finding is that many of the fathers in the sample were open to seeking out and accepting assistance from the police or another third party, typically as a method to “scare” their daughters into correcting their unruly behavior. The fathers’ willingness to incorporate law enforcement as a viable disciplinary option is interesting, and a discussion of this finding will be further examined in the following section.


Findings from the present study supported the notion that several interpersonal problems may exist for fathers in terms of parenting their unruly daughters; certain themes that emerged during the interviews suggested that fathers of female adolescents experience significant feelings of uncertainty in their paternal role. In particular, fathers of daughters expressed problems with their ability to understand certain female issues (e.g., boys and dating issues, menstruation), felt that there were certain barriers to communicating with their daughters, had a lack of shared interests, and experienced uncertainty in terms of how to effectively deal with their daughters’ problematic behaviors.

These findings are consistent with the existing fatherhood literature that reports fathers as being much less involved with their adolescent daughters than they are with their sons (Larson & Richards, 1994; Montemayor, 1982; Nollar & Callan, 1990; Steinberg, 1987; Youniss & Ketterlinus, 1987). Fathers in the present study contributed to our understanding of why this may be so, stating in the interviews that they were generally unaware of the female issues that their daughters were experiencing and thus that they felt uncomfortable having conversations with their daughters involving those topics about which they knew very little. It is important to emphasize, though, that most of the fathers expressed sincere concern and discomfort when talking about problems in their father-daughter relationships during the interviews, suggesting that these men had given prior thought to why their relationships had become more distant and what impact this distance has had on their daughters’ acting-out behaviors.

One important direction for further study involves the examination of the impact that the father’s perception of his inability to relate to his daughter has on the father, on the relationship characteristics of the father-daughter relationship, and on the well-being of the adolescent. It is interesting that several studies have shown that fathers’ positive views of their perceived skills and self-confidence in their fathering abilities predict their involvement in child-oriented activities (McBride & Rane, 1997, 1998; McHale & Huston, 1984; Palkovitz, 1984) and relate to greater efforts at improving their parenting skills by reading educational materials on parenting (Spoth & Conroy, 1993). Although research on fathers’ views of their own parenting behaviors has focused on relations with younger children, it might be expected that fathers’ views of their parenting competency also would be related to their involvement with their adolescents.

In turn, then, it will be important to examine whether the father’s view of his parenting competency and the view of his relative ability to relate to his daughter results in decreased levels of paternal involvement and, consequently, what impact this potential distancing has on both the father and the well-being of his daughter. Do fathers consciously distance themselves from their adolescent daughters when they feel indecisive in their parenting role? To what extent do daughters notice their father’s diminishing involvement, and what impact might the distancing have on the daughter and on her relationship with her father?


Several limitations with the present study should also be discussed. First, these fathers represented moderate to high socioeconomic-status (SES) families. Hence, caution should be taken in terms of extending the study’s findings beyond middle-class families to fathers from lower-class families. For instance, it would be interesting to include data on father’s employment responsibilities (e.g., hours spent at work, degree of job flexibility, occupational stress) in order to explore differences in father-daughter relationships that might be related to characteristics of the father’s job and to the economic health of the family. In addition, factors such as ethnicity and family structure should be considered when studying father-daughter relationships. In particular, families from different ethnic groups may have culturally defined beliefs regarding (a) the father’s role in the family, (b) tolerance levels and discipline strategies that should be appropriately applied to female adolescent delinquent behaviors, and (c) beliefs toward the receipt of support and assistance form nonfamilial sources within the community. Unfortunately, the sample of fathers in the present study was fairly ethnically homogenous, and the lack of non-Caucasian fathers made any comparisons based on ethnicity impractical.

Similarly, family structure is certainly a salient factor that creates individual sets of circumstances for fathers. For example, the father’s role in the family is often shaped by the man’s relation to the adolescent (biological, stepfather, cohabitating boyfriend, grandparent, foster/adopted father) and his residential status. Thus, the inclusion of a larger and more diverse sample of fathers representing these different family situations (i.e., various family SES levels, ethnicities, and family structures) would have allowed for a richer and more comprehensive analysis and interpretation of the data in the present study.

Second, some of the interviews were conducted after a significant period of time had passed following the adolescent’s initial referral to the program. It is likely that the varied lengths of time that had passed between the adolescents’ actual referrals and the interviews with the fathers may have resulted in less emotionally candid discussions with many of the fathers. For example, a father who was currently having difficulty with his adolescent (e.g., problems resulting in police involvement) at the time of the interview would be more likely to show his agitation than would a father who had not been in the midst of conflict with his adolescent since several months prior to the interview. Ideally, the interviews would have been conducted immediately following the adolescent’s referral to the program to capture fathers’ initial reactions. Thus, future research would benefit from incorporating a longitudinal design to examine the ways in which fathers cope immediately following their daughter’s problematic behavior and at subsequent intervals several months afterward to gain insight into how fathers manage their reactions to and direct parenting behaviors toward their daughter’s continued problematic behavior.

Third, it is not entirely apparent whether fathers of nonproblematic daughters would have presented similar or different responses to the areas of inquiry addressed in the interviews. In other words, did this particular sample of fathers in the present study voice issues that were strongly related to their daughters’ acting-out behaviors? If so, is there a discernable difference among fathers of daughters who have exhibited (a) varying degrees of serious acting-out behaviors and/or (b) other internalizing types of problematic behaviors (e.g., major depression, suicide ideation)?

In particular, future research should focus on the parenting and disciplinary strategies used by fathers of daughters with various problems. For instance, in the present study, fathers were fairly open to seeking assistance from third parties, such as police and community agencies (juvenile courts, child services). However, most of these fathers voiced that they were using these resources to decrease unruly behavior by instilling fear in their daughters, so it is unclear whether this willingness to accept help from other sources would be present in other father-daughter situations. Further study in this area could yield important programmatic recommendations, so it will be valuable to explore fathers’ concerns and needs regarding their parenting role among a variety of adolescent samples.


Several interesting hypotheses can be formulated from the present study regarding parental participation. First, the issue of privacy has been identified as a significant barrier to parental participation in family-based programming (Spoth & Redmond, 1992; Spoth, Redmond, Hockaday, & Shin, 1996). It is likely that the one-on-one format of the interviews may have reduced the father’s discomfort about speaking in the midst of other families and/or in the presence of members of his own family-perhaps especially regarding the acting-out behaviors of his daughter. Hence, programs should address fathers’ privacy concerns when developing family-based initiatives and collecting data from fathers and families (e.g., use of pseudonyms, one-on-one interviewing, confidentiality agreements).

A second explanation for the low participation rates of fathers with daughters who were not initially involved in the diversion program may be due to the manner in which they were recruited into the study. For the interviews, fathers were contacted directly and informed that, because the overwhelming majority of existing research on family related issues has been conducted with mothers, their input as fathers was extremely valuable. It may have been the case that less effort was put forth by program facilitators to recruit fathers of daughters due to the belief that fathers are less likely to be involved with their daughter’s problems than are fathers of delinquent sons. Hence, carefully articulating that the focus of the present study addressed the fathers’ perspective was likely to have been alluring to many men, particularly to those fathers of daughters who may feel that they are rarely asked for their input concerning family issues.

Similarly, the notion of maternal “gatekeeping” also has been proposed as a possible reason for men’s traditionally limited involvement in the family (Allen & Hawkins, 1999; Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997), and the mother’s role as primary (and sometimes exclusive) caretaker of the family may also explain men’s lower rates of participation in family-based programs and research initiatives. Additional recruitment strategies in the present study, however, addressed the potential issue of maternal gatekeeping. Specifically, consistent efforts were made to speak directly to the father when introducing and recruiting for the study, despite many mothers’ initial reluctance to relay the telephone messages to the fathers. Furthermore, in several families, mothers needed to be persuaded to “overlook” their certainty that the fathers would not participate in order to be able to verbally extend the invitation to the father. It is interesting that most fathers were receptive to the idea of participating in the study, and it may be that men are typically pleased to offer their views when directly asked to be involved in studies that emphasize the importance of obtaining the father’s perspective.


From this study, certain program implications could be developed. With respect to the content of parent education and family intervention initiatives, program developers and evaluators may need to expand efforts directed at fathers in order to focus on those specific issues and concerns with which female adolescents are likely to be struggling. First, it would benefit fathers to become knowledgeable about the biological changes, including hormonal fluctuations and body image issues, with which many teen girls are preoccupied. Second, fathers should be sensitive to the interpersonal issues that female adolescents deem important, such as concerns and problems with peers and dating relationships. Third, it may also be useful for fathers to gain a general understanding of other important topics that female teens typically focus on, such as fashion, beauty products, and popular culture, so that fathers are more able to engage in conversations and relate to their daughters’ lives.

In addition, efforts also might be undertaken to assist fathers in developing more effective discipline strategies and communication skills to be used with their daughters. Again, it was interesting that some of the fathers were willing to utilize nonfamilial assistance to address their daughters’ unruliness. Clearly, these dedicated fathers seemed to be open to seeking additional support when they felt that their own disciplinary techniques were ineffective. It could be concluded, then, that these fathers were proactive in seeking out alternate ways to address their daughters’ problem because they believed that community professionals (e.g., the police, community-based programs/agencies, school counselors, psychologists) were worthy disciplinary resources. If this is the case, community-based providers should be optimistic in offering more father-focused services. This conclusion is consistent with the notion that these fathers had, in fact, valued the information that had been offered through the diversion program and were receptive to any insight that they had hoped to gain through their participation in the interviews.

How could community-based efforts offer insight into effective disciplinary skills that fathers can use with their problematic daughters? Typically during adolescence parental disciplining evolves into a co-parenting management strategy such that parents teach and equip their adolescents to manage conflict and difficulties within their lives while simultaneously decreasing levels of direct parental involvement (Shulman & Klein, 1993). Thus, fathers can be instructed how to best assist their daughters in learning effective coping behaviors when dealing with troubling issues, especially with issues that could lead to the daughter’s selection of unhealthy ways of managing problems (e.g., substance use, violence, running away). Also, fathers must recognize the need to adopt a sensitive communication style when talking with their daughters. Parenting education and family-based programs can incorporate these two objectives into a curriculum that might include education, skill building, and role-playing to foster the development of healthy coping behaviors and positive communication styles for father to use with their daughters.

Finally, family professionals might do well to incorporate specific suggestions for activities that fathers and daughters could participate in together in order to enhance their relationship. In fact, the interviews from the present study show that fathers and their adolescent daughters seem to lack shared interests, unlike fathers and adolescent sons, who may partake in common activities such as watching and participating in sporting events and working on automobiles. Ideas to enhance the father-daughter relationship could include a father-daughter “date night” during which the father and daughter take turns selecting an activity to do together (e.g., choosing a restaurant for dinner, cooking, seeing a movie, gardening, etc.). Ideally, the identification of common interests would lead to enhanced communication levels and increased quality time spent between fathers and their adolescent daughters. In turn, a more positive father-daughter relationship would place the father in a more influential role that would, in turn, help to prevent his daughter from engaging in behaviors that would lead to court involvement.


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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Angie M. Schock, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, California State University Northridge, Northridge, CA 91330-8308. Electronic mail: angie.schock@csun.edu.

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