The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Girls Growing Up Too Fast

Fathers have never counted for much in progressive ideology. Consequently, as progressive ideologues have radically reshaped public policy in recent decades, ever fewer fathers have shared a home with their children. This epidemic of fatherlessness has hardly troubled progressives: to some degree, such an epidemic has been their objective all along.  Unfortunately, empirical evidence continues to mount indicating that fatherlessness translates into suffering among children—including the girls and young women on whose behalf feminist-minded progressives claim to speak. The latest evidence that young girls are paying a high price for progressive heedlessness comes from a British study of depression among adolescent girls.

Conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, this new study clearly identifies father absence as an antecedent of depressive symptoms among teenage girls. To be sure, the researchers launched their inquiry expecting to see a linkage between father absence and depression among adolescent females. The researchers cite a number of earlier studies concluding that “childhood family structure, including absence of the biological father, is a risk factor for development of depressive symptoms in adolescence” and point to  “a growing body of research [that] suggests girls’ specific psychological vulnerability to family dissolution and father absence when compared to boys.”

What the authors of this study particularly want to understand is why father absence predicts depression among adolescent girls. Previous research has shown that “father absence occurs in the context of multiple socioeconomic and familial adversities (e.g., financial hardship, maternal depression).” But in this tangle of pathology, the researchers choose to focus on “early timing of puberty,” hypothesizing that early puberty may be the single factor that best “explains the association between early childhood father absence and development of depressive symptoms in [female] adolescence.” In pursuing this line of inquiry, the researchers recognize that “father absence [can] affect the physiological and hormonal mechanisms that initiate and control pubertal development.” Indeed, in a number of earlier studies the researchers recognize “the accelerating effect of father absence on subsequent timing of menarche.”  “Early menarche,” explain the Bristol scholars, “is a risk factor for increased depressive symptoms in adolescence.”

To determine whether early puberty provides a sufficient explanation of how father absence plunges young adolescent girls into depression, the researchers scrutinize psychological and social data collected for 2,057 British girls born in southwest England in 1991-1992. The overall pattern that emerges in these data is unmistakable: “Girls from father-absent homes had earlier menarche and reported higher levels of depressive symptoms than girls from father-present homes,” report the researchers (p < 0.001 for both relationships).

To what degree does early menarche account for the elevated levels of depression of girls in father-absent homes? The researchers press this question using a sophisticated statistical model that compensates for relevant measures of “socioeconomic disadvantage (financial problems, homeownership status, and maternal educational attainment) and maternal characteristics (mother’s age at menarche and depressive symptoms).” Using this model, the researchers calculate that “approximately 15% of the total association between early childhood father absence and depressive symptoms was explained by early menarche.”

The researchers believe their analysis identifying early puberty as a mediating mechanism between father absence and adolescent female depression is of “conceptual and practical importance.” However, they frankly concede that this analysis accounts for only a “relatively small” part of the elevated symptoms of depression manifest among fatherless girls, with the incidence of such depressive symptoms remaining significantly higher—11% higher—for fatherless girls than for the general peer population even after taking into account age at first menarche (p <0.001). The researchers thus acknowledge, “There was strong evidence for the direct effect from father absence to depressive symptoms in mid-adolescence once the indirect effect through age at menarche was accounted for.”

The researchers realize that their findings identify fatherless girls and girls who experience early puberty as individuals particularly vulnerable to depression. Of course, this study establishes that the second population of vulnerable girls (those experiencing early menarche) comes disproportionately from the first population of vulnerable girls (fatherless girls). The authors of the study further admit that dealing with both vulnerabilities may prove difficult for public health officials in a world in which “father absence and age at menarche are factors that cannot be directly targeted by intervention programs.” Still, they conclude by expressing hope that public health authorities may develop “early preventive strategies”—particularly strategies “focusing on promoting problem-solving and social skills, as well as positive cognitions (e.g., self-esteem)”—that will help “young girls at risk for depressive symptoms.”

But given that far fewer adolescent girls grew up in fatherless homes just a generation ago than do today, why do the researchers so supinely accept such fatherlessness and the early puberty it causes as unchangeable givens? For the sake of the young girls at risk, perhaps it is time to talk about rolling back progressive innovations—such as permissive divorce statutes—that have plunged tens of thousands of such girls into life-marring darkness.

(Iryna Culpin et al., “Early Childhood Father Absence and Depressive Symptoms in Adolescent Girls from a UK Cohort: The Mediating Role of Early Menarche,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 43.5 [2015]: 921-31.)