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U study of sisters helps explain a dad's influence on risky sexual behavior.

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications

What is it about a father that affects his teenage daughter’s likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behavior?

Danielle Delpriore

Researchers have long shown links between a father’s involvement and his daughter’s sexual behavior. The standard explanation attributes that influence to shared genes that influence both the father’s and the child’s behavior and relationships.

But a new study by Danielle J. DelPriore and Bruce J. Ellis of the Department of Psychology published in Developmental Psychology suggests genes aren’t the whole story.

They found a dad’s behavior matters when it comes to a daughter’s likelihood of engaging in risky sex and affiliating with delinquent peers.

“It’s not enough for a dad to just be in the home,” said DelPriore, a post-doctoral fellow and lead author of the study. “The quality of a father’s relationship with his daughter has implications for both the overall monitoring she receives from her parents as well as her likelihood of affiliating with more promiscuous or more prosocial friends.”

Gabriel L. Schlomer of the University of Albany, SUNY, also contributed to the study.

The researchers used pairs of sisters who spent different amounts of time living with their fathers to control for inherited genes and environmental conditions, such as socioeconomic status or religious background. That allowed them to isolate the effects of fathering quality on daughters.

The sister pairs in the study came from two types of families: Biologically intact families and families in which the parents divorced or separated while the sisters were growing up. The age difference between the sisters in each group was at least four years.

In divorced/separated families — which include parents who never married — the parents stopped living together before the younger sister turned age 14.

The researchers theorized that in divorced/separated families, a father’s behavior was likely to have exerted a stronger influence on an older daughter since she systematically received larger “doses” of exposure to dad.

That proved to be the case, for better or worse.

The older sisters were strongly influenced by the quality of the fathering they received. When fathering was high quality, parental monitoring increased and older sisters were less likely to affiliate with sexually risky peers during adolescence compared to their younger sisters. The opposite effects were found for older sisters who spent many years living with a low-quality father.

“By showing a difference between older and younger sisters in divorced — but not intact — families, we can conclude that those differences are due to the different dosage of exposure to dad’s behavior,” DelPriore said. “There is a lot of emphasis on the effects of divorce and parental separation on children, but this research shows that what may be more important, at least in this case, is what dad is doing while he is in the home.”