Boris Johnson once said that the children of single mothers are “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive, and illegitimate.” Lovely, I know. Whether you grew up without a father or with one who fulfilled his parental duties rather poorly, chances are you’ve been diagnosed with ‘daddy issues’ at least once in your life—especially if you identify as a woman.
I know I’ve been, along with non-requested yet thorough examinations of my dating life as well as my overall relationship with men. The term ‘daddy issues’ is generally used to refer to the trouble some people—women in most cases—have with forming secure relationships in adulthood, based on an early unhealthy connection or lack thereof with their father. Although anyone can have a complicated relationship with their father, in our patriarchal society, the term has ‘naturally’ evolved into yet another way to belittle women’s struggles and needs.
In order to truly understand where those attachment issues—which is the correct term to use—come from, how to deal with them and smash misogynistic taboos along the way, we spoke to licensed therapist and YouTube sensation Kati Morton following her ‘What Causes Daddy Issues & HOW TO FIX THEM’ video, which currently has over 30,000 views.
‘Daddy issues’ is not a diagnosable mental illness. In fact, it’s not even a term that was ever used in any of Morton’s psychology classes, or continuing education courses. Any ‘issues’ we may have with our caregivers (like our mother, father, aunt, grandparent or even nanny) is boiled down to attachment. “People use the term ‘daddy issues’ in a stigmatising way, unfortunately, it’s usually given to women who are dating somebody they deem ‘inappropriate’—someone who’s older, or maybe they’ve had a slew of what others see as ‘unhealthy’ relationships,” Morton first explained.
“But when it comes to the psychology behind it and what ‘daddy issues’ really are, or even ‘mommy issues’, they’re actually just attachment issues. The first year of our life is pivotal when it comes to healthy attachment. Our body and brain are wired to attach. When you feed a newborn, they try to make eye contact, even though they can’t see very far or clearly, because they’re innately wired to help that person who’s feeding us feel connected to us and vice versa. We need to be fed to stay alive—it’s a bare-bone survival technique,” she added.
During that same first year, we learn to know that when we cry, someone comes and feeds us, takes care of us, comforts us. All of this helps us build what we call an attachment style—we know that we are safe and have this healthy foundation from which we can then push out into the world as we get older. But not all of us have wonderful parents or parental figures. Some of us grow up without parts of that healthy foundation, resulting in attachment issues.
For example, Morton mentioned, “One can think, ‘oh, if I’m upset, someone doesn’t come to my help so I just won’t cry anymore’. We can have that hopeless situation, or we can have someone who’s more anxious and thinks ‘I can’t really trust people so I’ll just do everything myself and be super independent’. There can be a ton of issues that come out of those unhealthy foundations.” To be more precise, in her video on the same topic, Morton listed four different styles of attachment: secure attachment, insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent, and disorganised.
“If we had a caregiver who came when we cried, and supported us emotionally as we needed, we would grow up to have a secure attachment,” precised Morton. If you didn’t, however, and ended up having a caregiver who was completely absent, not consistently there, or even abusive, that’s when the three other styles of attachment come into play.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to attachment and parental research, a lot of it tends to focus on our mothers and their role in our development. But fathers play an important role as well.” As outdated as it may sound, having a male figure in our life is key to our development. Men are the ones who tend to have ‘rougher play’ with children—they might throw them in the air while mothers are expected to be more nurturing and ‘safe’. Of course, this is based on the more socially accepted gender binary that is the nuclear family model, and does not mean that a mother can’t play around with her kid or that a father can’t look after them. A few generalisations need to be made in order to paint a clear picture of where most attachment issues come from.
Fathers teach us how to push the boundaries of what’s okay and what isn’t, as well as in the long run, how to take risks, make friends better, and how to meet challenges. On top of that, Morton explained how they also teach us how men are supposed to be. Whatever your gender, during your childhood, the male figures that surround you are the ones you’ll base your expectations on—be that for future romantic relationships or as a role model if you identify as male.
In simpler terms, your childhood’s male figure will end up being the blueprint for what you expect of men throughout your life. In most cases, if that male individual was often absent, you’ll expect most men to do the same. In order to cope with this unhealthy foundation, one might try to do everything they can to please the men they have relationships with, while someone else might, on the contrary, expect them to always leave them.
And the same can be applied to a man who, for example, saw their father be abusive throughout their childhood. The father figure will teach them how to be and how to interact with other people. More often than not, although unknowingly, as we grow up, we try to mimic what we witnessed first hand as a child—good or bad behaviour.
“Our relationship with our fathers also plays a huge role in our self-esteem and confidence, because mothers tend to be—but not always—the more nurturing, consistent, and home-sustaining caregiver. They tend to be around more and give positive reinforcement more easily than father figures can. I know a lot of this sounds super traditional, and not everyone’s family is like this, but for many of us it still rings true,” Morton told me.
As a result, many kids grow up believing that if they manage to please their father, then he’ll stay around more often, or that his approval means more than their mother’s. It is also widely known that our relationship with our father can affect our sexuality, as Morton specified too. “It’s a little bit creepy, but anyway you look at it, it’s there. Our fathers are our first example and experience of being around an adult male. This can obviously lead to a lot of issues,” she added.
Just like with many other things in life, it’s important to understand exactly how the adult figures of our childhood affect us to this day before we try to overcome any issues that we might have as a result. “Don’t worry, just because we think we may have ‘daddy issues’ doesn’t mean we have to live with them forever,” shares Morton in her YouTube video. In fact, she advises viewers to start doing so by first getting to know themselves better, as well as the thoughts they may have about men. “We can’t change what we don’t understand,” she explains.
“Start paying attention to people you like, and don’t like. Be curious about that and why that is,” Morton adds in her video. By doing so, you’ll also get to learn more about yourself and why you tend to have certain relationships with men. Morton even advises journaling if it helps you clear your mind on the matter. “Just start focusing a bit more on your past and present relationships with men, and the thoughts and beliefs you have about that.”
From there, you’ll be able to identify the patterns that emerged from these relationships. “Sure, you can have that one relationship that didn’t go well, but what type of relationships do you continue to have with men?” Do you put in all the effort, or do you tend to go for people who don’t treat you well and constantly put you down? What if you keep being around men who aren’t emotionally available for you? “Dig into this, and see what you find.” This will also help you identify more quickly when you might be acting out of an unhealthy pattern.
Morton’s third tip is to try and spend more time with your father, or your childhood’s male predominant figure. She further explained that it may mean that people will have to ask their family members about them, as not everyone can simply reach out to them and have an amicable chat. Diggin into who they are—or were—“and even what their dad was like” can help us better understand where they’re coming from and realise even more why we were affected by them.
Finally, Morton shared a fourth tip: to “re-father yourself,” also known as reparenting yourself, which basically means to give yourself what your parents didn’t during your childhood. Social-emotional skills are learned behaviours—if no one taught them to you when you were younger, you’ll need to do it yourself. You’ve already identified those specific gaps, now it’s time to fill them in!
In other words, you’ll need to become your own cheerleader. “I know, it sucks to have to give this to ourselves because our parents were terrible at their jobs, but the good news is that we can do it,” Morton shares on YouTube. And it does help us heal. This whole experience is about finding out what it was you needed from your caregiver and never received. If this person in question was your father, then it’s important that you understand and accept that he is to blame, not you.
Let’s stop using ‘daddy issues’ as an insult to shame women when it was their fathers who failed in the role they committed to. Sure, as we’ve seen with the help of Morton, attachment issues can absolutely get in the way of having healthy relationships, but nobody should be ridiculed for something that’s out of their control. In order to deal with those, people affected need to be encouraged and motivated to do so, not humiliated.
Mental health is not an easy topic to discuss. It’s one that, not that long ago, was never brought up in conversations, was taboo and often seen as a sign of weakness. Today, talking about your mental health (or someone else’s) is slowly becoming more common, with some countries and cultures more open-minded than others. Yet, when it comes to mental health problems, especially for teenagers, we still have to fight for more—more discussions and more help to reduce the stigma that surrounds it.
This is what four students from Oregon, U.S. worked towards by implementing a new law that allows students to take ‘mental health days’ off school, just as they would sick days. Talking to NBC News about this concept, experts said it is “one of the first of its kind in the U.S.”, something that is both worrying for the present and inspiring for the future. How have we not yet tackled mental health as a global topic that affects about 1 in 10 children and young people? And where does this stigma come from? Screen Shot spoke to Paris-based child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hélène Strauss for some answers.
“Indeed, mental health problems, schizophrenia in particular, scare people away and convey this image of a crazy person that hears voices. In the U.S., with the healthcare system they have, Americans with health problems often end up homeless,” said Dr Strauss. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 70 percent of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age. Mental health problems include depression, anxiety, self-harm, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorder. These are mental health problems that commonly occur in children, often as a direct response to what is happening in their lives.
“In France, teenagers that need mental health services can gain a medical certificate. Medical confidentiality is respected and their note never specifies a diagnostic. With the children’s agreement, the psychiatrist can then work with teachers and the headmaster in all discretion. Adolescence is a sensitive period and, sometimes, specific symptoms have to be taken care of urgently. Being able to miss school in order to seek treatment can be indispensable,” adds Dr Strauss.
A recent study by YouGov showed that 30 percent of millennials in the U.S. say they always or often feel lonely, a higher percentage than baby boomers, at only 15 percent. While this specific study didn’t look at the possible link between mental health and social media, earlier studies point to these platforms and the internet more generally as influences. Talking about social media, Dr Strauss says, “Social media made bullying and harassing easier. This can strongly affect a child and teenagers’ fragile mental health and lead to anxiety, sleep disorders, and suicide attempts.”
One of the four students who helped push the mental health bill, 18-year-old Haily Hardcastle, said she’s received some opposition from parents who said the legislation wasn’t necessary, as students could already take mental health days off by pretending to be sick. Others worried about students using this law as an excuse to miss more school, bringing down the already low attendance rates.
This mentality is exactly what pushes teenagers to lie about their mental health problems, it’s what keeps the stigma surrounding it alive. It is urgent for parents to realise that opening up this discussion is the only way to tackle mental health, and that calling kids ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘coddled’ does more damage than them missing a day of school because they feel physically or mentally ill.
Dr Hélène Strauss counter argues that even though this law is a big step forward in the discussion surrounding mental health, it is also a double-edged sword that clearly goes against the concept of medical confidentiality. Even a short stay in a psychiatric institution affects someone’s life—it shows on your medical record, influences your bank credits, and even your job opportunities. Dr Strauss’ worry is that this bill would be used against students in the future to almost ‘penalise’ them, instead of working in their favour. This point makes sense, considering how governments and lawmakers can sometimes manipulate people; yet it’s also one I choose to ignore for the moment, worried I might start wearing a tin foil hat or worse, storm Area 51.
What can we do in the meantime? Act on the public health domain first, and “Promote access to psychological care for children and teenagers, train teaching staff so that they can provide kids in need with guidance, implement school psychologists and prevention campaigns in schools” as Strauss stresses. Let’s make big changes with small steps.