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Unseen scars

Children with a fractured or no relationship with their fathers are proven to be 43 per cent less likely to graduate college, 20 per cent more likely to use hard drugs and 13 per cent more likely to have mental health issues, according to a US-based youth advocacy organization.

There is no doubt that fathers have a great impact on children’s lives. So, why is it that in Pakistan the father-child relationship is often a fearful and awkward one? In Western culture, fathers generally adopt a more hands-on approach to raising their children, being willing to change diapers, feed them and have an open and healthy relationship with them.

In Pakistan, the father-child relationship is usually not quite healthy and based on the rule that the child must obey his/her father’s commands, no questions asked. Ideally, the role of a father goes past setting rules and has a great effect on the child’s life and social, emotional and physical upbringing.

Toxic relationships with fathers lead to several mental health problems in people. Psychologists used the term ‘father complex’ – termed ‘daddy issues’ in pop culture – to explain the phenomenon. Having an absent, distant or toxic relationship with one’s father can impact a person’s future relationships, self-esteem, and relationships with other family members.

People with daddy issues are more susceptible to emotional manipulation, violence, sexual abuse and other social atrocities. A stereotypical Pakistani father is the sole breadwinner of the family and has to marry off his daughters – his responsibilities end there.

Contrary to this, the mother is the family’s caretaker and needs to submit to her in-laws’, children’s and husband’s every whim, even if she has a job of her own. This family structure can badly affect children and their personal views on family and marriage, viewing it as confinement, not something to want or love.

Additionally, this family structure impacts a child’s relationship with his/her father. Growing up around an emotionally distant father – someone who doesn’t show much emotion other than anger, whose mood sets the tone for everyone else’s mood, someone who doesn’t treat his wife as an equal, who views himself as superior to the other people living with and around him – can damage the child in many ways.

Even if the father’s temper is not directed towards the child, seeing his anger directed to a sibling or other family member can create distrust, make the child secretive and lead to children tiptoeing around the father, out of fear of upsetting him.

A ‘good father’ is one who is willing to show up for and support their child, no matter what. Research shows that infants with involved, active fathers scored higher on a cognitive test than their peers who did not have an involved father figure.

Fathers are also typically the parent who teaches their child skills like swimming, cycling, driving, etc. Although one can learn these things from someone else, exploring new areas and learning with one’s father provides the child new avenues for bonding. Personally, tree trekking with my father, him teaching me to swim, and our family trips are all core memories that I can always bring up around my father, and we will be able to reminisce together.

The effect of a good relationship with one’s father is irreplaceable and undoubtedly a vital part of life, from heightening self-love to arming the child against the evils of the world – from higher academic performance to fewer behavioural issues.

This is not to say that the father complex is not prevalent abroad – it is. However in the West, divorce, separations and child-initiated distancing from unhealthy relationships with parents is much more common. In Pakistan, due to the taboo around familial issues and speaking up, the divorce rate is only 0.57 per cent, despite a couple’s relationship being unhealthy for both child and parents. This is not only due to the stigma, but also because many Pakistani women (due to the structure of their marriage) are not financially independent enough to be on their own.

In Pakistan, the father’s role in raising the child is not something that is talked about often; however, it holds as much importance as the role of the mother. A healthy relationship with one’s father can boost self-esteem, confidence, can improve your view on other aspects of life and generally make you a happier person.

A father doesn’t have to be absent to damage his relationship with his child, and there is nothing wrong with a child who speaks up. The term ‘daddy issues’ has many implications and means something different for everyone. While relationships with father figures can be complicated – and especially so in a country like Pakistan – they provide the foundation for a child’s future relationships and decisions.

Inaya Aly Khan, "Unseen scars," The News. 2023-09-14.
Keywords: Social sciences , Sexual abuse , Mental health , Violence , Culture , Pakistan