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A secure bond with dad is linked to happier social lives for your kids

The value in friendships is something most of us feel in our hearts and souls—with research backing up the benefits of close relationships. It turns out the groundwork for those platonic guy and girlfriends we have later in life actually stems from relationships with our own fathers. Specifically, when we feel love and positive bonds with our dads, we’re more likely to have solid friendships later in life.

A recent University of Pennsylvania study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that kids who experienced paternal rejection were more socially anxious—and more prone to loneliness—than kids who felt secure connections with their dads. The same wasn’t true when people felt disconnected from their moms during childhood.

“This suggests that fathers' rejecting attitudes toward their adolescent children may make them more nervous about approaching social situations, which in turn is related to more social isolation and feelings of loneliness,” says lead study author Hio Wa Mak, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral student of human development and family studies.

For the study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania followed children from 687 opposite-sex families through the sixth, seventh and eight grades to study their social development over time, according to Science Daily.

The researchers measured levels of parental rejection during each time point by asking both mom and dad about their feelings of distrust, love and unhappiness with their child. The researchers also gauged overall family climate. The participating kids answered questions about their feelings of social anxiety, quality of friendships and general loneliness.

The researchers discovered that, in general, children who were rejected by both parents experienced poorer social adjustment and more loneliness than children living in a positive family climate.

Surprisingly, though, they also found that rejection by dads, not by moms, influenced changes in social anxiety and ability to form friendships among children.

“These findings suggest that we should also reach out to families to help them support this sense of belonging and connection,” says Gregory Fosco, one of the study’s researchers and an associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “We might be overlooking the family as an important piece of cultivating these healthy peer relationships.”

Positive, meaningful friendships can have tremendous impact on your child’s life. A 2010 meta-analytic review published in PLoS Medicine found that forming social bonds can add more years to your life than even regular exercise can. The study also found that friendships can encourage healthy behaviors, such as getting more sleep and regular wellness visits to the doctor.

Not only that, but research has found the friendships have impact on a child’s chemical makeup. According to a 2011 study published in Child Development, friendships can affect a child’s levels of cortisol, the hormone that regulates stress. Researchers found that kids who were excluded by their classmates had higher cortisol levels, meaning they experienced more stress. Conversely, kids who were rejected by their peers but had supportive friends had lower levels of cortisol.

"Adolescents' success in forming positive, close relationships is such an important feature of that developmental period," Fosco says. "These relationships help them achieve a sense of independence and to explore their identity and the world around them.”

The latest research shows children are more likely to experience the benefits of warm, meaningful friendships when they first experience warm, meaningful relationships with their dads.

Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist and mother of a curious toddler. Like any native New Yorker, she drinks too much coffee and has strong opinions about the Yankees.

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