What Are 'Daddy Issues'?

Meaning, Impact, and How to Cope

Sad Girl Sitting With Father Looking at Cell Phone

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'Daddy issues' has no precise definition. Still, it's become a popular catch-all phrase for how the relationship with one's father in childhood impacts someone in adulthood, especially with a father who is absent or emotionally unavailable.

The term is often used in a derogatory way to describe women who date older men, call their sexual partner "daddy," or any other sexual behavior that someone might deem aberrant or unusual.

Despite its prevalence, 'daddy issues' isn't a clinical term or a disorder recognized by the American Psychiatric Association's latest update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR).

In this article, we'll explore the origins of the term, the psychological theory it refers to, and the findings of some research studies on the impact of daddy issues. We'll then turn our attention to why the term tends to be gendered and why it shouldn't be. Finally, we'll conclude with some tips to help people with daddy issues begin to overcome them.

Where Did 'Daddy Issues' Come From?

While it's not clear exactly where the term originated, it appears to have arisen from the idea of the father complex, which Sigmund Freud first proposed as part of his psychoanalytic theory.

The Oedipus and Electra Complexes

The father complex describes unconscious impulses that occur due to a negative relationship with one's father, which is related to the better-known idea of the Oedipus complex.

Freud introduced the Oedipus complex to describe a young boy's attraction to his mother and feelings of competition with his father. While Freud's work was initially only focused on boys, Carl Jung believed girls could feel competitive with their same-sex parent for the affection of their opposite-sex parent too. He labeled this phenomenon as the Electra complex.

According to Freud's theory of psychosexual development, the Oedipus and Electra complexes arise between the ages of three and five. If the complex is not resolved by the end of this stage of development, children may become fixated on their opposite-sex parent. Therefore, boys will become mother-fixated, and girls will become father-fixated. This eventually leads to difficulties in adult relationships.

Attachment Theory

Although Freud's idea of the father complex originated in his understanding of the development of boys, the broader concept isn't gendered. It led to attachment theory, which centers on the impact of relationships between people, especially children, and their caregivers, not sexuality.

The first attachment theorist, John Bowlby, suggested that one's attachment style in childhood profoundly impacts adult attachment styles. As a result, those who feel safe and secure and have a secure attachment style in childhood will continue to have a secure attachment style as adults.

If, on the other hand, an individual is insecurely attached as a child, they will develop one of three insecure attachment styles in adulthood.

Types of Insecure Attachment Styles

Insecure adult attachment styles include:

  • Anxious-preoccupied: Those with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style want to be close to others but are worried their partner won't be there when they need them. This can make them clingy and demanding.
  • Fearful-avoidant: Those with a fearful-avoidant attachment style form intimate relationships but have trouble trusting their partners because they believe they'll get hurt. This can make them distant and detached.
  • Dismissive-avoidant: Those with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style prefer to avoid forming close relationships and the emotional challenges they bring.

While securely attached adults believe people will be there for them when they need them, insecurely attached adults will behave in one of two ways: they will either attempt to form relationships but worry that the people they care for won't be there for them, or they will prefer not to develop close relationships at all.

Suppose an individual had a poor relationship with their father in childhood. In that case, this could lead to insecure attachment in adulthood, leading to what has become known as 'daddy issues.'

Signs of Daddy Issues

There are a few different signs that a person might have attachment issues related to poor formative relationships with father figures. 

  • Only being attracted to older men
  • Needing constant reassurance from your partner
  • Experiencing signs of anxious attachment such as being jealous, codependent, and overprotective
  • Having a fear of being alone, often to the point that you'd rather be in an unhealthy relationship than in no relationship at all
  • Engaging in hypersexual or risky sexual behavior as a way to obtain affection and love
  • Experiencing a great fear of vulnerability despite feeling a constant need for reassurance and affection
  • Having trust issues that make it difficult to open up to partners, and that contribute to deeper insecurities and anxieties
  • Struggling to establish and maintain healthy boundaries in your relationships
  • Idealizing your partner and being a people-pleaser to make sure they are happy

Another key sign is having a complicated relationship with your father. Your father may be distant, abusive, neglectful, or completely absent from your life.

Impact of Daddy Issues

Studies have shown that the impact of a negative relationship with one's father is real. For example, one study showed a causal relationship between fathers' absence or low engagement in their daughters' lives and women's risky sexual behavior, including sexual permissiveness and negative attitudes toward the use of condoms. These effects didn't extend to nonsexual risky behavior or men's sexual behavior.

Meanwhile, men who grew up with an absent or emotionally distant father reported a range of issues, including the lack of a male role model, feelings of inadequacy such as a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, and a quest in adulthood to find father substitutes.

Why Is the Concept of Daddy Issues Gendered?

The suggestion that women will become father-fixated as the result of an unresolved Electra complex perhaps gave rise to the gendered perspective that is often attached to the concept of daddy issues.

However, while the term "daddy issues" is frequently used to negatively describe and even mock women's behavior in relationships, daddy issues can impact anyone who may carry psychological wounds from their relationship with their father into adulthood.

While it manifests itself differently in different people, at its core, those with a father complex are looking for validation from the men in their lives.

Still, the popularity of the term daddy issues to describe women's relationships with men is problematic and can be used to blame a woman for the issues of the men in her life.

Saying a woman has daddy issues judges and belittles someone who has been hurt by her formative relationship with her father when ultimately the fault lies with her father for failing to meet her needs.

Fortunately, the idea that those of any gender can have daddy issues is becoming more widely accepted today. This is partially driven by pop culture, such as the television show Lucifer, which acknowledges that men's adult behavior can be impacted by their poor early relationships with their fathers as women's can.

What to Do If You Have Daddy Issues

If you had a father who was absent or emotionally unengaged when growing up, you might still suffer from the negative impact of that relationship. Fortunately, according to relationship and sex therapist Caitlin Cantor, there are ways to overcome these challenges, starting with recognizing that your father, not you, is responsible for your issues. Here are steps Cantor recommends:

  1. Recognize. When children's needs aren't met, Cantor explains, they start to believe they aren't worthy of love, attention, affection, or whatever else they require—which reverberates into adulthood. But through "a combination of education and awareness," you can learn to recognize how your relationship with your father impacted you and how you may be "reconfirming old beliefs" by reenacting childhood patterns in your current relationships.
  2. Mourn. Let yourself feel the pain of the negative relationship with your father and mourn what you didn't have in your life because of it. Healing from this, Cantor says, "involves anger, it involves grieving ... It's a chance to feel sadness for your younger self, who didn't get what they needed."
  3. Learn. Once you've recognized how the beliefs you formed during childhood impact your current relationships, you can replace them with new, healthier ones. Cantor observes that part of this involves realizing that when you're in a relationship with someone who is emotionally distant or not treating you the way you want to be treated, "that's not a problem that [you] need to solve, that's information about that person... It was never about you."

After acknowledging that, you can start to learn how to connect with the kind of partner you want instead of continuing to fall into relationships that reconfirm old beliefs.

These steps can help you begin to heal from 'daddy issues,' but Cantor cautions, "it's an in-depth process [and] it's not necessarily a linear process." As a result, it can be helpful to see a counselor or therapist to ensure the best outcomes as you confront and move past a father complex.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.