Parenting Resources

A Father's Presence and Emotions Affect Toddler and Preschooler Health

Fathers respond differently to their toddler children depending upon whether their toddler is a daughter or a son.  

Using a small handheld computer attached to their belts, fathers were evaluated as they interacted with their children in their home settings. Fathers were noted to respond to daughters’ happy faces more than their sons, but conversely responded more to their sons’ neutral expressions. This study encourages fathers to be aware of their reactions and to respond to both daughters’ and sons’ emotional expressions. (1)

Princeton researcher D. Daniel Notterman and his colleagues have been following 5000 children in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.  They evaluated telomere length in children’s chromosomes.  (Telomeres are at the ends of chromosomes and are felt to represent the health of the cell with shorter telomeres representing the aging of the cell.)    

The loss of the child’s father (from death, divorce or incarceration) between birth and 9 years of age led to a reduction in telomere length, with the greatest loss occurring in children whose fathers died. (2)

Significantly research demonstrates that if a father is ‘lost’ due to marital separation or divorce, some of the effects may be ameliorated by allowing the child to have ‘overnights’ with the father.  

Dr. William Fabricius from Arizona State University found, "Children who had overnights with their fathers when they were infants or toddlers had higher-quality relationships with their fathers as well as with their mothers when they were 18 to 20 years old than children who had no overnights."

The study even found a ‘dose relationship’ in that children who had more overnights with their fathers during infancy and toddlerhood had a greater increase in the strength of their relationships with both father and mother during young adulthood. (3)

What can fathers do?

  1. Fathers should be aware of their facial and emotional responses to their children.

  2. Emotions should be named and acknowledged.  “I can see you are disappointed we can’t go to the park today.”   “Sometimes I feel sad and need to cry.”

  3. Remember – emotions are not ‘right or wrong’.  They just are!  It is our responses and reactions to emotions that must be controlled.  “I know you are angry, but you are not allowed to hit your brother.”

  4. Encourage fathers to talk with their toddlers at their ‘eye level’.

  5. Toddlers and preschoolers may not be able to express what is bothering them.  It is better to guess and let the child say whether the parent’s guess is accurate.  “I think you might be upset that I have to go to work today.  Is that right?”

  6. Be willing to wait patiently for the child to respond.

  7. If there is marital separation or divorce, parents should agree to allow fathers to have overnights as often as possible, even during infancy and toddlerhood.

Click here to return to the main article to see information specific to Newborns and Infants, Elementary-age Children, and Adolescents.


  1. Mascaro JS, Bentscher KE, et al.  Child gender influences paternal behavior, language, and brain function.  Behavioral Neuroscience. 2017; 131(3):262   DOI: 10.1037/bne0000199
  2. Colter M, McLanahan S, et al.  Father loss and Child Telomere Length. Pediatrics.  2017. 140(2); e20163245 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-3245
  3. Gabricius WV, Suh GW.  Should infants and toddlers have frequent overnight parenting time with fathers?  The policy debate and new data.  Psychology, Public Policy and Law.  2017;23(1):68 DOI: 10.1037/law0000108