Enhancing young girls’ wellbeing through father-daughter physical activity: The ‘Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered’ (DADEE) trial
Dr. Myles Young & Prof. Philip Morgan, University of Newcastle, Australia, 2019
This article describes the social-emotional outcomes of the ‘Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered’ (DADEE) trial, which aimed to improve the bond between fathers and daughters through co-physical activity.
In addition to improving the physical activity levels of both fathers and daughters, the program enhanced father-daughter relationships, increased father involvement, and improved several key indicators of the girls’ social-emotional wellbeing. The program was also very well-received by families.
Physical activity and the father-daughter relationship
Fathers bond with their children in many ways, but none may be more important than physical play.1 This may be particularly true in Australia, where shared experiences in sport and physical activity are considered the primary setting where fathers communicate, give advice, instill values and share life experiences with their children.2 However, as fathers often spend more time being active with their sons,3 many girls may miss out on these opportunities to connect. This is concerning, as positive father involvement has been linked to a range of positive developmental outcomes for children across physical, mental, and social-emotional domains.4
In this context, physical activity programs designed for fathers and daughters may play a unique role in improving girls’ wellbeing. These programs appear to be urgently required in Australia for a variety of reasons:
- Girls experience greater psychological distress at school than boys.5
- Daughters are more likely to identify mothers as their primary attachment figure than fathers (even when they are able to nominate both parents equally).6
- Father-daughter relationships are more likely to become strained during adolescence than father-son relationships.7
- Females are less active than males at all ages.8
Despite the potential benefits offered by father-daughter exercise programs, a recent review suggested that fathers only represent 6% of parents in programs targeting children’s lifestyle behaviours (e.g. physical activity) with no previous programs having targeted fathers and daughters specifically.9
The ‘Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered’ (DADEE) program
The DADEE program was developed at the University of Newcastle in 2015 as a strategy to increase girls’ physical activity levels and improve father-daughter relationships. The program championed the positive influence of fathers on girls’ wellbeing, particularly in relation to physical activity and sporting confidence.
Who participated in DADEE?
115 fathers (age range: 29-53 years) and 153 daughters (age range: 4-12 years) participated in the pilot study. Most participants were recruited via a University media release, which was profiled by local newspapers and radio stations. These families were split into an intervention group who started the program right away, and a comparison group who were monitored for nine months before starting. Most fathers were born in Australia (89%) and married or living with a partner (99%). Both fathers and daughters met Australian physical activity guidelines in 10% of families.
What were the key aspects of DADEE?
- The program was delivered over eight weekly sessions.
- Both fathers and daughters attended each week.
- Each session consisted of fathers and daughters participating in a range of fun and active games focusing on sport skill development, fitness, and rough and tumble play.
- Each session also included an education component, where fathers were given advice on positive parenting strategies and daughters focused on building key social-emotional skills (e.g. persistence, critical thinking).
- Outside of the program sessions, father-daughter home challenges were encouraged. These challenges provided further opportunities for bonding and co-physical activity.
- The program had a strong focus on gender-equity, with fathers and daughters given strategies to recognise and overcome unconscious biases, outdated practices, and unsupportive systems that often reduce girls’ opportunities to be physically active.
What were the key findings of DADEE?
When the results from the intervention group were compared to the comparison group, it was clear that the program had a positive impact on a range of key outcomes including:
- Father-daughter closeness (father & daughter-report), as measured using the personal relationships scale from the Parent-Child Relationships Questionnaire10
- Father involvement (father-report), as measured using several scales from the Inventory of Father Involvement (e.g. time and talking together, attentiveness)10
- Multiple domains of daughters’ social-emotional wellbeing (father-report), as measured by the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (e.g. personal responsibility, relationship skills, self-management, goal directed behaviour and optimistic thinking)10
- Physical activity levels of both daughters and fathers, as measured using pedometers10,11; and
- Key sport skills of daughters (e.g. throwing, kicking and catching), measured using the Test of Gross Motor Development-II.11
While the effects outlined above were established shortly after the eight-week program concluded, almost all had either strengthened or were maintained at the longer-term follow-up nine months later.10,11
Importantly, the program was also well-received by families, as indicated by high levels of attendance, engagement and satisfaction.10
The improvements in positive wellbeing were very encouraging compared to those reported in previous physical activity programs, which have found it difficult to improve children’s social and emotional wellbeing.12 A key advantage of the program used in the current study may have been the focus on using physical activity as the medium to improve the relationships between girls and their fathers, rather than a means of improving fitness or other physical outcomes.
Interestingly, sociological research has suggested that the unpredictable, vigorous and stimulating way that fathers play with their children may play a role in developing young children’s social-emotional skills like self-regulation and empathy.13
The DADEE study provides strong evidence highlighting the holistic benefits of father-daughter co-physical activity for girls’ wellbeing.
Given that this was a pilot trial conducted at the University of Newcastle, the fathers who participated were relatively similar (e.g. married, born in Australia). The eligibility criteria also required fathers to live with their daughters for at least 50% of the week, which further reduces the generalisability of the findings towards non-residential fathers. To address these limitations, a community trial of the program is currently underway, which researchers anticipate will capture a more representative cross-section of the community.
In response to the positive outcomes of this study, the DADEE program was selected for inclusion in the Her Sport Her Way strategy and will soon be disseminated throughout NSW in partnership with the NSW Office of Sport.
An international adaptation of the program is also underway in the United Kingdom, supported by Women in Sport U.K. and the Fulham Football Club.
The DADEE study was funded by a charitable donation from Port Waratah Coal Services to the Hunter Medical Research Institute. The study also includes Prof. David Lubans, Dr. Alyce Barnes, Dr. Narelle Eather, and Ms. Emma Pollock at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
1. Fletcher R, St George J, & Freeman E (2013). Rough and tumble play quality: theoretical foundations for a new measure of father-child interaction. Early Child Development and Care, 183(6), 746-759.
2. Harrington M (2006). Sport and leisure as contexts for fathering in Australian families. Leisure studies, 25(2),165-183.
3. Beets MW, & Foley JT (2008). Association of father involvement and neighborhood quality with kindergartners’ physical activity: a multilevel structural equation model. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22(3), 195-203.
4. Yogman M, Garfield CF, & Committee On Psychosocial Aspects Of Child and Family Health. (2016). Fathers’ Roles in the Care and Development of Their Children: The Role of Pediatricians. Pediatrics, 138(1).
5. Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, et al. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Report on the Second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health.
6. Freeman H, & Almond TM. (2010). Mapping young adults’ use of fathers for attachment support: Implications on romantic relationship experiences. Early Child Development and Care, 180(1-2), 227-248.
7. Kabátek J, & Ribar DC. (2017). Working paper series: Teenage daughters as a cause of divorce. Melbourne: University of Melbourne.
8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2018). Physical activity across the life stages: Cat. no. PHE 225. Canberra: AIHW.
9. Morgan PJ, Young MD, Lloyd AB, et al (2017). Involvement of fathers in pediatric obesity treatment and prevention trials: A systematic review. Pediatrics, 139(2).
10. Young MD, Lubans DR, Barnes AT, Pollock E, Eather N, & Morgan PJ. (2019). Impact of a father-daughter physical activity program on girls’ social-emotional well-being: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(3), 294-307.
11. Morgan PJ, Young MD, Barnes AT, Eather N, Pollock ER, & Lubans DR. (2018). Engaging fathers to increase physical activity in girls: The ‘Dads And Daughters Exercising and Empowered’ (DADEE) randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 53(1), 39-52.
12. Rafferty R, Breslin G, Brennan D, & Hassan D. (2016). A systematic review of school-based physical activity interventions on children’s wellbeing. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9(1), 215-230.
13. Fletcher R, May C, St George J, Morgan PJ, & Lubans DR. (2011). Fathers’ perceptions of rough-and-tumble play: implications for early childhood services. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 36, 131-138.