Fathers and Daughters: Rock Meets Fire
In all parent-child relationships, the level of engagement and trust, at least as reported by children and teenagers, diminishes by about the same amount across the board when children become teenagers, except, that is, for fathers and daughters. This relationship experiences a greater drop in closeness than all the others.
Stop and consider the players involved and this only makes sense. Fathers are most at home with the dynamics of independence, autonomy, and justice, which means these are the filters through which they interpret most behavior. Thus, when their teenage daughters push them away—as they need to do to assert their autonomy—they take this literally and personally, which leads them to back off. (Consider this in juxtaposition to mothers, who, when pushed away by their daughters, refuse to go and instead only push back harder—thus the intensity and volatility of that relationship, but also the connection.) Fathers, through their orientation towards accomplishment and independence, believe they are giving their daughters the space that they are demanding. Their daughters, however, feel that their fathers abandon them when they need them most.
The differences between the genders hit me in the face the other night. Jessica, my fifteen-year-old daughter, was upset and on the verge of tears about something. Whatever it was, she was so stressed that when I asked her if she was okay she said no. Then she proceeded to tell me why, or at least a thumbnail version.
"I found out that Chelsea and Monique are going to a party tomorrow night that they told me they weren't going to. They're ditching me!" I couldn't follow much of what came next, but I got the gist of the situation.
"Well, it sounds like they're not really your friends."
"Dad! We've been best friends since, like, the third grade. How can you say that?"
Rather than defend what had just gotten me in trouble with Jess, I tried a new tack. "Any chance it's just a misunderstanding? Are you sure they are leaving you out?"
"Of course I'm sure. They lied to me."
"Maybe you can call them and tell them what you've heard—maybe they have an explanation. I'm sure there's some sort of explanation."
"Dad, you're impossible. Don't you get it? They're ditching me."
Next thing I knew she was closing the door to her room, which she had just entered, leaving me in the hall by myself and scratching my head. That's when my wife came by.
"Everything okay with Jess?"
"Not really. She thinks her friends ditched her and I think I only made things worse."
"Hmm, mind if I have a try?"
"Be my guest, but don't get your hopes up."
Thirty minutes later, Jess and my wife came downstairs with their arms around each other's shoulders. Jess's eyes were red from tears, but she had a gentle smile on her face.
"Everything okay, you two?"
My wife replied, "Sure, we're just going to make a couple of fruit smoothies; want one?"
"C'mon, Dad, we make them better than you can get at the store. Right, Mom?"
Later that night, when I was alone with my wife, I asked her what had happened. What had she said to get Jess to open up and to snap out of her angry depression? She just smiled and said, "Not much really, I just said that she must feel awful given what her friends had done. At that she just broke into tears and hugged me the way she did when she was a little kid. Honest, I didn't say much. After that, all I did was reassure her that she would be fine, no matter what Chelsea and Monique did."
With her connection to her friends in jeopardy, what Jessica needed was to reconnect with her parents. Her mom offered that reconnection by acknowledging the suffering and opening the doors for an emotional connection. Her dad had unintentionally closed the door on that reconnection by focusing on problem solving and fairness without ever touching upon the underlying emotions.
On top of all this, there is one more issue that fathers seldom confront directly: their daughters' emerging sexuality. As their daughters grow into young women, something that no father can miss, most dads aren't sure what to do, so most take the safe way out and step back, giving their daughters even more room. That is, the hugging, hand-holding, and general touching that typifies many father-daughter relationships before puberty are now punctuated by a distinct lack of physical contact. Worse, in retrospect at least, many fathers realize that one of the primary ways they connected with their daughters before puberty was through physical play and spontaneous physical gestures of affection. But suddenly, all the connection that occurred through physical contact disappears, which is something that is alternatively confusing and liberating to their daughters. They see their fathers withdraw from them without understanding why. And for someone driven by relationships (females), this development is tough to reconcile.
It was so strange after I hit puberty. I was totally uncomfortable with my body and the fact that I was all of a sudden having a period every month and that my boobs were growing out of control; all this made me neurotic about myself. And my dad didn't help. It's like he just removed himself from me. He kept himself at a distance, as if I had cooties or something. I hated it and hated him for how he was treating me.
But on the other hand:
Ever since I reached puberty, I can't stand it when my dad wants to hug me or put his arm around me. It's just too weird. And whenever I bristle if he reaches out to me like I'm some little kid, he gets that hurt puppy dog look on his face, which only makes everything worse!
The big hurdle for fathers to get over is to learn how to make an emotional connection not heavily dependent on physical contact. Or as John Gray says: "To bond with his daughter, a father needs to put in time asking informed questions and to practice listening without always offering advice."