Joe Kelly remembers how hard he had to work to stay in touch with his twin daughters once they hit adolescence. In fact, the St. Paul, Minn., fathering educator ended up writing a book called Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand and Support Your Daughter.
There’s a lot of research showing that girls who have good relationships with their fathers during adolescence tend to have greater academic success and healthier emotional and sexual development. And yet, both fathers and daughters also report a distancing in the early teen years. In one US study, 11- to 13-year-old girls said they wanted “more” from their fathers: more involvement in school and sports activities, more conversation.
Why does the father-daughter bond sometimes wane during adolescence? And what can dads do to nurture this important connection?
“When I talk to dads, often there’s been a history of the daughter being daddy’s little princess,” says Kelly. “And he’s been her hero, the guy who can do no wrong. That all changes with adolescence.
“One minute your daughter is snuggling with you on the couch; the next she’s slamming the bedroom door in your face,” says Kelly. “You think, ‘Screw you. I’m not going to be treated like this.’ Difficult though it is, this behaviour is not about you. It’s about your daughter trying to deal with the anxiety of figuring out who she is.”
Fathers also struggle to relate physically and emotionally as their little girls begin to develop into women, and so they distance themselves. “This can be a painful time for girls: ‘All of a sudden, my dad isn’t interested in anything except whether I have a boyfriend.’ Dad is no longer physically affectionate, and the girls wonder what they did wrong.” And at some level, says Kelly, “the girls conclude that what they did wrong was grow up. And that can have disastrous consequences.”
Paul Plant works with families experiencing conflict for Kinark Child and Family Services in Peterborough, Ont., and he’s the father of two teenaged daughters. While he wasn’t uncomfortable around his daughters during puberty, he did find they were less affectionate. “I kept going into their rooms to say good night as long as they wanted me to, and I continued to give them hugs. And I always told them I love them. Sometimes they didn’t want to hear it, but that didn’t stop me from saying it.”
So how can you stay connected with your daughter?
Spend time together It’s easy to let this slip as girls become more involved with activities and peers. Dads might have to make formal arrangements, such as going for breakfast every Saturday morning. But, says Kelly, “don’t make a deep, meaningful conversation mandatory. Just hang out.”
Do the driving This tried-and-true tactic is a great way to find out what’s on your daughter’s mind. “If her friends come along,” says Kelly, “you can eavesdrop on their world because the girls will forget you’re there after a while.”
Talk about her life Who are her friends this week? “Listen to your daughter and take seriously what she says,” advises Kelly. “I ask a lot of questions,” says Plant. “Sometimes it bugs my girls, but I keep asking.”
Don’t try to fix her problems Whether it’s a conflict with her teacher or she can’t decide between volleyball and choir, “you have to remember whose problem it is,” says Plant. Your job is to support her. “One of my girls was having a problem in grade eight. I didn’t go to the school and say, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ I suggested things she might try, and I let her know that if she wanted me to talk to the teacher, I would, but it was up to her.”
Trust your daughter Fathers need to temper their protective instinct when it comes to boys. “Fathers are afraid their daughters will get hurt. They intimidate the boys, let them know they’re being watched, which is ridiculous,” says Plant. “Make them welcome! Get to know your daughter’s friends.”
And, says Plant, if fathers have built trust with their daughters, they shouldn’t assume the worst. “Parents tend to get caught up in the sex part; they go to the dark side right away, when the kids just want to go to a movie.”
Remember that door that got slammed in Kelly’s face? “What’s important is that when your daughter opens it again, she sees you there, willing to listen and work it out,” says Kelly. “And down the road, the payoff’s huge. That closeness you enjoyed when she was eight or 10 comes back.”