Divorce and Daughters: The Best Gifts A Dad Can Give His Daughter After Divorce By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
A father’s effect on his daughter’s psychological well-being and identity is far-reaching. A daughter’s sense of self, for instance, is often connected to how her father views her. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close bond with her father.
In fact, girls actually depend on their dad’s guidance into adulthood. The quality of the father-daughter connection – good, damaged, or otherwise – powerfully impacts the decisions she will make throughout her life. A daughter’s relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man.
Why is the father-daughter bond so vulnerable to disruption after divorce?
- Girls tend to spend more time with their moms (and less time with their dads). Only about 15 percent of dads and daughters enjoy joint custody.
- During early adolescence, a girl tends to feel distant from her dad and she may resent her stepmom or his girlfriend. Meanwhile, she may tend to have an intense, complicated relationship with her mom and benefit from a bond with her dad.
- Studies show that girls have stronger memories for experiences that are emotional – both pleasant and unpleasant – compared to boys.
- Due to a delayed reaction to divorce or a “Sleeper Effect,” a girl might go undercover, and her reaction to her parents’ breakup may go unnoticed. This may happen due to socialization – girl’s are encouraged to be “good girls,” care for others, and to be in a good mood.
- Mothers and step moms don’t always understand the importance of the father-daughter bond so they may not encourage it. Some mothers bad-mouth their ex to their daughter – creating loyalty conflicts.
- Dads don’t always know how to connect with their daughters around activities that are mutually satisfying so they start spending less time together.
Research for my book Daughters of Divorce spanned over several years and was comprised of over 300 interviews of young women who reflected upon their parents’ divorce. The most common themes that emerged from these interviews were trust issues and a wound in the father-daughter relationship. Most of the young women that I interviewed expressed a strong desire to improve their communication with their fathers yet lacked the tools to be able to pull this off.
Women who suffer from a father-daughter wound may find that their trust issues run deep. In her landmark book Father Loss, Elyce Wakerman writes: “The girl who was abandoned by her father enters adulthood in a pervasive state of doubt.” Wakerman posits that when a daughter of divorce feels abandoned by her father she is sure of only one thing: the first man she ever loved walked out on her.
Don’t let your fear of rejection of the past prevent you from enjoying a positive bond with your daughter. Day by day, if you learn to operate from a viewpoint that she loves and needs you, you can restore a healthy connection over time. If fathers can remain an integral part of their daughter’s life after divorce, a loving bond will help her get through rough patches in life.
Tips for fathers with daughters of all ages:
- Express loving feelings: Hugs, praise, and suggesting activities are ways to do this.
- Connect through notes: Text messages, emails, or a postcard if you are away.
- Idle chats: Ask her questions or exchange small talk while you are driving in the car, helping her with homework, cooking, or a doing a project together (puzzle, decorate her room).
- Schedule special dates: For younger daughters, a visit to the zoo or the park can be positive activities. Throw in a picnic or ice cream cone. For teenage or young adult daughters: Take her to lunch, the gym, or a wonderful movie – ask her for ideas.
- Remind her that you will always be her dad and that you love her!
- Help her build self-esteem by encouraging her to develop interests and recognizing her strengths. It’s okay for her to abandon these interests when she decides to check new ones out.
- Be flexible – especially as she reaches adolescence and may need more time for friends, school, jobs, and extracurricular activities. Try to be accepting of her need for independence as she reaches adolescence. She still needs your approval but requires a little space to explore and grow.
- Be sure not to bad-mouth her mother – even if she complains about her. For instance, mothers and daughters can experience more tension during adolescence and you can serve as a buffer. Keep in mind that her mother is still her model and so saying negative things about your ex-spouse will hurt your daughter and may spark a negative reaction or loyalty conflicts.
- If your relationship has been damaged and she doesn’t want to connect, you may want to seek professional help from a therapist. Put yourself in your daughter’s shoes and try to understand her perspective.
- Be patient and persistent in showing your daughter you want to spend time with her. It’s never too late to develop a stronger father-daughter bond or to reconnect while you’re still alive.
- Have faith in your daughter. While it may be hard to let go, you can delight in watching her grow into a self-confident person.