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.
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My heart is filled with gratitude for what you do to help families reconnect with your wise knowledge. I got separated with my wife in 2005 and our only daughter was 2 years old. I was a bad dad for the past 11 years (I mean I rarely see her and talk to her). I decided to change and be the best dad I could be, but she is avoiding me now. Please help me with your wise suggestions.
This is a very complex situation the father-daughter relationship and I think juch of the data and things mentioned are really only applicable or at least partially validated in the western caucasian population. I think a duaghter’s relationship with her father in the normal non divorced status undergoes evolution over the years and that must also be true in the case where the dad is dovorced. I can;t help to wonder what daughters think about fathers who coninued in marriage and those who did not who were cheating on the side who otherwise compromised marriage values. No matter how good the reported father daughter relationship that has to have a downstream effect on general opposite sex trust. And as a physician, sometimes the relationships i see going on between divorced dad and daughter are not so great as the daughter is almost a surrogate placed on a pedestal (in defiance of former wife) that is bound to topple when she ether doesn’t do exactly as he wants or meets a young man. so I see the situation as more complex than you depict and not all biological fathers are to be emulated in their behaviour nor are they necessarily capable and the best for the daughter
Interesting that your tendency is to focus on the probable cause of a father’s failure; his contribution to the divorce, an affair, or not being upstanding enough to be a role model for his children. I’ve witness too many stepmothers step in to the role of a mother, because the mother abandoned her children. Not only are these women not rewarded for their efforts, they become resident punching bags for the children’s grief over their loss. I find it amazing just how many divorced women feel qualified to analyze their ex-husband’s potential as a parent only after divorce, while clearly never comprehending the effects of teaching their children how to hate. PAS is criminal.
Spending a disproportionate amount of time with the mother post-divorce, combined with a lack of the same interests, understandably contributes to the disintegration of the relationship between father and daughter. I’ve known many fathers who, despite their best efforts, were never able to reconnect. The distance, age-gap, opposite sex, and negative influence from the mother/aunt/grandmother, can create a divide nearly impossible to bridge. Add in a second wife, who is viewed as direct winning competition, and the resentment & jealousy can become a permanent road block. The reasoning is unfortunate, yet understandable. If all sides were educated on the process, perhaps the odds of success would rise.