By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
There’s no denying that a girl’s relationship with her father is one of the most crucial in her life.
The quality of that connection – good, damaged, or otherwise – powerfully impacts dads and daughters in a multitude of ways. 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.
The breakup of a family often changes the dynamic of the father-daughter relationship and it can be a challenge to stay connected if the parenting plan does not allow for frequent contact. Research shows that fathers play an important role in the lives of their daughters but that this relationship is the one that changes the most after divorce.
In “Always Dad,” author Paul Mandelstein advises divorced dads to find ways to play an important role in their daughter’s life. He suggests that divorced parents call a truce with their ex-spouse – to put an end to active fighting and to collaborate. The father-daughter connection, even several years after a family dissolves, is heavily influenced by consistency in contact and the quality of the relationship.
Experts agree that the outcomes for daughters of divorce improve when they have positive bonds with both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. Studies show that patterns of parenting after divorce that lessen conflict, encourage open communication, and promote shared parenting are beneficial for daughters into emerging adulthood.
Since many daughters perceive limited contact with their fathers as a personal rejection, this can lead to lowered self-esteem and trouble trusting romantic partners during adolescence and adulthood. Be sure to spend time with your daughter on a regular basis and find activities to do together that you both enjoy. These might include hobbies, sports, exercise, and cooking.
Additionally, be sure to enlist her input and surprise her with outings that you can enjoy away from other family members.
In a divorced family, there are many ways a father-daughter bond may suffer. Based on her research, Dr. Linda Nielsen found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting after divorce. Nielsen posits that while most daughters are well adjusted several years after their parents’ divorce, many have damaged relationships with their fathers. Unfortunately, if the wound is severe, a girl can grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and trust issues.
What a girl needs is a loving, predictable father figure – whether married to her mother, single, or divorced. Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a recognized expert on parenting, explains that one of the predictors of a father’s relationship with his children after divorce is the mother’s facilitation or obstruction of the relationship. It’s crucial that divorced dads attempt to forge positive relationships with their ex because it will benefit their daughter to see them communicating in a harmonious way.
However, if your ex has a high-conflict personality you many need guidance about ways to parent together that don’t include communicating directly with one another and allow you to set boundaries and limit your contact with him or her. Truth be told, parents forget that children are vulnerable to feeling in the middle between their parents’ arguments. High parental conflict can send them into high alert. As a result, daughters may have difficulty sleeping, concentrating on school or social activities, or be plagued with fear and anxiety about their future.
When parents argue excessively and for too long, it can leave their daughter feeling insecure and fearful. Even if it’s not the parents’ intention to cause harm, ongoing conflict can threaten a girl’s sense of safety. If this pattern occurs for an extended period of time, it can negatively impact a girl’s self-esteem.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to prevent your daughter from the damaging effects of long-term conflict during and after divorce. It’s possible to empower your daughter with a willingness to put her interests first and by using the strategies outlined below.
8 ways dads can empower their daughter’s high self-esteem:
- Encourage her to assert herself – such as voicing her opinion even when it’s not popular to do so. Ask her questions about her day and solicit feedback about community and world events.
- Create a safe atmosphere for her to express her feelings – be sure to listen and validate them. Don’t let cynicism, sadness, or anger get in the way of your daughter’s future. If you have negative views of relationships, don’t pass them on to her.
- Praise her talents and strengths. Direct your praise away from her body and appearance – saying things such as “You are making such healthy choices” or “Good for you for going for a walk” will encourage her to be active and healthy.
- Never bad mouth your ex as this promotes loyalty conflicts and may make it more difficult for her to heal from the losses associated with divorce. Don’t let your cynicism or anger toward your ex impact your interactions with your daughter.
- Protect her from cultural influences that encourage her to be overly competitive with other girls or young women. Point out what she has to offer the world and help her shine.
- Nurture her interests with enthusiasm. Encourage her to practice her talents, recognize her efforts and strengths. These efforts will boost your daughter’s self-esteem in the years to come.
- Spend time with her on a regular basis doing things she enjoys. Encourage her to find healthy outlets you can do together such as jogging, going to the gym, playing chess, etc.
- Encourage her to spend close to equal time with you and her mom. Be flexible about “Parenting Time” – especially as she reaches adolescence and may need more time for friends, school, jobs, and extracurricular activities.
Fathers are the key to their daughter’s future according to internationally renowned psychologist Kevin Leman. He writes, “That evidence shows that a father’s relationship with his daughter is one of the key determinants in a woman’s ability to enjoy a successful life and marriage.”
Keep your eye on the big picture in terms of your daughter’s future and think about how you want her to describe her relationship with you in ensuing years. Tell your daughter she is capable of anything. Daughters need to view their fathers respecting women and valuing their intelligence, opinions, and talents in order to thrive and become self-confident women.