Adolescence can be a difficult time for fathers and daughters. As little girls grow into young women, it can be hard for dads to figure where, and how, they fit in.
“As parents, our roles change over time,” says Jerry Bubrick, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “When our daughters are young, our job is to protect them physically and emotionally, but as they get older we have to take on more of a consulting role.”
It’s an important transition for both parents, but one that can be especially challenging for dads, who often get the message that their primary role is to be “in charge” — to fix problems when they arise, and to protect their daughters, especially once dating becomes part of the mix.
We’ve put together 10 tips to help dads and daughters navigate the inevitable changes that come with adolescence and stay close during a transitional — and often tumultuous — time.
1. Be a good listener
When kids are young it’s important to be directive: Don’t run! Don’t touch. Stay close. But, as girls grow up and start seeking more independence, our job shifts, says Dr. Bubrick. “Instead of making decisions for them, we want to guide them in making smart decisions for themselves.”
“It’s natural to want to keep your daughter safe,” says Dr. Bubrick, but when it comes to maintaining a close, open relationship, what was protective and necessary when she was a child can start to feel restrictive, and become a source of major tension. Instead, he says, fathers should practice listening, not lecturing.
Talking through problems together, instead of just handing down a ready-made solution, will help your daughter feel more comfortable coming to you with problems and help her build vital critical thinking skills she’ll use all her life. “When we step away from protecting and fixing, we can focus on hearing, understanding and guiding,” says Dr. Bubrick, “and that’s what kids, especially teenagers really need.
2. Discuss — don’t just dictate — rules
Of course, taking a new, less authoritarian approach doesn’t mean letting go of all the rules. But even in setting boundaries, there’s room for negotiation — giving kids a chance to say what’s most important to them, so that they have some buy-in. “When you work rules out ahead of time, it means that when issues come up there’s no ambiguity, and you’re able to have clearer, less fraught conversations in the moment. It’s normal for adolescent girls to test the boundaries of their independence, Dr. Bubrick notes. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t want, and need, your guidance, too.”
3. Be generous with praise
When girls are in the throes of adolescence, it might seem like your opinion couldn’t matter less, but in fact it’s probably never mattered more. Adolescence is minefield when it comes to confidence. As girls grow up, mothers tend to take the lead in personal conversations and offering support and encouragement, and dads often end up taking a backseat. Don’t be that guy, dads. Girls need positive feedback from both parents, especially during their teen years. Let your daughter know you’re proud of her — and not just by telling her she’s beautiful, though that’s important, too.
Praising her intelligence, creativity, kindness or sense of humor will help her build and maintain confidence during a time that can be all too focused on appearance. Also, don’t forget that it’s not only big wins or straight A’s that deserve to be recognized. Praising accomplishments is great, but it’s just as important to praise hard work, and the bravery it takes to try, and stick with, new things — especially ones she isn’t instantly good at.
4. Let her take the lead when it comes to quality time
“Relate to her on her level and in her activities,” says Dr. Bubrick. “Quick chats on the way to or from school are nice, but to really make a connection you need to get involved with the things she’s interested in.” Showing an interest in the things she likes doesn’t have to be complicated — it can be as simple as listening to her favorite music together, having a show you watch with her, or going for a bike ride together. What’s important is that by letting her take the lead, you’re communicated that you value her interests, and finding a space where you can both enjoy yourselves.
5. Be an ally
Realistically, there are some parts of being a girl that dads just can’t fully understand. These might be seemingly simple things: Love for a boy band, or the intricacies of slumber party politics. Physical development, like getting your period, or changes in bra size. Or they may be more complex, upsetting experiences like sexism or harassment. If your daughter experiences something outside your expertise, don’t panic or withdraw.
Instead, show your support by doing what you can: For example: if she’s embarrassed about buying tampons, let her know that you’re not, and you’ll be happy to buy them for her — there’s nothing to be ashamed of about periods. If she experiences sexual harassment, or faces social struggles, don’t minimize or dismiss her feelings. Instead, offer support and comfort by letting her know that even though you haven’t been in her position, you take her seriously and you’re willing to listen anytime she needs you.
And when you’re validating her feelings, says Dr. Bubrick, “use a period, not a comma.” That means support isn’t followed by criticism — “That must have been really hard for you,” not “I can see why that upset you, but maybe you’re being oversensitive?”
6. Model healthy relationships
Adolescence is likely to be the first time girls get involved with real-life romantic partners (tween crushes don’t count), so it’s really important to talk to you daughter about what is — and isn’t — part of a healthy relationship. That said, all the advice in the world won’t matter if you’re saying one thing, and she’s seeing another at home. Tune in to how you and your partner interact, even in moments that don’t directly involve your kids. For example: Are you supportive when your wife tries new things (or has a bad day)? Do you listen with interest, or cut her down when she has an idea? Seeing you as a supportive partner will underscore your daughter’s confidence in your belief in her.
7. Watch your language
Girls look to their fathers for cues on how men should behave in relationships, but they’re also alert to how you talk about women. You may be respectful and encouraging when talking to your wife and daughter, and other women close to you, but if you’re in the habit of talking about other women in a disrespectful, or sexist way, she’s hearing that, too. If you make comments on women’s bodies, or use “girl” as code for weakness — “He throws like a girl” — she may worry you think girls aren’t competent, or feel like you expect her to live up to impossible standards.
Taking care to use language that empowers women (and avoiding the kind that puts them down) is a powerful way to let your daughter know that you think girls are just as smart, cool and capable as boys — and that you think she’s great just as she is. As a bonus, it also sets a standard for how she should expect other men in her life — from boyfriends to bosses — to behave as well.
8. Take care with tough topics
When it comes to topics like sex or drinking, dads may be tempted to lay down the law, but Dr. Bubrick says that letting your daughter take the lead and helping her talk things through — rather than dictating how the conversation will go — is more effective, and helps set the stage for better long term communication. “You can have the desire to lead the conversation,” says Dr. Bubrick. “But what you have to consider is where are you leading it to? Usually away from her feeling comfortable coming to you again.”
Likewise, he says, dads should be thoughtful about when — and how — you approach heavy conversations. “Making important subjects into a big, one-time conversation or demanding to have a serious talk when she’s not ready is going to backfire,” he says. Instead, he says, “Dads should focus on keeping the conversation open, so she knows it’s okay to talk about it when she’s ready”
Do your best to listen without judgment: “ It’s ok to have an opinion, but offering it in a critical way is going to shut things down,” says Dr. Bubrick. “The goal is to create a dynamic where your daughter feels comfortable and safe coming to you with questions or problems she’s experiencing.”
Finally, be sure that your daughter knows that it’s okay if there are some topics — sexuality, for example — she’d rather take up with someone else: “If you want to talk to Mom about how you’re feeling that’s totally okay. I just want to be sure you’re talking to someone, and I’m here if you need me.”
9. Show your love
When girls are little most dads never think twice about piggyback rides, bedtime snuggles or big hugs. But the onset of puberty can make physical affection feel confusing, and fraught. It’s not unusual for dads to feel awkward, or unsure of what’s appropriate, but it’s important not to withdraw your affection. When hugs suddenly turn into pats on the back, girls may worry that dads are ashamed of their changing bodies, or, in the most dramatic of teen moments, that they’re no longer loved.
The way you show your love will obviously change (a 14-year-old isn’t going to be sitting on your lap) and that’s okay, but teen girls need affection from their dads, just as much as they did when they were young.
10. Focus on what’s really important
Being a dad is hard work (being a teenager is no picnic either) but it’s worth it. Letting your teenage daughter know how important she is to you can be a huge source of self-worth for her at a time when her identity may feel fragile. And it’s something she will carry with her the rest of her life. Let your daughter know that even when you don’t see eye to eye and agree with all her decisions (or she with yours) that you love her and you’ll always love her, every moment for the rest of her life no matter what.