How daughters can strengthen relationships with their fathers.
by Dr. Linda Nielsen

Even though you and your father love one another and get along well most of the time, do you usually talk more openly about personal things and spend more time alone with your mother? And if you have a daughter, do you and she spend more time together and talk about more personal things than she and her father do? If you’re like most women in our country, your answer is yes.

So what? Your father, why bother? As a daughter why bother creating a more personal or more involved relationship with your father — especially if you are already a married woman or a mother? And if you are a mother, why bother teaching your daughter how to create a more meaningful, more communicative relationship with her dad? Even as a member or the leader of a church, why bother helping daughters and fathers create more meaningful relationships?

Because – regardless of their age, daughters who have meaningful, comfortable relationships with their fathers are generally more self-confident and independent, have better relationships with men, are less depressed, have fewer eating disorders and drug or alcohol problems and achieve more in school and at work. And the easier it is for a daughter to communicate with her father, the more she enjoys being with him and the more she gets out of their relationship.

So how do we help ourselves and our daughters embrace father-daughter relationships more fully?

Step One: Stop discriminating against your father

When I ask daughters why they don’t know their fathers as well as they know their mothers or why they don’t share as much with their fathers most say: “Because he’s man, he doesn’t want to talk about serious or personal things with me.”

“Because fathers and daughters aren’t supposed to know each other or be open the way mothers and daughters are.” Sound familiar? If so, use this quiz to see whether you are denying your father the opportunities to create a more meaningful relationship with you.

Use 0 for “never,” 1 for “rarely,” 2 for “usually” and 3 for “almost always.”

  • ___ I spend as much time alone with my father as I spend alone with my mother.
  • ___ I talk directly to my dad instead of going through other people to communicate with him.
  • ___ I go to my father for advice and for comfort about personal things.
  • ___ I ask my father as many meaningful questions about his life, his feelings and his ideas as I ask my mother.
  • ___ I share important parts of my life as much with my father as with my mother.
  • ___ I make as much effort to get to know my father as I do with my mother.
  • ___ I encourage my father to ask me questions about my life rather than acting as if he is prying or interfering when he does ask.
  • ___ I am as open and honest with my dad as I am with my mom.
  • ___ I invite my father to do things alone with me so that we have time to talk privately.
  • ___ I show my father that I appreciate his skills as a parent, especially when he does things differently than my mother does them.
  • ___ I let my father know that he has had and still does have as much impact on my life as my mother does.
  • ___ Your score (30 possible)

The higher your score, the easier you have made it for your father to develop a meaningful, loving, comfortable, fulfilling relationship with you — and the less you have discriminated against him. The lower your score, the more you will benefit by starting to do the things listed in the quiz.

Step Two: Spend More Time Alone with Dad

The single most important thing you can do to strengthen your relationship is to spend more time alone with your dad and to use this time alone to ask him more meaningful questions. This sounds simple enough. Daughters repeatedly tell me about the remarkable changes that come over their fathers when they talk to him without anyone else around. If this idea makes you uncomfortable, try easing into it by inviting your father to do these sorts of things with you: (1) Show you how to do something that he enjoys or does well–something as simple as trimming plants, grilling steaks his special way, or playing a card game. (2) Go to a religious service alone with you. (3) Tag along with him for a few hours while he does errands. (4) Go to a movie together -share a box of popcorn. (5) Take you back to the neighborhood where he grew up and walk around together. (6) Ask him to choose 15 or 20 of his favorite photographs from various times of his life and as he’s telling you about them, say things to relax and open him up, such as: “Tell me more about that. What was that like? Why did that happen? How did that make you feel at the time? What else was going on in your life at that time? What happened next? How do you feel about that now?” Remember: nobody else should be around while you’re doing this.

Step Three: Ask Your “Lion” More Meaningful Questions

There’s a fable about a little girl who asks, “How can Tarzan have been so smart, so strong, and so magnificent that without help from anyone at all he defeated every one of the jungle animals, including the mighty lions.” The listener replied, “Child, you’ll get a different story if the lion learns to talk.” In the same way, you need to learn to speak directly to your father to get his feelings and his views of things.

Especially since half of our fathers die before we reach the age of fifty, it is time to start asking your “lion” more personal questions like these: (1)Who was your favorite relative and why? (2) What are some of your favorite childhood memories? (3) What did you get too little of and too much of from your father? (4) Other than relatives, who had the greatest influence on you as a child and as a teenager? (5) If you had a motto, what would it be? (6) What would bring you the greatest joy during the next few years? (7) What is the best and the worst advice a friend ever gave you? (8) How have your spiritual beliefs changed over time and who has influenced you the most? (9) If you could have any two spiritual questions answered, what would they be? (10)What are three of the best and three of the worst decisions you’ve ever made? (11) What are some lessons you had to learn the hard way? (12) What are some of the most important things you’ve learned about love and marriage? (13) How did your relationship with your dad influence the kind of parent you have been? (14) What was the best gift and best compliment I ever gave you? (15) How has our relationship changed over the years?

If you take these, will it be worth it? After following my advice, here’s a small sample of what daughters have to say: Nancy: “Until I started asking my father personal questions and spending time alone with him, I had no idea what a spiritual person he was. I have so much to learn from him.” Beth: “My dad and I are finally able to talk about my mother’s death. It has been a healing, comforting bond for us.” Sue : “I had never seen pictures of him as a child”so small and vulnerable. When I got him talking about his dad, I saw him trying not to cry. I reached over to him and said it was okay to talk to me about it. It was the first time I had ever comforted my father.” Lynne: “As I listened to him, I began to see my father as a person who struggles through life as a man and a husband”not just as my parent. It meant so much to have him open up to me.” Trish: “Even at my age, I could never imagine talking to my father about personal things. But now I’m relating to him as someone other than an extension of my mother.” Amy: “I’m glad I realized before it’s too late that my father isn’t just a bald guy who always has his head stuck in a book. I have so much to learn from him.” Marty: “Now I realize he and I have been wanting the same thing from our relationship all these years. But we had never talked enough to figure that out.” Anna: “I cried when my father said the best gift I have ever given him is deciding that – finally – I want to get to know him. He got this sweet look on his face, gave a big sigh and said, “I was really nervous about answering some of your questions. I mean, we have never really talked or spent time alone like this before now.”

By embracing your relationship with your father more fully – and by helping your daughter do the same – you embrace the best in your self.

Dr. Linda Nielsen is the author of EMBRACING YOUR FATHER: How to Create the Relationship You Want with Your Dad (McGraw Hill, 2004). She is a professor at Wake Forest University and author of two books on adolescent psychology. Having worked with adolescent and adult daughters for over 30 years, since 1990 she has been teaching the only college course in the country devoted exclusively to father-daughter relationships. Through her course, radio and television interviews, and articles in popular magazines, Dr. Nielsen helps daughters strengthen or reestablish their relationships with their fathers — especially daughters whose parents are divorced. The recipient of several awards for her research and writing, she also serves as a resource for fathers, daughters, and practitioners through her web site:

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