Fathers and Daughters: An Essential Bond After Divorce

By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW 

The relationship a daughter has with her father is one that has a profound impact on her life. The breakup of a family often changes the dynamic of the father-daughter relationship and it can be a challenge to stay connected. Research has shown 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.

There’s no denying that a woman’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 multiple 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.

While divorce can be problematic for all children, it poses unique challenges for girls, in part due to a tendency they have to crave emotional closeness more than boys do. She may feel that if her family is broken, she is broken. Due to a delayed reaction to divorce or a “Sleeper Effect,” a girl might go undercover, and develop an increased sensitivity to loss that may go unnoticed.

Why is the father-daughter relationship so vulnerable to disruption after a parents’ divorce?  Dr. Linda Nielson, a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships, posits that that while most daughters of divorce are well adjusted several years after their parents’ divorce, many have damaged relationships with their fathers. Unfortunately, if the wound is severe, a girl may grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and trust issues.

Dr. Nielson found that girls tend to spend more time with their mothers (and less time with their dad) after their parents’ divorce. In her extensive research, Dr. Nielson found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of joint custody after the family splits.

My research for Daughters of Divorce spanned over three years and was comprised of 326 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. My previous study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage concluded that lack of access to both parents and high conflict between them contributed to low self-esteem in young women raised in divorced homes. 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.

Certainly a strong father-daughter connection is a challenge when it comes to post-divorce relationships. In a recent episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass Bishop T.D. Jakes concludes “It’s not a lack of love that stops an estranged father from reconnecting with his child – it’s the fear of rejection.” Bishop Jakes recommends that every father needs to “court” his child and discover his or her world in order to reconnect.

In his recent book Always Dad, Paul Mandelstein, advises divorced dads to find ways to play a crucial 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.

Daughters who have a strong relationship with their father are more likely to be self-confident and mature – possessing a purpose in their lives. A daughter’s relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man. But Dads often lose touch with their daughters after a family splits up and they don’t always know how to reconnect. I know firsthand about this loss because I experienced it with my own father and fortunately was able to heal the rupture in our relationship.

Why is the father-daughter bond so vulnerable to disruption after divorce?

  • Girls tend to spend more time with their moms after divorce (and less time with their dads).
  • 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 (confidant, too close, lots of conflict and love).
  • Mothers and stepmoms don’t always understand the importance of the father-daughter bond so they may not encourage it.
  • Dads don’t always know how to connect with their daughters around activities that are mutually satisfying so they start spending less time together.
  • If the father-daughter bond is severely damaged it can cause daughters to have trust and intimacy issues in adult relationships. It may push them to pick romantic partners who are all wrong for them because they set low standards.

The truth is that girls go through many changes during adolescence and at this pivotal time, they may become more distant from their dads. There is also more tension between mothers and daughters – even in intact families.  Divorce often intensifies issues between family members. The good news is that it’s not too late for fathers and daughters to connect.

10 Tips for fathers with daughters of all ages:

  • Express loving feelings: Hugs, praise, and suggesting activities are ways to do this.
  • Connect through notes: Texts, emails, or a postcard or letter 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).
  • Special dates: For younger daughters, a visit to the zoo or the park are possible ways to connect and relax together. Throw in a picnic or ice cream cone too! For teenage or young adult daughters: Take her to lunch, the gym, or a wonderful movie – ask her for ideas!
  • Include her in vacation plans: Ask her where she wants to go (with limits).
  • Find ways to help her to build self-esteem such as 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. 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.
  • Encourage her to spend close to equal time with both parents. Be flexible – especially as she reaches adolescence and may need more time for friends, school, jobs, and extracurricular activities.
  • 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.
  • Attempt to help her repair any father-daughter wounds. If your relationship has been damaged and she doesn’t want to connect, you may want to seek professional help from a divorce coach or therapist.
  • 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! Don’t let your fear of rejection of the past prevent you from enjoying a positive bond with your daughter.

10 Tips for daughters of all ages:  

  • Be honest about your relationship with your father and any wounds that exist.
  • Let go of self-blame and forgive yourself (for whatever you told yourself) and your dad.
  • Give up the dream of a perfect connection with your father.
  • Look at ways you may have accepted relationships that were not healthy for you to fill the void your dad left (dating unavailable men or ones who are all wrong for you).
  • Examine your relationship with your dad and attempt to reconnect if there have been any wounds. He may be able to help you be your best self.
  • Be patient and have realistic expectations.  After all, it may take time to reconnect if your relationship is damaged or distant.
  • Invest your time in something that interests your dad – such as attending a sporting or work event with him if you have the opportunity.
  • Express your needs clearly and calmly. This could be verbally, a letter, or release (“I release you from not being more active in my life, even if I don’t know why or it hurts”). You may decide not to share your letter with your father, but this step can still be therapeutic.
  • Accept that people usually do the best they can and attempt to be more understanding of your father and his situation.
  • You may want to seek professional help to deal with your wound with your father if your relationship doesn’t seem to be improving.

If fathers can remain an integral part of their daughter’s life after divorce, a loving bond will help them get through rough patches in life. Dr. Peggy Drexler, author of Our Fathers, Ourselves writes, “Likewise, even the most troubled, overwrought , baggage-laden relationship is not without hope – if not of reconciliation, then at least of the daughter finding a new way of seeing her father that might help her to make sense of the forces that shaped him and his actions.” In most cases, It’s not too last to connect with your father or your daughter, even if you haven’t done so in some time.  

For more suggestions check out our bi-monthly enewsletter which will be sent to your email address – sign-up at the end of this blog. I look forward to hearing from you!  

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Follow her on Facebook, Twitter

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28 Responses to “Fathers and Daughters: An Essential Bond After Divorce”

  1. Lisa says:

    Absolutely remarkable; this article may have just provided me with the key to my existential salvation. I have never had the inclination to say that before, and at 31 years of seeking thus far, all I can say is I gave up at least 20 years ago (and in truth, that’s likely a modest guess as I’m sure it was between 20-25 years ago) on the possibility of a resolution, on the concept of contentment, and on the love spectrum almost in entirety. (Exception being the unconditionally loving relationships adults may share with animals and/or children.)

    So this is exciting, and I humbly thank you.

    • Terry says:

      Lisa, You are welcome and I’m glad the article helped you!Keep checking our posts because I tend to write a lot on this topic. I’ve also written several articles for Huffington Post Divorce so you might enjoy those. Just type in my name – Terry Gaspard – to the goggle search optin box and they will come up! Regards, Terry

  2. Mark says:

    Great article! Thanks for the tips to fathers! That helps as I am dumbfounded as to how to “fix” this broken bond. My greatest fear is that my daughter will grow up with the same relationship issues, incapable of trusting a partner because of what she experienced at home growing up.

    • Terry says:

      Mark, I’m glad you liked my article! Keep in touch because we are publishing a book about daughters of divorce that you might find useful in understanding your daughter. Best, Terry

  3. Slavic says:

    Dear Terry, I just came across your article and it helped me a lot. My wife and I will probably divorce this June or July. We are separated for the last ten months. I have two daughters, ages eight and twelve. I believe my daughters and I have a strong connection and friendship with one another. However, my eldest shares everything with me except her feelings. I really want to preserve our close relationships and remain open and available to them. How I can protect them in this situation and remain calm. I see them everyday right now but it will change soon. Should I continue with as many activities we are used to do together as possible or I should develop new ones? Thank you

    • Terry says:

      Hello, Sorry for the delay. I was on vacation for about a week. Your should keep your schedule with your daughters as consistent as usual and not make any big changes during a divorce. If they are spending the night with you, make sure that their bedtimes are regular and avoid the tendency to give them too many treats or extra things to compensate for lack of time. The main thing that they need from you is affection, consistency, and reassurance that you will be there for them. Hanging out and giving them the opportunity to talk is great but keep in mind that girls often have a delayed reaction to separation and divorce and may not share their feelings right away. Keep in touch and look for my articles on Huffington Post Divorce about dads and daughters. If you google my name on their home page you with find several articles that you might be interested in. Regards, Terry Gaspard

      • Slavic says:

        Hi Terry, thank you sooooo much for your encouraging and helpful words. I have another question. Is it wise to ask my children’s opinion in selecting a new place for me to move into? Can I take them with me and ask them if they like it or not? Thanks. Slavic

        • Terry says:

          Hello, I believe that it’s a good idea to show them your options for a new place and get their feedback. However, let them know that you will make the final decision. But asking for their input about sleeping arrangements, locations, etc. will help them to feel included. Hopefully, your new place is in a fairly convenient location to their school, mother’s house, etc. The older your children are, the more important it is to get their feedback. Regards, Terry

  4. erika says:

    Reading this artical kindof helped me explain to my father that havimg a father daughter relationship changes alot but he doesnt care about the fact that i was his first born nor his only daughter

    • Terry says:

      Hello, I am sorry that you don’t have a strong connection with your dad. Sometimes fathers disappear or don’t value the bond with their daughters as much as they should after divorce. Things may change in time (look over my tips) but if they don’t, try not to blame yourself. You can still move on and have meaningful relationships in your life. Regards, Terry

  5. Richard says:

    Dear Terry,

    How do you address this situation when Mom at the daughter’s home is ‘hell-bent’ on promoting this dis-bond due to Mom’s own inability to move on and to continually harbor resentment and anger? Parental Alienation comes to mind on this.

    Thanky you,
    Richard

    • Terry says:

      Hello Richard,

      I’m not an expert on parental alienation but you can google it an you will find resources. However, I’m an expert on divorce and daughters of divorce and I recommend that you continue to be consistent with you daughter and your actions with make a difference. Children have a way of sensing the truth and if you maintain a bond with her throughout her life, she will come to her own conclusions. Most daughters crave a strong connection with their dads and this will come back even if it is temporary lost (later in a daughter’s life).

      Please check out my other blogs (especially Father’s Day one) and stay in touch!

      Regards,
      Terry

  6. Rick says:

    Hello, I am in the process of getting a divorce. I have 3 daughters, 18, 16, and 11. Due to some underlying issues, I may have to move out of town after the divorce. We live in an area that is far removed from the rest of the country. I will probably be moving back to Oklahoma to be near my family(Mom, brother, aunts and uncles and cousins). We currently live in Alaska. Its complicated.

    I have spoken to my oldest and my youngest about the possibility of me moving. It is a strong possibility that I will need to move. How can a explain to my girls that this will be the best thing overall, even though it will be heart wrenching for all of us? My oldest did not like it but she said she would love me no matter what. My youngest did not really have a reaction. She will probably have a delayed one, I’m sure.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Rick,

      First of all, I commend you for talking to your daughters – it takes courage but is an important step. Is there a reason why you didn’t speak to your sixteen year old daughter? If possible, I would do so soon- even if you write her a letter.

      It’s key that you give them facts but don’t say too much about their mother or the reasons why you are splitting. Simply saying something like “I love you and I’m sorry things didn’t work out between your mom and I” is good enough. Then be prepared by a delayed reaction and be receptive to follow-up questions and emotions. You are smart to know that girls are often hit hard by stressful family events (harder than boys)and it’s common for them to have a delayed reaction.

      Lastly, I would assure them that you will be in touch with regular phone contact, letters, and see them in person as much as possible. Of course follow-up is key as well as consistency. Children and teenagers don’t have any control over divorce and girls are more negatively impacted by parental conflict before and after divorce due to their brain development and socialization. So strive to be amicable with your soon to be ex and don’t bad-mouth her in any way.

      Regards,
      Terry

  7. Brent says:

    My wife divorced me 8 years ago, when my daughters were 5 & 2 years old. It became obvious that she had been cheating, as she married a man she works with shortly after our divorce was final, yet she put all of the blame for the divorce on me (probably because it makes her feel less guilty for what she did to our family). My ex and her family have continued to bad mouth me, while i have taken the high road, and I feel like the bond with my daughters is weakening because of this. Is there a good way to defend myself and tell my side of the story without hurting my girls? I have fears of saying the wrong things to my daughters in many situations, and I think the fear keeps.me from saying what i should at times. My daughters rarely talk to me, even ignore most of my text messages, and it seems that they only see me if they are told they have to by their mother. How can I open up the communication and start repairing the relationships?

    Another issue, equally important, is that it is very possible that my 10 year old daughter is not my biological child, and that her “stepfather” is her actual biological father. This thought keeps burning in the back of my mind, and it has probably had a negative effect on our relationship. I feel like this needs to be resolved sooner than later, but how can I do this without alerting my daughter of my doubts?

    Thanks,
    Brent

    • Terry says:

      Hi Brent,

      Thanks for writing about your situation. I can share my general thoughts but can not give you advise over the internet. If I were you, I would seek counseling for support and advice since your situation is very involved and complicated.

      I would not say anything negative to your daughters about their mother. They don’t need to hear your side of the story – they are children and had no control over the divorce. But what they do need is a loving, consistent dad. I would continue to try to contact them (follow tips in my blog) and hopefully over time they will be receptive. Kids have a amazing way of seeing truth and responding to love if it is unwavering and unconditional. Girls often have a delayed response to divorce a “Sleeper Effect” so the impact of your divorce may not have fully hit them yet. Girls do better after divorce when they have a sister and a close relationship with both parents. Hopefully this will come in time.

      Best,

      Terry

  8. zezo says:

    My father hav rejected me thrice and am his biological daughter.he doesnt care about us in any way.iv tried my best but his not coperating.sometimes feel like men are so cruel n heartless my mum sacrifices alot jst for us.he is wealthy bt y leave us to suffer ?? Can’t continue with my studies due to fees n he’s not aware committed to his new family.I hate men.tel me wats right to do.

    • Terry says:

      Hello, it sounds like counseling would help you process the loss. I’m very sorry to hear that your situation has become so dire. If you haven’t tried writing your dad a letter, I would try doing so. Express your feeling honestly without blame. Don’t give up on all men – there are many wonderful ones in the world.
      Regards, Terry

  9. Emily says:

    Terry, thank you so much for your article. My parents divorced when I was 20 and I’m now 35. My dad is the “passive” father remarried to a strong woman you describe to a “T”, and I have struggled with his ever increasing distance since that time. On the rare occasion I see him..usually initiated by me, he does seem happy to see myself and my family and is appreciative when I call, but in 15 years has only reached out to me a handful of times. He is very active in my step-sisters life (also my age) because his wife makes a great deal of effort (as she should!) to stay in her daughters life and he follows along. I have to say, even as an adult this obvious bias towards his new family is heartbreaking to me. For a long time, I have never requested anything from him or told him my feelings because I was afraid he would be angry or feel bad and have even less contact with me. But keeping the pain to myself just hurts more. Your article is the first I have found that actually has some suggestions for what they left behind daughter can do. I think I’ll start by asking him to actually call me occasionally. The worst that will happen is he won’t and I won’t be any worse off and I can move on. Anyway, thanks for your oughts on this subject.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Emily, I’m glad that my article is helpful to you and I agree that making a request for him to stay in touch is a good idea. You can’t control his response but requesting is an action that you can control.Passive dads often need their daughters to be more assertive – this was true of my own father and it helped me a lot when I reached out to him. I wrote a chapter in our book about this called “Daddy Hunger” and will keep you posted on this site about it’s publication – it’s in the works! Please stay in touch!
      All my best,
      Terry

  10. Kristin says:

    Terry,
    What if the father is an alcoholic and does stupid things?

    • Terry says:

      Hi Kristin, Each situation is different and you have to weigh how negative your dad’s impact is on you.I would never recommend that any daughter allow herself to be emotionally or physically abused. That being said, if you can set boundaries and have limited contact – it might be beneficial to keep the door open in hopes that he will get treatment. But be careful to take care of yourself and if the relationship is damaging to you, by all means you may need to cut off contact – at least for awhile. Regards, Terry

  11. Carrie Landschoot says:

    Hello,
    My 5 year olds father is very much a part of our daughters life. He picks her up from school at 4 and drops her off to me at 630 during the week and has her every other weekend. She speaks pretty highly of him.
    I left him because of the way he acted and spoke to me when he drank.
    How can I answer her questions to me about my feelings for him.. how can I be honest with her?

    • Terry says:

      Hello Carrie, I would say something like”Daddy and mommy didn’t get along but we both love you.” However, if you fear that he may drink alcohol when he is with her, you should see a counselor who specializes in substance abuse and get support for that issue. Of course, you need to trust that your daughter is safe in his care – especially driving in his car. Given you are confident your ex isn’t drinking while caring for your daughter, most children her age can understand a simple message and don’t benefit from details. When she is an older adolescent or young adult, she will probably ask more questions and you can give her more information. Regards, Terry

  12. Michael says:

    Terry,
    The article you have written on father/daughter bond has been extremely helpful with my struggle in life. I have been divorced for a year now and my daughter is 5 years old living with her mother. I have visitation every other weekend and one night out to dinner every week with my daughter. I have the freedom to walk my daughter to school or pick her up from school, but the mother doesn’t allow this to happen with the response that it is confusing to our child. I explain to our daughter that you must respect your mother’s wishes at all times. I have taken the high road throughout this process, but what do you say to a child at this age and are there any divorced father groups in NYC for which might help me through the many struggles I endure daily? I adore our little girl with my heart and soul.

    • Terry says:

      Hello,
      I would keep telling your daughter you love her and be consistent with your words and actions. In time, your bond will grow and she will trust you and learn to trust other males when she is older. It’s not helpful to give a young child too much information. When she is an older adolescent or young adult she will ask you more questions and you can say a bit more – but be careful not to say anything negative about her mother who is her role model for being a female.
      It sounds like you are doing a great job. I don’t live in the New York area so I advise you do a google search and contact local family service agencies for referrals for a father’s group.
      Regards, Terry

  13. Charles Kalman says:

    Please keep me updated with all of your email blasts.

    • Terry says:

      Hello, Sure! I recommend that you sign up for our bi-weekly enewsletter – which you can easily do by filling in the box at the end of each blog.
      You can also check us out on Facebook at movingpastdivorce. Regards, Terry

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