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.  

The information contained in this blog also applies to many father-daughter relationships when the parents are unwed. All daughters benefit from a close bond with their father. It is never too late to heal fractured relationships and for love and forgiveness. Fathers can be an integral part of their daughters lives even if they live apart or have had limited contact in the past.

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! 

I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”

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