By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
As a child, I was never quite sure about the nature of my father’s feelings toward me. When I was very young, I knew that I was Daddy’s Little Girl because we used to make special trips to the seashore where we would collect guppies — putting them into buckets under the moonlight to watch them glisten and jump. But for several years after my parents’ split, I rarely saw my father so I developed a deep craving for his attention or what I call “Daddy Hunger.” I later realized that every daughter yearns to have her dad’s approval and that I wasn’t to blame for his absence in my life.
After my parents’ divorce, my father’s absence felt like abandonment and my self-image suffered. At age seven or eight, I became the “teacher’s pet,” a serious student who was cheerful on the outside but shamed on the inside. In The Wounded Woman Healing The Father-Daughter Relationship, Linda Schierse Leonard, says that for many girls and women, the root of their injury stems from a damaged relationship with their father. “If the father is not there for the daughter in a committed way while she is growing up,” Leonard writes, “She may lose confidence in herself, and a wound may occur.”
A legacy of loss had been passed down to me from my mother but I wasn’t aware of it until I reached adulthood. In my female-headed family, we were so good at adapting and glossing over things that my sisters and I rarely spoke about the absence of our father. It wasn’t until I had my daughter, that I realized my own mother’s role of being a gatekeeper and limiting my contact with my dad caused me to be uneasy with men and to develop “Daddy Hunger.” Sadly, this wound impacted all aspects of my life including choice of partners, trust issues, and low self-esteem.
In a divorced family, there are many ways a father-daughter relationship 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. She also discovered that divorce often damages a daughter’s relationship with her father more than a son’s. This can be explained by the fact that boys tend to spend more time with their father after a family dissolves. Nielsen posits 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 damage is severe, a girl can grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and troubled relationships with men.
What’s in the best interest of children after divorce? Dr. Joan Kelly, a renowned psychologist and parenting researcher confirms that the outcomes for children of divorce improve when they have equal access to both parents. These include better psychological and behavioral adjustment, and enhanced academic performance. Clearly, the literature demonstrates numerous benefits to children when their living arrangements enable supportive and loving fathers to be actively involved in their lives on a regular basis, including overnights.
I believe that the vast majority of mothers want their children to maintain a close bond with their fathers post-divorce but may struggle with how to help them navigate this relationship.
Here are five ways moms can encourage daughters to have a good relationship with their dads:
1. Recognize that your ex is your children’s parent and deserves respect for that reason alone. If your children hear you make negative comments about your ex, it can have a detrimental impact on them.
2. Modeling cooperation and polite behavior with your ex sets a positive tone for co-parenting.
3. Do your best not to hold onto past grievances. You can help your daughter adjust to post-divorce life by providing loving encouragement for her to bond with her dad. When children are confident of the love of both of their parents, they will adapt more easily to divorce.
4. Keeping your differences with your ex away from your children will open up opportunities to move beyond divorce in the years to come.
5. Reassure your daughter that she has two parents who love her by saying something like “Even though mom and dad aren’t married anymore we both love you and are good parents.”
What a girl needs is a loving, predictable father figure — whether married to her mother or divorced. My own research shows that daughters of divorce have a tendency to idealize their father and their fear of losing love causes them to walk on egg shells and avoid confrontations with men. Since most girls see their fathers infrequently after their parents’ split, they may feel pessimistic about love, develop trust issues, and live with constant fear that their relationships will fail. This pattern often follows daughters of divorce into adulthood — making romantic relationships shaky as they get into the nitty-gritty of dealing with issues and resolving conflicts with male partners. After all, as women we learn about intimate relationships through our relationships with our fathers and observing our parents’ interactions.
Certainly a strong father-daughter connection is a challenge when it comes to post-divorce relationships. But fathers can learn to support their daughters and teach them to be confident and assertive. Since a father-daughter wound can impact a daughter’s future, it’s important for moms to encourage close bonds between fathers and daughters after divorce.
Here are five reasons for moms to support their daughter’s relationship with her dad:
1. Your daughter will gain trust in both parents and feel more confident about her relationships with both of you.
2. You will build trust in your ex’s ability to effectively parent your daughter.
3. You may enjoy the benefit of more relaxed leisure time — since your daughter will be spending more time with her dad.
4. Your daughter may have better access to extended family and possibly more intergenerational support.
5. Your daughter’s bond with her father will reduce the risk of low-self-esteem and trust issues in intimate relationships throughout her life.
Whenever possible, divorced mothers need to encourage their daughters to have regular contact with their fathers and facilitate a close relationship with them. You can promote phone calls, special occasions, and a child-centered parenting plan. According to Eileen Cohen, J.D., a divorce and mediation expert; “Parents can better nurture their children by establishing a child-centered parenting plan that allows a continuing and meaningful relationship between both parents. What better gift is there than that? Your children will thank you for the rest of your lives.”
The article was previously featured on Huffington Post