When it comes to raising girls, moms often get most of the pressure and the credit. Whether regarding menstrual issues, boy problems, or makeup tips, mom is usually the first person girls turn to. This side-lining of dads is prevalent in pop culture as well - many popular TV shows often portray dads as bumbling buffoons when it comes to "girl stuff." All of this can leave dads feeling marginalized or helpless and, even worse, can prevent girls from getting all the benefits of a tight bond with their father. Dads aren't moms, this is true, and that is exactly why daughters need them.
A lot has changed for dads over the past few generations, says Gary Brown, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. "Seventy-five years ago, fathers weren't even allowed in the delivery room; now, dads are there from the very beginning," he says. "Fathers today are much more informed and involved with their children, taking an active part in the nurturing of their children, from feeding - whether expressed breast milk or formula - to changing diapers, soothing, clothing, bathing, reading to, and helping their baby go to sleep."
This parenting paradigm shift has led to significant benefits for both dads and daughters, he says. By being an integral part of these early years, dads have the opportunity to form a significant bond with their infant daughters, creating a healthy inter-dependency and helping their daughters recognize them as a consistent source of nurturing, safety, protection, respect, and love. This provides a secure base from which a girl learns to explore the world and interact with others.
As daughters age into the school years, dads become even more important to their physical, psychological, and social health. "It would be difficult to overstate the powerful influence that fathers have in the shaping of their daughters' views about their own self-image, values, sexuality, relationships, and their right to determine the course of their own lives," Dr. Brown explains.
The research backs him up. Young girls who have a warm, close relationship with their dads are better able to handle everyday stressors, are less prone to depression and anxiety, and are better able to talk about their feelings, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. And girls with involved fathers are also far less likely to go hungry, to live in poverty, and to have better physical health, according to a second study done by Rutgers.
Thanks to a rapid increase of sex hormones and the daughter's growing need for individuation, the teen years can be an awkward time in the father-daughter relationship. Yet, Dr. Brown says, girls need their dads more than ever during this phase of development. In fact, depending on their personality, girls may feel more comfortable talking to their dads than to their moms about certain sensitive issues. For instance, they may prefer a male perspective on dating or they may be able to be more open with their dads. This is why dads need to resist the temptation to see their daughters as the little child they once were and instead use this time to build a stronger relationship with the woman she's becoming.
Fathers play a critical role during this transition from teen to young adult, according to a recent study published in the Journal of North American Psychology. Teenage girls who reported having caring, involved fathers had higher self-esteem and greater overall life satisfaction than their peers who had more tumultuous relationships - and that boost lasted well into college. In addition, a study published in the Journal of Contemporary Psychology, found that dads may play a role in whether or not girls develop eating disorders during this period.
As young girls grow into young adults and begin to seek independence from their families, fathers still have an important role - but it will become a more advisory one, Dr. Brown says. While this can be painful for loving dads, it's a necessary and important part of their daughters' development. "By establishing that relationship of trust early on, young women will feel comfortable coming to their fathers for advice about relationships, careers, and life," he says.
Yet despite the immeasurable benefits for both dad and daughter, many men miss out on this important relationship - partly from fear and partly from a misguided sense of what's proper based on outdated stereotypes.
"I see too many men buy into the idea of 'that's a girl's issue' or 'only a woman can understand another woman' and avoid talking to their daughters about sex, dating, or other 'girly' topics. They may assume their daughters should automatically fit into preconceived gender roles," Dr. Brown says. "I also see men who are locked into their own narrow view of what it means to be a father to their daughter. They believe that their only role is as a provider and protector, and they end up working too much and missing out on those wonderful father-daughter bonding moments. It doesn't have to be that way at all."
See yourself in that description? Don't beat yourself up. No parent is perfect, but making the effort to have a good relationship can yield rewards that last a lifetime for both dad and daughter, Dr. Brown says.
"I remember when my daughters were little, people used to always say, 'Oh, wait until they are older, teen girls are the worst'," he recalls. "But I was pleasantly surprised to discover they were a joy throughout all the stages of their lives. Now that they are grown women they continue to be a delight. The honor of being a father to my daughters and my son continues to be one of the greatest experiences of my life and I wouldn't trade it for anything."
So stop limiting the idea of a father to being "the bank of Dad" or the "strong, silent type." Don't let outdated stereotypes of what a father-daughter relationship "should" be keep you from building a precious relationship with your daughter. In the end, it doesn't matter what the experts or the researchers or even your own dad says, but rather what works for you and your daughter. You're the only dad she's got and she'll always be your little girl - even when she's all grown up.
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