Daddy’s Little Girl

The shifting relationship between a father and daughter when she starts growing older

It’s only to be expected that dads have a special bond with their girls, just as mothers tend to be closer to their sons. For most young daughters growing up, Daddy is the first man in their lives, and a great deal of their own sense of gender can be strongly influenced by their relationship with that key male figure.

When puberty hits, there are a host of factors that can spoil a loving father/ daughter relationship. There are plenty of social taboos, for example, that can make any dad uncomfortable with keeping up the same level of affection that he used to share with his little girl – and while most of these social mores are quite appropriate, it’s also unfortunate that at the very time a daughter is most in need of validation and guidance, her father senses that the time has come to maintain a proper and dignified distance.

In certain circumstances, this can hit expat families rather hard. A Caucasian father of a tall, teenage Vietnamese daughter told me recently that he receives cold stares whenever he walks outside with his arm around his little girl – and that in order to avoid such misunderstandings, he instinctively backs away from any display of affection, to the point where he’s found himself becoming standoffish even at home. That’s a heartbreaking development in any warm relationship, and it can lead to a lot of confusion for a maturing young woman – to suddenly be abandoned by the one person they’ve always been able to rely on in the past. But the fact is that once a young girl starts getting her bumps and curves, embarrassed dads tend to take a step backwards – both physically and emotionally.

It is an embarrassment issue, but it’s also one of the agonies of fatherhood – and it’s probably not talked about enough for parents to recognize the problem and find solutions that work. Unfortunately, part of the issue is that as young women undergo the emergence of their sexual development, their fathers – as men – retreat, seeing their formerly effortless cuddles and play- fights transform into complex no-go zones. Accepting the sexual emergence of your own child of either gender is a challenge in itself, but when it comes to acknowledging that their budding sexual identity is going to have an impact on your relationship, the thought process – particularly in men – tends to shut down right there.

But it remains an issue that must be acknowledged if you’re going to settle on a comfortable new paradigm in your relationship with your daughter as she enters physical adulthood. As you transition your parenting from father-of- a-girl to father-of-a-woman, it’s important to understand the difference between a relationship with no sexual dimension and a non-sexual relationship, even though they sound like the same thing. There’s a complete sexual void in any relationship with a child, because a child has no sexuality (or an embryonic one, depending on the child). There is no such void in a non-sexual relationship with any other adult, including your own children.

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Straight Talk

Frankly, if you don’t get this, then you’re going to end up pretending it’s not there – which in turn is why so many fathers alienate their daughters the moment they start dating, refusing to accept the turn of the biological dial. We know that our children emerge into adulthood in every way, and the role of the parent at that point has to remain a nurturing one – it just needs to be modified to suit. It’s important not to switch off the emotional support merely because of the complexities that come out of nowhere when the hormones start to toll. As her father, you still need to be there for her while all this happens.

So the tickling and cuddling and stories in bed aren’t appropriate anymore; that’s obvious. It’s equally obvious, however, that there’s no need for a complete withdrawal of physical affection – she’s only going to interpret that as rejection, and with a teenager’s emotional tendencies, that kind of relationship can sour very rapidly. Keep up the warmth and the contact, but give it to her straight – “You’re getting too big for a piggy-back ride, honey, but come here and let me give you a big hug instead.” Make sure she still gets as much time as you can give her, and be conscious of the fact that you’re still the most important male figure she has going. Above all, seek to ease the changes that are inevitably going to occur in your relationship as you both adjust to them with frank, warm conversation, and try not to get flustered and shy if she wants to talk about the intimate and difficult issues she’s facing.

Finally, don’t forget that it’s very common for a teenage girl to sometimes withdraw into herself for her own reasons. While it’s unfair for a father to back away from his daughter out of emotional discomfort, it’s not wrong for a maturing child to need to take steps back as she finds her own independent balance. You can’t take this personally – it’s not about you.

Our children are people; they shall not remain young, and one day they’ll be much older than you are now too. No matter what age or gender your child is, try reflecting that each human life is an arc, a sequence of constant change. That’s what you’ve brought into the world, and as a parent, you’re in a privileged position to see this happen before your very eyes. Try not to pull away while it happens, or you may just miss out on something precious.

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