Saturday, August 2, 2014
An Ounce of Prevention: 'Healing the Father-Daughter Relationship'
As someone who lost my father this past March...
And also is the product of divorce (which is a huge part of why I loathe it so---people really don't realize the level of devastation it can cause a child), I discern this is something that a lot of women need to read.
Fortunately, I felt very loved by my father and he was proactive, in many ways, in our relationship. There was still separation and pain and brokenness, though. And his approach to certain things definitely bled over into my relationships with men. It is worth it for every woman (EVERY WOMAN) to consider the relationship she had with her dad---or the lack thereof---and seek their Heavenly Father for clarity and where needed, healing, before choosing the next most important man she will have in her life: her life partner.
In walks a pretty long and worth-the-read (S-C-A-P) article. On the very topic.
We all know that our mothers had a major impact on how we turned out.
But there is a widespread misconception that how Dad was as a parent is less of an issue, especially for daughters.
The father-son relationship is universally seen as important – the world is aware that a boy needs a positive male role model as he grows into a man.
But many see a girl’s relationship with her father as secondary to her bond with her mother.
Here’s a little-known fact: for both boys and girls, the relationship with the opposite-sex parent has the profoundest of bearings on whether or not we grow up to be happy, serene, healthy, fulfilled individuals.
The way in which her father interacted with her as she was growing up is a major factor in how a woman’s nervous system is wired, which in turn impacts her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, her self-image, her view of the world, and the ease – or otherwise – with which she loves and trusts as a woman.
Psychologist Dr. Linda Nielsen has been studying the father-daughter relationship for over 15 years. Like researchers before her, she acknowledges that positive fathering produces well-adjusted, confident and successful daughters who relate well to the men in their lives.
The first man every female bonds with is her father, and that imprints on her so strongly that any later relationships with men – including romantic ones – are filtered through that experience.
Daughters need to know that the first man in their life loved them unconditionally, as all her relationships with men will be patterned after that first love.
Most women subconsciously gravitate towards men who accord her the same level – or lack – of value and empathy our fathers did. So if your father neglected to let you know how special and valuable you are, you may attract similar relationships with men in your adult life, unaware that you deserve better.
“The quality of a daughter’s relationship with her father is always affecting her relationships with men – either in good ways or in bad ways,” writes Dr Nielsen. “When a woman doesn’t trust men, can’t maintain an ongoing relationship, doesn’t know how to communicate, or is co-dependent, this is probably because her relationship with her father lacked trust and/or communication.”
Nielsen also writes that a poorly fathered daughter may be, “too clingy, dependent and jealous. She smothers men and ruins the relationship. Or she is very distant, untrusting and emotionally cold and thus ruins her relationship. The list is endless.”
Indeed it is. And as a further illustration of the profound impact this relationship has on a daughter, not only are girls who have positive relationships with their fathers less likely to develop eating disorders, and vice versa. Research has also shown that such girls are likely to enter puberty later.
Likewise, when a father is absent, distant or the relationship is unsupportive, a daughter is much more likely to experience an early onset of menstruation. Why? Because when a girl is not getting the attention and affirmation she so desperately needs from her father, puberty is triggered prematurely in an unconscious – and heartbreaking – attempt to attract the attention of other men, instead.
And early onset of menstruation is an established risk factor for breast cancer later in life, with each year of delay decreasing the risk by 10-20%.
All children need their parents to mirror them back to themselves, with love. This is not a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity.
For her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, a girl needs to know that she is important and visible to her father, loved by him, and special to him. Where his manner of relating to her deviates from this is where the problems start.
Our childhood experiences – good or bad – literally hard-wire our brains, and much of the wiring takes place in our earliest years.
When a father is generally disapproving, distant and/or abusive (whether physically or verbally) towards his daughter, this is literally wired into her psyche.
In extreme cases, this can negatively impact – not only in girlhood, but in adulthood too – how her nervous system and all the other systems of her body function (stress will do that, as explained here), which will in turn affect how she feels in herself, and how she relates to others.
One of my coaching clients gave me permission to share her story. N is in her late 30s and enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
But her relationship with her father has been a source of great pain in her life.
He provided for the family and was always there for his children when needed, but his manner of relating to N alternated, for the most part, between emotionally distant, and harshly judgmental and disapproving.
For a highly sensitive child this was devastating, and the pattern continued through her teens, twenties and thirties.
Just one of several painful memories she’s recounted during our sessions: she was back on a short Easter break from university when a trivial argument broke out with her mother at the lunch table.
As usual, her father took her mother’s side and showed no interest in N’s feelings. But this time he also told her: “This family’s better off without you.”
Twenty years later, N knows those words were spoken in anger and not really meant – yet still they remain etched on her mind, along with other cruel things he said to her.
Starting in her teens, N has suffered on and off from anxiety, depression and disordered eating.
Again, our fathers literally helped to wire our brains during our earliest years of life, so if they were disapproving, distant, abusive or absent when we were growing up, their negativity towards us literally became a part of our psyche.
In fact, it’s been established that from birth to around the age of six, children automatically “download” all their parents’ words, thoughts and deeds into their unconscious minds. There is no filter. “Good” or “bad”; intentional or unintentional – whatever the child is exposed to is absorbed into their unconscious, and anything that is repeatedly placed there becomes part of the very fabric of it.
This is why girls will mistake their fathers’ issues for their own – if their father doesn’t relate to them with love, they’ll assume they must therefore not be loveable.
As women, they may come to understand intellectually that it was nothing to do with them. What was wired into the deepest part of the psyche can’t be quickly rationalized away, but still – this is a great start on the path back to wholeness.
I wrote this article for N and for all the other amazing women I know whose fathers have no idea who their daughters are, nor how special and remarkable they are.
And I wrote it for the fathers, too. Many men had no one to model for them how to play the huge and important and special role in a little girl’s life that only her daddy can play…nor how to relate to her as a grown woman, and possibly one who is by now hostile towards him.
None of us had the “perfect” upbringing and we’ve all experienced pain in our family relationships.
But it’s never too late to reach out and do all we personally can to heal these relationships.
I’ll end this with some words from one of my all-time favorite books - A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, by Marianne Williamson.
One of the most valuable core teachings of the Course is that everything anyone says or does is either “love or a call for love”.
“Who didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional home?” asks Williamson. “The world is dysfunctional! But there is nothing we have been through, or seen, or done, that cannot be used to make our lives more valuable now. We can grow from any experience, and we can transcend any experience.”
For her healthy physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development, a girl needs a father who loves, accepts and respects her.
In fact, as parenting expert Steve Biddulph explains in his new book, Raising Girls, daughters get their self-esteem – no less – from their fathers.
Reading this reminded me of the words of James Delingpole in his June 2012 Telegraph article, “Rejoice, all you embarrassing dads: you’re doing a brilliant job” – in it, he humourously summed up what a healthy father-daughter relationship looks like, and why:
“Every dad I know really does believe his daughter is a superior cross between Helen of Troy, Athena (goddess of wisdom) and the young Shirley Temple. And while this may tend to mean the world ends up being filled with an awful lot of spoilt princesses, it also – with luck – means that those princesses will have a sufficiently well-developed inner core of self-esteem to protect them from the emotional bruisings they’re inevitably going to have from all those men out there who won’t love them quite so unreservedly as their fathers do.”
But some fathers have no idea how to consistently demonstrate this love to their daughters – nor that it is essential they do this.
The inner core of self-esteem to which Delingpole refers is built when a father consistently conveys in the way he interacts with his daughter that he sees, accepts, values and loves her.
From birth to around the age of six, children automatically “download” all their parents’ words, thoughts and deeds into their unconscious minds. There is no filter. “Good” or “bad”; intentional or unintentional – whatever the child is exposed to is absorbed into their unconscious, and anything that is repeatedly placed there becomes part of the very fabric of it.
And for many years after age six, children’s brains and nervous systems continue to be wired – in large part by way in which their primary care-givers interact with them.
If her father doesn’t relate to her with love, a girl assumes she must be unloveable, and she grows up without the all-important core of self-esteem.
This infiltrates every area of life: the way she sees herself, every relationship, every interaction, the career choices she makes, how she spends her time, how she treats her body.
For example, a woman (or girl) lacking self-esteem may attempt to escape from her feelings of fear and unworthiness by abusing food, alcohol or drugs.
Or she may starve herself, thinking that if she is thin enough, maybe then she will get from society the approval she never got from her father. The world is full of girls who started doing this at 8 – and women who are still doing it at 58.
A daughter with low self-esteem is also a lot more likely to suffer from depression and/or anxiety – and to suffer longer and harder – than her friends who grew up with their self-esteem intact.
Today’s generation of fathers – those who are raising daughters now – are a lot more likely to be aware of their important role in their daughters’ emotional development than the dads of yesteryear.
But there needs to be more awareness still.
Cruel words can be as damaging and traumatic to a child as physical violence.
How children are parented affects not only their self-esteem and other aspects of their mental/emotional health.
As Robin Karr-Morse wrote in her book Scared Sick: The role of childhood trauma in adult disease, it is also the hidden root cause of most (physical) ill health in adult life.
This is because chronic fear and stress in childhood profoundly dysregulate the nervous system, which in turn affects every other system of the body.
I wrote part one of this article last year, and the response to it has shocked me.
In addition to the comments and stories shared underneath the article, I’ve received more private emails about this article than any other I’ve written, and it is still showing in my top five most viewed articles most days.
Copying from my search stats, here are a few examples of things people are keying into Google when they land on part one of this article:
“when a father doesn’t love his daughter”
“distant father effect on daughter”
“did not get father’s approval growing up”
“psychological effects of poor father daughter relationship”
“how to heal from an emotionally absent father”
“disapproving father affects daughter’s self-esteem”
“when a girl doesn’t feel love from her father”
“how to heal from ptsd [post-traumatic stress disorder] from daddy rejecting daughter”
Heartbreaking, isn’t it?
To share with you just a few short excerpts from the article’s comments section – excerpts which speak to some of the most common themes – Alessan wrote: “I can probably count on one hand the number of times my father has ever said I love you to me”.
Charlotte wrote, ”My father doesn’t seem to notice that I exist and when he speaks to me all I get is negative words about everything I do.”
Anna wrote: “This article makes so much sense to me because it’s totally what I went through. I always needed my father’s approval but I only ever got disappointment. I gave up trying and just became a very naughty teenager. I didn’t try at school, I developed a drug problem and also attracted very bad men. Not only that, but I became very sick with chronic fatigue and had severe depression from all of the stress.”
July 2014 update: I’ve been working day and night researching and writing about solutions for women who are suffering from the effects of a challenging relationship with their dad. I’ll be making a lot of this information available for free and I would love to start sending it to you once I have it ready.
So I’m starting an email list and if you’d like to get on it, just enter your name and email address below. I will never share them with anyone else; this is just so you and I can stay in touch.
Click on the S-C-A-P link in order to sign up for her mailing list.
Do yourself and your husband *and your own (future) children* a favor and get it right with your dad first. Even if it's by going to your Heavenly Father for help for forgiving him. Fully. So that your heart can be free. To love. Not from a needy place or a bitter place or an unrealistic place---but a truly healthy one.