From No Longer Superhero
At a time when girls are under unprecedented assault from our increasingly sexualised culture, there’s at least one very welcome change – we’re finally waking up to the vital importance of dads.
According to Steve Biddulph, today’s fathers spend three times as long with their children each day – talking, playing and teaching them – as the fathers of just one generation ago. Girls with an involved dad have been found in many studies to do better at school and have higher self-esteem. They’re also less likely to become pregnant too young or have problems with alcohol or drugs. For a girl, Dad is her personal ambassador from the Planet Male. If she has a good relationship with him, she’s unlikely to settle for less from the other males in her life, or allow herself to be manipulated.
Too many fathers however still fail their daughters, whether because they were confused about their role, or just too busy, or – worst of all – not sufficiently interested. There’s no escaping the fact, that even terrific father-daughter relationships can come under stress when girls reach 13 or 14 and start developing into young women…
These days, fathers are far more aware than they used to be of the dangers of sexual abuse. This has led to a new problem that probably affects most dads: they start backing off from their teenage daughter and neglect to give her hugs. Some fathers will even stop spending as much time with their daughter, or become irrationally angry with her.
This sends out a confusing, hurtful signal: ‘He doesn’t like me any more; he’s weird and uptight around me. Some girls react by thinking they’re at fault themselves; others try to turn themselves back into little girls again by acting cute and helpless rather than increasingly adult and confident.
Even if a father copes well with his daughter’s changing appearance, he can find that without meaning to, he’s frequently pressing all the wrong buttons and making her fly off the handle.
That’s because, somewhere around the age of 13, a girl seems to become mentally unstuck. We shouldn’t really blame her.
At this age and stage of development, her body is trying rapidly to rewire her pre-frontal cortex – the most complex part of the brain, which controls both her ability to calm herself down and to pay attention.
Meanwhile, the part of her brain called the amygdala – the centre of impulsive and emotional reactions – can take over in a flash if she’s feeling pressured, distracted or stressed.
One minute, she can be kind and caring; the next, she can be thoughtless and self-obsessed. She may make promises but forget to keep them.
She can lose all perspective, become wildly over-emotional and cave in to undesirable peer pressure. This is normal – but most fathers find this stage very trying….
First: remember that your daughter loves you and would miss you for ever if you died. Second: bear in mind that she can often find you very irritating. That’s because you tend to criticise and find fault with her, and you do it at the worst times…
The truth is that she’s searching for her own identity, and acutely sensitive at this time to any of your attempts to control her. So when you lose it, she double-loses it, and everything goes haywire.
Daughters have to be treated gently. Accept that sometimes she’s unhappy with you. Ask her what you’ve done wrong but don’t try to defend yourself when she tells you – that’s a male reflex, and it doesn’t work with girls.
Instead, see if you can work out what emotion lies behind what she’s saying. Is she sad (i.e. because you’re going away again), angry (you didn’t keep your word) or afraid (you drive too fast)? Then, even if you’ve been a faultless father thus far, try doing something radical: admit that you could actually change a little to accommodate her. If you can make changes to your behaviour, or do something that she’s asked you to do, it will make her feel less powerless and help her to realise that her feelings count.
The biggest mistake men tend to make when fighting with their teenage daughters is to use ‘you’ accusations. ‘You don’t help around the house.’ ‘You’re lazy.’ ‘You’re not going out in that dress!’
‘I’ messages work far better because they take heat out of a situation by exposing our vulnerability.
For example: ‘I was worried when you didn’t get home at the time you agreed. I need to know I can trust you.’
This is not an attack, because it starts with ‘I’ and not ‘you’. It invites a teenager to be caring, rather than to defend herself.
Even: ‘I’m angry because the kitchen was a mess, and I had just tidied it up’ is better than: ‘You messed up the kitchen!’
Note that I’m not suggesting for a moment that you let your daughter get away with slovenly, dangerous or disrespectful behaviour.
Fathers who are cash-rich but time-poor often buy expensive gifts and hand out wads of money; they may also arrange for others to do all the household chores. The end result is a grown-up girl with an emotional age of two who thinks nothing of having tantrums if they help her get what she wants. Such terminal self-obsession, is a dreadful fate for any girl because one day she’ll eventually collide painfully with reality.
The best cure is to begin imposing boundaries – softly but firmly – and to demand that she starts pulling her weight.
Finally, the father of a teenage girl must bear in mind that he’s a male role model – at least to her. That means dressing well, smelling good and refraining from telling rude jokes in front of her.
Adolescent girls have acute sensibilities: even if they swear and tell gritty jokes themselves, they don’t like to see their fathers behaving in a similar way. They’re also hyper-alert to the way you behave with other females.
So treat all women with courtesy and kindness, and you’ll help her set the bar high for the boys and men in her own life. Modern womanhood is tough: all too soon, your daughter will need to become self-reliant, clear-thinking, emotionally strong, good with people and responsible for her own life. A good dad gives her a head-start that lasts for ever.
Adapted from: Raising Girls, by Steve Biddulph