Fathers and the adolescent daughter
Looking across the dance floor at a friend's child's bar mitzvah party not long ago, Sam Osherson found himself admiring a young woman. He had two thoughts: "Oh, how attractive!" and then "I'm old enough to be her father!"
As the girl turned around, he realized he was her father.
Osherson, a Cambridge psychologist and author whose specialty is parents' development, had reached a milestone he long anticipated as a father, that uh-oh moment when you recognize that your daughter is a sexual being. Despite his years of research, it took Osherson by surprise.
"You're her father," he says, "but you're also a male. It can be very disconcerting."
Even if a father isn't aroused by his daughter's budding sexuality, he is usually at least made uncomfortable by it, says Joe Kelly, executive director of Dads and Daughters, a national nonprofit organization that works to help strengthen father-daughter ties. "It's OK to have the feelings," says Kelly. "They're normal and natural. It's never OK to act on them."
Thankfully, the typical father doesn't. Instead, bewildered by his thoughts and worried he's a bad person for having them, he puts emotional and/or physical distance between himself and his daughter.
The withdrawal couldn't come at a worse time in a girl's development, says psychologist and researcher Elizabeth Debold, a specialist in gender development. "This is a time of transition. A father's distance leaves a daughter fundamentally insecure," she says.
As Osherson and Kelly know first hand (Kelly is the father of 19-year-old twin girls; Osherson's daughter is 14), a girl's demeanor with her dad can have a coquettish edge even at 4 or 5. "When she's sitting on your lap, there are times you'd swear she's flirting with you," says Kelly.
She isn't, but even at 4 or 5, a girl is subconsciously testing out notions of what it means to be female. This is healthy and normal, says Brookline psychologist Lise Motherwell, who has researched fathers and daughters. "It's one way a young girl builds her sense of herself as an appealing person whose femininity is acceptable," she says.
By age 6 or 7, the coyness practically disappears, replaced by a sense of mastery in the world. For the next few years, the father-daughter relationship is at its most comfortable: affectionate, close, and straightforward. But between 9 and 11, conflicts surface. Before, she idolized you. Now she criticizes.
"It's part of the separation process," says Osherson. "She's wondering things like, `Can I be good in math like Dad and still be feminine?' "
Meanwhile, changes in her body can alternately make her shy and modest around you or coy and provocative. Debold says a girl's mixed signals are a sign she's moving back and forth between wanting to be an independent grown-up and wanting to be a protected little girl: One night, she'll recoil at your arm on her shoulder, the next, she'll curl up in your lap; one day she'll flit about the house scantily clad, the next, lash out at you because you saw her wrapped in a towel after her shower.
In a subconscious way, she's asking the same questions as in the preschool years - "Am I worthy of your admiration?" - only now she's provocative, not just cute, and she knows it, too.
"She's testing," says Osherson. "She wants to know what gets the attention of the opposite sex and she's trying it out on the first man in her life." Osherson is the author of "The Hidden Wisdom of Parents" (Adams, 1999).
The daughter whose father removes himself physically by suddenly no longer being available to shoot hoops or help with Spanish may be tactile hungry, says Osherson: Just because a girl eschews standard offerings of affection, she still needs some physical closeness, even if it's just sitting side by side at the table while you look at her homework.
The girl whose father withdraws emotionally may be in bigger trouble. It can feed into her insecurity, perhaps affecting future relationships as well as her sense of efficacy in the larger world, which Dad may represent. "It makes a girl think, `There's something wrong with me. Dad doesn't like what's happening [to my body]; it's shameful/bad/ugly,' " says Debold.
Clearly, fathers don't have much wiggle room.
"On the one hand, you need to stay emotionally close and affectionate," says Motherwell. "On the other hand, you don't want to be intrusive or inappropriate sexually."
The solution is to take your cues from your daughter.
On the physical side, stick to a routine such as a goodnight kiss until she tells you not to. "It's better to err on doing it for too long than to cut it off too soon," Osherson says. Additionally, after stopping a ritual for a while, re-initiate it. "She may not want a goodnight kiss for a year, then, all of a sudden, want it again," she says.
At the other extreme is a daughter who overdoes physical closeness, falling all over you in a way that's arousing. "Create a boundary without making her feel badly," says Motherwell. For instance, if she crawls in bed on a weekend morning and it gives you an erection, rather than throw her out of bed or tell her harshly she's no longer welcome, create a new ritual: get up early and suggest you take a run together, or make pancakes. If she parades around in panties and bra, rather than gruffly sending her to her room or telling her to "put some clothes on!" consider what's going on developmentally:
At 9: "She's likely unaware of her impact," says Motherwell. Either ignore it or, if you're afraid of being aroused, tell her simply, "Why don't you put on a robe?"
At 13 or 14: Now, says Motherwell, "ignoring it doesn't get her need met." In other words, she's asking a question - "Am I attractive?" - and needs an answer. Osherson tells of one father whose daughter's clothes kept getting more and more flimsy. Finally he said to her, "Do you know, you look absolutely beautiful? But these clothes are too grown-up for you," and she stopped wearing them.
"Girls need to hear from their father," says Debold. You can even use the word "sexy," she says, as long as you desexualize your relationship: "You are sexy to other people; to me you are my daughter, and I find you beautiful."
Other ways to ease this passage for your and your daughter:
Be a good listener. Girls 11 to 14 tend to go into great detail about many things, which can drive fathers up a wall. "Instead of jumping in to problem-solve or cutting a girl off - `What's the big deal here?' - learn to just listen," says Debold.
Look for areas of mutual interest to stay engaged. If you're not comfortable with activities that used to work, find new ones. Motherwell tells of a sculptor who invited his daughter and her friends to his studio and helped them weld stilts. "He brought her into his world at her developmental level," she says.
Find appropriate ways to tell her she is beautiful. As she's going to a party, tell her, "You look beautiful," not "I wish I was going to this party!" If she's flirting with you, "That's not the time to say it at all," says Debold.
Once a daughter becomes a young woman, many fathers, of course, are terrified of a girl's vulnerability in a culture that is toxic to women. For Kelly, this means working hard to counteract the cultural messages that tell girls their looks are more important than their values.
"I would tell my daughters they were beautiful, but I was very intentional and out loud about telling each one how unique she was and talking about her internal gifts," he says.
Kelly would also frequently tell stories about his own adolescence. Not only did that give his daughters a window into how boys think but it also helped him stay engaged with them. When Nia announced she was dyeing her hair orange, his first instinct was to say, "Oh no, you're not!" Instead, he remembered a girl who had to cancel a first date with him because her hair had turned green when she bleached it.
"It reminded me how important appearance is at this age," says Kelly. "The next thing I knew, I was helping Nia dye her hair and her sister was taking pictures of us."