July 22, 2013 by

Men hold incredible power over the future their daughters will experience. Sometimes, I have to wonder how many fathers realize that. And how many grieve for realizing it too late?

I’m not just talking about financial security or educational opportunities. The way a father treats his daughter molds her as a person, and especially how she sees herself as a woman. It’s a unique relationship, unlike that between mothers and sons, dads and sons, and mothers and daughters. How fathers choose to manage their relationships with their daughters has a lifelong impact that can be devastating if it doesn’t go well.

“A little girl first learns how to relate to men though her father,” says Pegg Siemek-Asche, statewide administrator for behavioral health at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. “If that goes badly, it sets a stage for difficulty as the young woman ages.” If a father never pays attention to his daughter, never spends time being playful, or never expresses his approval of her—her looks, her actions, her behavior—it can create a vacuum of positive self-esteem that the young woman will eventually seek to fill in other ways, most likely negative ones.

Through their actions (or inactions), a father teaches his daughter how she should expect to be treated by men, both good and bad. Young women blessed with warm, loving, and encouraging relationships with their fathers will seek the same in their partners.

Conversely, those who do not have that kind of support will struggle and likely seek to find that approval in unhealthy ways. Young women who report negative relationships with their father say they often have trouble dating, flirting, or even forming true romantic relationships. They simply never learned how. It’s not unusual for these girls to become promiscuous in their frustrating search for masculine approval.

This explains why so many smart women end up in unhealthy and even abusive relationships. It’s what they are used to and comfortable with. They instinctively choose partners who treat them as their father did—and believe they deserve no better. So what, specifically, can a father do to help his daughter towards a healthy adulthood?

“Girls need to hear they are attractive, capable, and smart—from their father,” says Siemek-Asche. “Girls are hyper-sensitive about their appearance and abilities, and they want Dad’s approval.” One misplaced or misspoken comment about her weight or looks can be heartbreaking, and a thoughtful dad will realize he should tread carefully. This sets the stage for positive self-image that will benefit her for a lifetime.

One-on-one time is very important. “You are teaching her how others, especially men, should talk with her, how she should expect to be treated,” says Siemek-Asche. This starts young but becomes even more important as she approaches pre-teen and teen years. Around age 10, especially, girls are incredibly vulnerable and insecure. “That’s when you start seeing a lot of the ‘mean girl syndrome,’ as girls start taking their insecurities out on each other. Dad can really make a difference by being supportive and engaged with his daughter.”

And finally, the relationship between mom and daughter can become very strained during the early and mid-teens, as the young woman seeks her own path away from her mother. It can be hard for both of them, but the father can be a tremendous help in creating a bridge between the two as they get through those trying years. Even if the parents are no longer together, it remains important for the father to treat his daughter’s mother with integrity and respect. Little girls pick up messages from that relationship as well.

And perhaps the most important message of all for dads? Be there for your daughter. Make the effort to be present at every age. She’ll notice. And finally, your daughter will never be too old for a hug and to hear that you love her. Tell her.