A girl’s father is the most influential man she will ever have in her whole life. His parenting directly affects her experience of puberty, her menstrual cycle and sexuality.
How much a dad says or doesn’t say, how much time and attention he shares with her, his attitude to her body, achievements, relationships – inform her view of all men. In her life, whether straight or gay, there will be so many men in many different roles: friends, lovers, co-parents, clients, bosses, subordinates – all perceived with filters formed by who her father was for her as she grew up.
Yes, there’s therapy, and life learning as an adult… But gee it’s great if a father takes time to consciously consider the impact he has on his young daughter as she grows.
I offer an evening for dads called Fathers Celebrating Daughters, where we talk about issues they face as their daughters line up for or are in the roller coaster of puberty. Below are a few of the things that we talk about. Which ones did your dad fall into or sidestep?
7 Common Dad Traps
1. Limiting physical affection
Dads often feel uncomfortable when their daughter’s body begins to change; they can be concerned that they look like a predator if someone misinterprets their physical affection with their daughter, so they begin to keep their girls at arms’ length. Dads need to stop worrying about this, or a girl gets the message that developing a womanly body is not something worthy of affection. Fathers, please keep up the hugs.
2. Taking a back seat and slackening the lines of communication
During puberty and adolescence, girls naturally become more independent. Fathers often think that it’s best for them to leave the emotionally charged situations to mothers; that girls aren’t that interested in doing stuff with dad anymore, seeing as social media and their friends are so important; and that there’s no need to demand regular time with their girl who is fast becoming a young woman. In fact, girls shine when their dad gives them a compliment. And establishing a regular activity together means there’s always space to chat, where something that’s been bothering her can casually come up.
Dads can be the ones to create the safe boundaries. In centuries past, it meant ordering the drawbridge to be taken up. These days, it might be creating a family contract around the use of screens. Rosalind Wiseman has a great example of one in Queen Bees and Wannabes (Email me if you'd like to see her version).
3. Avoiding talk about bodies or sex
Do you know a dad who avoids using the actual names for his daughter’s body parts? Girls need to know that they have a vulva, not a ‘down there’. From toddler to pre-pubescent to teenager, if your father is avoiding talk about your body and sexual behaviour, you get the message that you are not to openly discuss your body or its needs, and that becoming a sexual being is not something to be proud of. I love what Joyce McFadden says about dads who avoid body/sex talk:
Parents don't wince over things they're proud of or happy about in their kids, and even our youngest daughters understand this. […] So, when you reveal your discomfort with your daughter's sexuality, you're unintentionally teaching her it's either something to be afraid of or something to be disdained. You'll also be directly or indirectly teaching her you don't want to be involved in knowing that part of her, and that will probably create distance in your relationship. None of this will enhance her self-esteem or her ability to believe you love her unconditionally.
4. Cracking jokes about her changing body and/or commenting on women’s bodies
Dad Jokes are a time-honoured institution. But some things need to be off-limits. A quick one-liner about a body part or a crush can burn into a girl’s memory for years, if not a lifetime. It is such a sensitive time as they grow taller, wider, curvier during puberty. Many women have a painful story from a thoughtless comment made about their body. “I didn’t wear T-Shirts for years after that,” I remember one woman telling me. Here are three statements on girls and eating disorders from Nigel Latta’s Fathers Raising Daughters that I find telling:
Yes, tell her she’s beautiful. But letting her know that you value is who she is, and what she does, rather than assessing and praising her physical features gives her a healthy set of priorities.
5. Leaving talk about periods to the women
Some dads ignore the fact that their daughter has a period, which can send the message that it is an unspeakable subject. Easy for girls to translate ‘not to be spoken of’ into ‘not to be proud or open about’.
Last year I volunteered as a facilitator in the Waratah Project with the Victorian Women’s Trust. The first of its kind in the world, we listened to groups of women talk about their experience of menstruation and menopause. Every now and then, we would hear someone report that their dad congratulated them when they first got their period. They would often say this with a satisfied smile, even if they added that they were embarrassed by it at the time. And do you know, these were often women who had a positive approach to their menstrual cycle ever since.
6. Missing the teachable moments
The more you talk about important issues, the better. Dads often think that once they’ve done ‘the talk’, their job is done (or they avoid it altogether and hand the whole thing over to Mum). Learning about your body is a process that takes years and hundreds of conversations. If the majority of them are with great role models, a girl can get the right messages:
7. Fixing her problems for her
It’s really admirable that a dad wants to fix his daughter’s problems for her. The problem with that is that she doesn’t learn to fix them herself. Help her to find a way, and only step in if she’s really over her head. And rather than seething, refusing to talk about it or cracking it, at some point it’s great to say thanks for letting you know, and that together you’ll work out how to resolve things.
And while we’re talking about mistakes, it’s helpful if girls get to hear that sometimes their dad is vulnerable too. Daughters work extra hard to show their fathers that they’re doing well, that everything is fine and under control, because they don’t want to disappoint. If dads show their weaknesses, it’s easier for their girls to come to them about their own problems.
There are so many opinions out there on dads and daughters… What was the best thing about the way your dad parented you? I’d love to hear.
And feel free to contact me if you'd like a father you know to come along to one of our Fathers Celebrating Daughters evenings, or take part in A Celebration Day with your 10-12 year old daughter.
Warm blessings and billowing blossom to you
Ph: 0408 664 919
 Wiseman, Rosalind Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, Three Rivers Press, NY, 2009, 2nd ed
 Latta, Nigel Fathers Raising Daughters, HarperCollins, Auckland 2010, p. 195
-Janoel Liddy is passionate about girls and women recognizing and acting on their needs to lead a satisfying life. She teaches puberty and wellbeing to girls and boys in schools, facilitates workshops and retreats and works with groups in TAFE, university and community organisations in training and events. She is a mother of two with her partner of over two decades and dances, cooks, reads and writes when she can and must.