A nine-year-old girl sits in my office, spinning on my desk chair. She’s avoiding a question that hangs in the air, hoping to find a distraction. It wasn’t a particularly challenging question, but she doesn’t know how to answer it. Finally, our eyes meet. After a deep breath, she spits it out.
She wants more than anything to spend time with her dad on the weekends, just the two of them. But he always spends the weekends playing sports with her brother. She doesn’t like sports very much. She likes baking, drawing, fairies, reading, looking for interesting leaves around the park, and a long list of other fun things, but she doesn’t care much for throwing a ball or doing anything that involves a ball.
At nine, she’s decided that this makes her unlikable in her dad’s eyes. She knows he loves her, he is her dad, but she doesn’t think he likes her. So she watches from afar while her bother gets the “fun” time with dad week after week. She’s too afraid to speak up because she’s fairly certain that she’s right, and she doesn’t think she handle that kind of truth.
For the record, she wasn’t right.
I’ve worked with many tween girls over the years, and one thing that comes up over and over again is the subtle shift in the father-daughter relationship that sometimes occurs during the tween years. When girls are little, adults go on an on about the “daddy daughter bond” that’s so very adorable.
“Adults swoon when little girls announce their intentions to one day marry their dads. Then those little girls begin to grow and separate, and the relationship shifts.”
A strong father-daughter bond can be a lifesaver during the tween and teen years. Growing up is complicated, and girls need stable relationships rooted in unconditional love and support. But it’s not enough to simply express unconditional love; you have to show it with your actions. You have to make time to build that bond by being present and taking an active interest in your daughter.
Dads, you’re up to bat. With you in her corner, your girl will feel confident. Resilience will emerge and healthy risk taking will increase. With you by her side, your daughter will stand up to fear and reach for her goals.
A lot of dads ask me how to do that. What’s the secret trick to building that bond? The trick is… there is no trick. But bonding with your daughter is easier than you might think.
Invite her to run errands.
Sounds boring, right? Wrong. When you ask your daughter to join you for even the most mundane errands, you show her that you enjoy her company. You send the message that you want to spend time with her as much as possible. So go ahead and invite her to Home Depot this weekend and watch her face light up with adventure (after the obligatory eye roll, of course.)
Ask her for help.
Parents are always trying to help kids, but the truth is that kids would rather help their parents and showcase their skills. Especially tween girls. When you ask your daughter to help with your weekend projects, you show her that you believe she’s strong and capable. You also communicate that you trust her with important stuff. That’s huge for young girls. Hand over the hammer and watch your girl thrive!
Read to her.
One mistake I see over and over again is that the minute kids can read independently, parents step away from reading together. Getting lost in a good book together is a great way to bond with your daughter and gives you something to look forward to together. Break out the Harry Potter, cuddle up, and grab some hot chocolate… reading with dad is a great way to spend some much-needed downtime!
Some girls love to throw a football while others would rather go for a hike. Time spent outside is good for the body and the soul. Build a giant leaf pile together, make a snowman, walk along the beach in search of shells, or just kick a ball around the yard. The best way to get to know your daughter is to spend time with her.
Listen (Really, listen.)
I can’t tell you how many girls sit on my couch and complain about distracted listening. They don’t use those words exactly, but they describe fighting Smartphones for attention. Your girl wants to tell you her stories, her hopes, her ideas, and her dreams. She wants to tell you about the gross thing that happened at school and how it felt when she finally mastered that dance move. She wants to show you her art and tell you about her softball team. She wants to share her whole world with you, but she doesn’t want to do it when you’re staring at your phone. The single best thing you can do for your daughter is make the time to listen. Put away your distractions and listen to your daughter. If you don’t, she might stop talking.
Take an interest in her interests. Learn something new from her. Ask her tons of questions to show that you’re interested and that you want to be a part of her world. And, please, show up. If she has an event at school, be there. If she has a game or performance on the weekend, be there. If she asks you take her to an art museum, make it happen.
Yes, there are times when we can’t be in two places at once. Our children know that. But there are also times when we need to create balance and show up for our girls. Please, I’m begging you; make that happen as often as possible.
“Your daughters don’t need grand gestures and expensive gifts to feel connected to you; they simply need you.”
As someone who spent most of my tween years playing H.O.R.S.E. in the driveway with my dad I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, that relationship instilled a confidence in me that I still carry with me to this very day. And all you really have to do is show up.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. Her work can be found on EverydayFamily, Momtastic, mom.me, Yahoo Parenting, PBS Parents and The Huf ngton Post. Katie writes the parenting blog, Practical Parenting. Katie splits her time between Los Angeles and the Connecticut coast with her rock and roll husband and their two happy children.