We all know that our mothers had a major impact on how we turned out.
But there is a widespread misconception that how Dad was as a parent is less of an issue, especially for daughters.
The father-son relationship is universally seen as important – the world is aware that a boy needs a positive male role model as he grows into a man.
But many see a girl’s relationship with her father as secondary to her bond with her mother.
Here’s a little-known fact: for both boys and girls, the relationship with the opposite-sex parent has the profoundest of bearings on whether or not we grow up to be happy, serene, healthy, fulfilled individuals.
The way in which her father interacted with her as she was growing up is a major factor in how a woman’s nervous system is wired, which in turn impacts her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, her self-image, her view of the world, and the ease – or otherwise – with which she loves and trusts as a woman.
The first man every female bonds with is her father, and that imprints on her so strongly that any later relationships with men – including romantic ones – are filtered through that experience.
Daughters need to know that the first man in their life loved them unconditionally, as all her relationships with men will be patterned after that first love.
Most women subconsciously gravitate towards men who accord her the same level – or lack – of value and empathy our fathers did. So if your father neglected to let you know how special and valuable you are, you may attract similar relationships with men in your adult life, unaware that you deserve better.
Psychologist Dr Linda Nielsen has been studying the father-daughter relationship for over 15 years. Like researchers before her, she acknowledges that positive fathering produces well-adjusted, confident and successful daughters who relate well to the men in their lives.
“The quality of a daughter’s relationship with her father is always affecting her relationships with men – either in good ways or in bad ways,” writes Dr Nielsen. “When a woman doesn’t trust men, can’t maintain an ongoing relationship, doesn’t know how to communicate, or is co-dependent, this is probably because her relationship with her father lacked trust and/or communication.”
Nielsen also writes that a poorly fathered daughter may be, “too clingy, dependent and jealous. She smothers men and ruins the relationship. Or she is very distant, untrusting and emotionally cold and thus ruins her relationship. The list is endless.”
Indeed it is. And as a further illustration of the profound impact this relationship has on a daughter, not only are girls who have positive relationships with their fathers less likely to develop eating disorders, and vice versa. Research has also shown that such girls are likely to enter puberty later.
Likewise, when a father is absent, distant or the relationship is unsupportive, a daughter is much more likely to experience an early onset of menstruation. Why? Because when a girl is not getting the attention and affirmation she so desperately needs from her father, puberty is triggered prematurely in an unconscious – and heartbreaking – attempt to attract the attention of other men, instead.
And early onset of menstruation is an established risk factor for breast cancer later in life, with each year of delay decreasing the risk by 10-20%.
All children need their parents to mirror them back to themselves, with love. This is not a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity.
For her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health, a girl needs to know that she is important and visible to her father, loved by him, and special to him. Where his manner of relating to her deviates from this is where the problems start.
Our childhood experiences – good or bad – literally hard-wire our brains, and much of the wiring takes place in our earliest years.
When a father is generally disapproving, distant and/or abusive (whether physically or verbally) towards his daughter, this is literally wired into her psyche.
In extreme cases, this can negatively impact – not only in girlhood, but in adulthood too – how her nervous system and all the other systems of her body function (stress will do that, as explained here), which will in turn affect how she feels in herself, and how she relates to others.
One of my coaching clients gave me permission to share her story. N is in her late 30s and enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
But her relationship with her father has been a source of great pain in her life.
He provided for the family and was always there for his children when needed, but his manner of relating to N alternated, for the most part, between emotionally distant, and harshly judgmental and disapproving.
For a highly sensitive child this was devastating, and the pattern continued through her teens, twenties and thirties.
Just one of several painful memories she’s recounted during our sessions: she was back on a short Easter break from university when a trivial argument broke out with her mother at the lunch table.
As usual, her father took her mother’s side and showed no interest in N’s feelings. But this time he also told her: “This family’s better off without you.”
Twenty years later, N knows those words were spoken in anger and not really meant – yet still they remain etched on her mind, along with other cruel things he said to her.
Starting in her teens, N has suffered on and off from anxiety, depression and disordered eating.
Again, our fathers literally helped to wire our brains during our earliest years of life, so if they were disapproving, distant, abusive or absent when we were growing up, their negativity towards us literally became a part of our psyche.
Small children essentially absorb their parents’ words, thoughts and deeds into their unconscious minds, and there is no filter. “Good” or “bad”; intentional or unintentional – whatever the child is exposed to is absorbed into their unconscious, and anything that is repeatedly placed there becomes part of the very fabric of it.
This is why girls will mistake their fathers’ issues for their own – if their father doesn’t relate to them with love, they’ll assume they must therefore not be loveable.
As women, they may come to understand intellectually that it was nothing to do with them. What was wired into the deepest part of the psyche can’t be quickly rationalised away, but still – this is a great start on the path back to wholeness.
I wrote this article for N and for all the other amazing women I know whose fathers have no idea who their daughters are, nor how special and remarkable they are.
And I wrote it for the fathers, too. Many men had no one to model for them how to play the huge and important and special role in a little girl’s life that only her daddy can play…nor how to relate to her as a grown woman, and possibly one who is by now hostile towards him.
None of us had the “perfect” upbringing and we’ve all experienced pain in our family relationships.
But it’s never too late to start – or continue – the healing process.
I’ll end this with some words from one of my all-time favourite books – A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, by Marianne Williamson.
One of the most valuable core teachings of the Course is that everything anyone says or does is either “love or a call for love”.
“Who didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional home?” asks Williamson. “The world is dysfunctional! But there is nothing we have been through, or seen, or done, that cannot be used to make our lives more valuable now. We can grow from any experience, and we can transcend any experience.”
Looking for one-to-one assistance or advice on this issue? Go here to find out how I can help.