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The Father-Daughter Bond: A Dress Rehearsal for Life

05/23/2013 01:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013

Many women underestimate the importance their father has in their lives. For the most part, a good relationship with an intimate partner is strongly tied to a woman's relationship with her dad. A father's presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter's life will affect how she will relate to all men who come after him and can impact her view of herself and psychological well-being.

My research for Love We Can Be Sure Of spanned over three years and was comprised of 234 interviews of young women who reflected upon their parents' divorce. The most common themes that emerged from these interviews were trust issues and a wound in the father-daughter relationship. My previous study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage concluded that lack of access to both parents and an inability to deal with conflict in a constructive manner were associated with low self-esteem in young women raised in divorced homes.

A recent large-scale study cited in a Huffington Post article "Teen Depression in Girls Linked to Absent Fathers in Early Childhood"sheds new light on the importance of the father-daughter bond. Findings from the Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol, showed that girls whose fathers were absent during the first five years of life were more likely to develop depressive symptoms in adolescence than girls whose fathers left when they were aged five to 10 years. They also demonstrated more depressive symptoms when compared to adolescent boys whose fathers left in both age groups.

Why is the father-daughter relationship so vulnerable to disruption after a parents' divorce? In a divorced family, there are many ways a father-daughter bond may suffer. Based on her research, Dr. Linda Nielsen found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting after divorce. Neilson posits that while most daughters are well-adjusted several years after their parents' divorce, many have damaged relationships with their fathers. Unfortunately, if the wound is severe, a girl can grow into adulthood with low-self-esteem and trust issues.

What a girl needs is a loving, predictable father figure -- whether married to her mother, single, or divorced. Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a recognized expert on parenting, explains that one of the predictors of a father's relationship with his children after divorce is the mother's facilitation or obstruction of the relationship.

In his book When Parents Hurt, Dr. Coleman writes, "Mothers who feel wronged in the marriage or divorce, who believe that mothers are more important than fathers, or who have psychological problems may directly or indirectly interfere with the father's desire to have an ongoing relationship with his children."

Megan, a striking young woman who I interviewed is pursuing her dream job in a large east coast city and she has maintained a close bond with her father throughout her childhood. Her story provides an example of a daughter who grew up with a competent father. After her parents divorced when she was six years old she spent substantial time with both parents. They had a flexible view of "Parenting Time" - a term coined by attorney Lorraine Breitman to describe the time a child spends with her parents after divorce. Megan reflects:

"Until I was 16, and I got my own car, I spent almost every weekend with my dad and some weeknights. Even after he moved to a nearby state, he would arrive early to my dance shows, bring me flowers, and stay after to take me out to dinner."

As Megan recalls her experience growing up in a divided family, she remembers her parents being civil and cooperative. She has fond memories of vacations and holidays with both of her parents (separately); spending close to equal time with each of them. According to Megan and many other women that I met with, her parent's non-adversarial approach to co-parenting set the stage for a close relationship with both of her parents.

In his recent book Always Dad, Paul Mandelstein, advises divorced dads to find ways to play a crucial role in their daughter's life. He suggests that divorced parents call a truce with their ex-spouse -- to put an end to active fighting and to collaborate. He suggests that the father-daughter connection, even several years after a family dissolves, is heavily influenced by consistency in contact and the quality of the relationship.

Both of my studies show that patterns of parenting after divorce that lessen conflict, encourage open communication, and promote shared parenting are beneficial for daughters into emerging adulthood. In my recent Huffington Post article "The Forever Dad: Shattering the Myth of the Self-Centered Dad," I write "Fostering alienation between a child and his or her dad is one of the cruelest and most selfish acts that a parent can do to their own child."

According to psychologist Kevin Leman, fathers are the key to their daughter's future. A child development expert, he notes, "That evidence shows that a father's relationship with his daughter is one of the key determinants in a woman's ability to enjoy a successful life and marriage."

How can your daughter overcome the loss she experienced in childhood and move forward with higher self-esteem and an optimistic view of love and marriage?

• Don't bad mouth your ex as this promotes loyalty conflicts and may make it more difficult for her to heal from the losses associated with divorce.
• Find ways to help her to build self-esteem such as encouraging her to develop interests and recognizing her efforts and strengths. Spend time doing things she enjoys with her.
• Don't let cynicism, sadness, or anger get in the way of your daughter's future. If you have negative views of relationships, don't pass them on to her.
• Encourage her to spend close to equal time with both parents. Be flexible about "Parenting Time" - especially as she reaches adolescence and may need more time for friends, school, jobs, and extracurricular activities.

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and movingpastdivorce.com