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Message to Dads: Strengthen Your Bond With Your Daughter After Divorce

06/13/2014 03:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2014

Father's Day is coming soon and it is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your daughter or heal wounds from the past. Adjusting to your changed relationship after the breakup of your marriage can present new challenges. It's best adopt a resilient mindset and let go of the past. Your daughter needs you more than ever - even if she's resistant to making your relationship a priority.

Special occasions like Father's Day can help to provide the glue that holds you and your daughter closer together -- even if you don't see each other every day. For instance, trying to make Father's Day a purposeful and child-focused day when you enjoy doing pleasurable activities can help to cement positive memories for years to come.

The relationship you have with your daughter will have a profound impact on her life. The breakup of a family often changes the dynamic of the father-daughter relationship and it can be a challenge to stay connected. Research has shown that fathers play an important role in the lives of their daughters but that this relationship is the one that changes the most after divorce.

What are some of the barriers that prevent dads and daughters from maintaining a close bond after parental divorce? In a recent episode of Oprah's Lifeclass Bishop T.D. Jakes concludes "It's not a lack of love that stops an estranged father from reconnecting with his child -- it's the fear of rejection." Bishop Jakes recommends that every father needs to "court" his child and discover his or her world in order to reconnect.

Why is the father-daughter bond so vulnerable to disruption after divorce?

1. Girls tend to spend more time with their moms after divorce (and less time with their dads).
2. During early adolescence, a girl tends to feel distant from her dad and she may resent her stepmom or his girlfriend. Meanwhile, she may tend to have an intense, complicated relationship with her mom (e.g., confidant, too close, lots of conflict and love).
3. Due to a delayed reaction to divorce or a "Sleeper Effect," a girl might go undercover, and develop an increased sensitivity to loss that may go unnoticed.
4. Dads don't always know how to connect with their daughter around activities that are mutually satisfying so they start spending less time with her.

Why is the father-daughter relationship so vulnerable to disruption after a parents' divorce? Dr. Linda Nielson, a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships, posits that that while most daughters of divorce are well adjusted several years after their parents' divorce, many have damaged relationships with their fathers. Unfortunately, if the wound is severe, a girl may grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and trust issues. In her extensive research, Dr. Nielson found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of joint custody after the family splits.

My research for Daughters of Divorce spanned over three years and was comprised of over 300 interviews of young women who reflected upon their parents' divorce. One of the most common themes that emerged from these interviews was 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 high conflict between them contributed to low self-esteem in young women raised in divorced homes. My research shows that if the father-daughter bond is severely damaged it can cause daughters to have trust and intimacy issues in adult relationships. This wound may push them to pick romantic partners who are all wrong for them because they set low standards. Or, to be a higher risk for divorce themselves because they have unresolved issues.

Author Paul Mandelstein advises divorced dads to find ways to play a crucial role in their daughter's life. In his popular book Always Dad he suggests that divorced parents call a truce with their ex-spouse -- to put an end to active fighting and to collaborate. The father-daughter connection, even several years after a family dissolves, is heavily influenced by consistency in contact and the quality of the relationship. A daughter's relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man. But dads often lose touch with their daughters after a family splits up and they don't always know how to reconnect.

8 Ways for you to build a stronger bond with your daughter:

1. Find ways to demonstrate your love: Hugs, praise, and suggesting activities are ways to do this: Connect through notes: Texts, emails, or a postcard or letter if you are away.
2. Ask her questions or exchange small talk while you are driving in the car, helping her with homework, cooking, or a doing a project together (e.g., puzzle, decorate her room).
3. Special dates: For younger daughters, a visit to the park or beach are ways to relax together. For teenage or young adult daughters: Take her to lunch, the gym, or a wonderful movie -- ask her for ideas!
4. Find ways to help her to build self-esteem such as encouraging her to develop interests and recognizing her strengths. Try to be accepting of her need for independence as she reaches adolescence. She still needs your approval but requires a little space to explore and grow.
5. Be flexible -- especially as she reaches adolescence and may need more time for friends, school, jobs, and extracurricular activities.
6. Be sure not to bad-mouth her mother -- even if she complains about her. For instance, mothers and daughters can experience more tension during adolescence and you can serve as a buffer. Keep in mind that her mother is still her model and so saying negative things about your ex-spouse will hurt your daughter and may spark a negative reaction.
7. Attempt to help her repair any father-daughter wounds. Spend time with her doing things she enjoys. If your relationship has been damaged and she doesn't want to connect, you may want to seek professional help from a divorce coach or therapist.
8. Be patient and persistent in showing your daughter you want to spend time with her. It's never too late to develop a stronger father-daughter bond or to reconnect while you're still alive! Don't let your fear of rejection of the past prevent you from enjoying a positive bond with your daughter.

In sum, the quality of your connection with your daughter -- good, damaged, or otherwise -- will impact her in a powerful way in all aspects of her life. Your effect on your daughter's psychological well-being and identity is far-reaching. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close bond with her father.

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