Often, the idea of their adolescent daughters starting to date worries fathers, for a variety of reasons. But this developmental step, now “well evidenced … [as] important … for adolescents’ self-identity, functioning and capacity for intimacy,” can not only promote positive development for girls, but can also provide a plethora of opportunities for dads to connect with their daughters in new ways. To help demystify the process and prepare fathers for this critical milestone, Growing Girl spoke to Wanda Lipson MSW LICSW, a child and family clinical psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience in the field of mental health counseling, about how fathers can best support their daughters while easing some of the concerns they might have.
The Benefits of Dating
A large body of modern research points to the potential benefits of dating when adolescent girls are in healthy relationships, even if the relationships end in heartbreak. Romantic relationships can be good for teens as they can teach them broader communication skills, encourage them to think of others when making decisions, and help them learn how to apologize and forgive. Healthy romantic partnerships can also provide emotional support which can increase a girl’s sense of self-esteem and self-confidence and have been found to boost academic performance. Further, early relationships provide the foundation for developing committed relationships into adulthood.
Dating can also be a significant component in the essential process of forming a stable personality known as individuation. As Ms. Lipson explains to Growing Girl, adolescence is when children go through the critical second wave of separation and individuation (the first is usually between 15-24 months of age). When a child individuates, she gains a clearer sense of self that is separate from her parents. Poor individuation can lead to a variety of problems such as anxiety, depression, poor decision making, and problems with motivation. Dating provides new opportunities for the growth and exploration of adolescents’ identities.
How Dads Can Support Their Adolescent Daughters
While most teenagers act as if they do not want to hear any advice from their parents, they still need to know their parents are there for them. As Ms. Lipson illustrates,
teens want to be able to fail and fall on their own while feeling secure that their parents are there to help them up if necessary.
This is part of the individuation process mentioned above and is especially important when it comes to dating. Fathers, who often promote independence more than mothers, are uniquely positioned for this as they “serve as an adequate model and facilitate the separation-individuation process in adolescence.” This independence and autonomy contributes to better quality romantic relationships as it bolsters self-reliance and decision-making.
While encouraging independence is necessary, it is only half of the equation. The other piece, which is just as important, is presence. Adolescents need to know their fathers are there for them, and Ms. Lipson underlines the fact that this starts with active listening and making a “natural space for time to check in.” Fathers should try to talk with their teenage daughters for at least a couple minutes each day. Many dads might not know where to start. First, Ms. Lipson suggests putting away the smart phone and turning off the TV. Try going for a ride in the car, or even going grocery shopping together.
Do not push, do not cross-examine, just listen. Be open and do not give up. The first conversation may last only a minute or two, but after a while dads might find that their daughters start initiating the check-ins themselves.
The key is to approach these interactions with validation and compassion. Ms. Lipson points out that this does not mean fathers have to agree with everything their daughters say. But dads need to focus on their daughters’ thoughts and opinions with compassion and understanding, not control.
What Dads Can Teach Their Daughters About Healthy v. Unhealthy Relationships
As with many new things that adolescents try, dating is certainly not risk-free. If girls are involved in unhealthy or abusive relationships, they may have lower levels of academic achievement and motivation, abuse drugs and alcohol, or experience depression. Thus, it is vitally important for fathers to educate and model positive relationships for their daughters. Also, Ms. Lipson stresses that dads should encourage their adolescent girls to tune in and pay attention to their gut feelings.
“When a teen is inviting someone into their lives in a more intimate level – spending more time together – being affectionate and romantic – they are negotiating boundaries,” Ms. Lipson states. If a girl is feeling stressed about the relationship, it comes from a sense of her boundaries being compromised. Sometimes, Ms. Lipson points out, a girl will come out of a conversation or interaction with her partner feeling “yucky” but not knowing exactly why. Fathers can invite exploration of these feelings and use these moments as opportunities to describe what healthy versus unhealthy relationships look like and how they should feel.
While all relationships naturally have ups and downs, an unhealthy relationship is usually one which causes more psychological stress than not.
But even if there is a disagreement between the romantic partners, fathers can explain to their daughters that they should still feel validated and heard. Dads can point out that a healthy relationship is fun and based on respect – neither party should ever feel physically or verbally pressured or abused (Note: while many parents think that young love is “innocent and inconsequential,” a significant percentage of adolescents experience some form of physical abuse from their dating partners. Adolescent Partner Violence [APV] will be discussed in detail in Part 2 of Growing Girl’s dating article).
Ms. Lipson offers some examples of how dads can start these important conversations with their daughters. First, ask her questions such as, “How did you feel after you two hung out today? How did you feel after you talked on the phone?” Fathers should try not to assume their daughters’ feelings but rather let her say them. Ask her if she is feeling uplifted and “seen.”
Again, these conversations may feel stilted at first, but the more daughters see their dads taking a supportive, non-controlling interest in their lives, the more they will open up to their fathers.
While early relationships are often short, the feelings are intense and should be taken seriously. In fact, research suggests that some kids experience nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional constriction after romantic breakups, which are all signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The breakup stage of an adolescent relationship is not surprisingly the most emotionally fraught, and “post-relationship concerns can present significant challenges for adolescents.”
So how can dads help? Ms. Lipson stresses going back to the basics – active listening, compassion, validation.
Dads are problem solvers. Daughters need support with this, of course, however, in many situations they want to be heard and emotionally held.
Fathers need to acknowledge there is a loss (and not say “there are more fish in the sea!”), so along with big physical hugs, they should give emotional hugs too.
Being vulnerable to their daughters is extremely helpful as well. Dads can share age-appropriate stories of experiences with their own heartbreaks, though they need to be mindful not to “hijack” the conversation with a long walk down memory lane. Fathers should think of their stories as gifts to their daughters, and tools to connect and let her know she is being seen.
Further, dads can ask questions and invite her to talk about her heartache. “Ask her what she will miss about the person, what she learned about herself,” and let her know it is OK to take time to grieve the loss of the relationship.
If the daughter is the one doing the breaking up, fathers can teach their adolescent girls that there are compassionate and kind ways to do it while “firmly establishing that the romantic relationship is over.” For information and suggested scripts to plan the break-up conversation, click here.
Naturally, dads and daughters are not always going to agree on all aspects of their daughters’ dating lives.
Two common areas where disagreements occur are 1) who the daughter is dating, and 2) what she wears on her dates.
In both cases, it can be helpful for fathers to remember that most children truly yearn for parental approval. At the same time, who girls choose to date, and what they choose to wear, can be healthy and appropriate ways to express their growing individuality. Thus, as Ms. Lipson stresses, it will go a long way in reinforcing the dad-daughter dyad if fathers can remain open-minded and non-judgmental.
If a father truly dislikes his daughter’s date, a calm, truthful conversation can be remarkably helpful. Honesty goes a long way with adolescents as they can easily spot hypocrisy. As does validation.
For example, instead of fathers blurting out “I don’t like that person!” they can say “I am not seeing what you are seeing in this person.”
With these words, dads are legitimizing that their daughters do, in fact, see something worthy in their dates even if the fathers do not see the same thing.
This conversation can then be followed up with a call to action, a way to move forward. A dad can suggest ways for he and his daughter to spend time together with her date so that he can get to know them and see the qualities she sees. Further, fathers can simply ask their daughters what they like in their partners. This lets girls share their lives with their dads in their way and not feel criticized.
Similarly, when it comes to clothing choice, Ms. Lipson points out it is never helpful to say things such as “there is no way I’m going to let you leave the house like that!” She also underscores how important it is for dads to try and remember how they felt when they were teens and that what a girl chooses to wear can be a fairly safe way for her to express herself.
Because of the generation divide, there will clothing trends that fathers do not understand or agree with, but this does not mean they should be banned.
Rather, clothing can be a great way to start a conversation about body positivity and a way to explore why a girl wants to wear a certain thing.
It’s important to remember that teenage girls are “not responsible for regulating the male gaze.” However, if a girl is dressing only to conform to “societal expectations for sexiness,” that is not body positivity and should be explored further.
When discussing outfit options, fathers need to be mindful and respectful. This does not mean dads have to let their daughters wear whatever they want. Before having conversations about clothes, or other aspects of dating in general (such as curfew or what dating activities are acceptable), it is important for fathers to know what is negotiable and non-negotiable, and to rely on their families’ values, which should be recognizable to their daughters.
Wanda I. Lipson MSW LICSW is a Simmons College School of Social Work graduate and licensed clinical psychotherapist in private practice with over 20 years’ experience in the field of individual and group mental health counseling. As a child and family therapist and parent herself, Wanda understands the importance of mindfulness, compassion, trust, acceptance, consistency, and effective communication as essential components of parenting. To read more about Wanda I. Lipson and her services, check out her website here.
Article written by Anna Ellis
*Anna Ellis, founder of the Golden Tortoise, is a writer and editor focusing on creating and perfecting impactful text for NGOs, nonprofits, charities, citizen action group, academia, and individuals working for the public good. For more information check out: https://thegoldentortoise.com/