How does a great day between a dad and his teenage daughter suddenly turn on a dime? One great day can end in screaming and yelling, and the good feelings recede as a distant memory. Understanding that something might be going on beneath the surface of his teenage-daughter's outburst can help a dad respond in a more effective manner. Hint: Try not to over-react in the heat of an argumentative explosion.
A father once described how he had spent a great Father's Day at a baseball game with his 14-year-old daughter. As soon as they arrived home, he made a funny face and said to her, "...and don't forget that you have that exam tomorrow." A torrent of rage followed, with slamming doors and shouting: "You are the most disgusting person I know!" "Can't you loosen up a bit?" She went to her room weeping and called one of her friends. Dad became angry and confused. How did did those pleasant feelings from the afternoon evaporate?
This 14-year-old truly loved being with her dad. She actually purchased the tickets with her own money. We could surmise that as soon as they got home, particularly in the presence of mom, she felt guilty about her wishes to be alone with dad and had to turn off her own pleasant feelings of liking to be alone with dad. She turned off those feelings by creating an opposite set of feelings--hatred and criticism. She moved away from him and turned to her friends. Dads and young teen-age daughters have to confront two facts: Both need to psychologically adapt to the physical development of the girl's childhood body, on its way to becoming a mature woman's body, and both need to understand that she will begin to develop grown-up-like independent relationships, which may be totally secret from dad.
Dads may not realize their continuing importance in their daughter's lives, particularly in the midst of such a screaming battle. Dads are important protectors for their teen-age daughters, helping them develop their self-esteem during this vulnerable period of life. Dads can react to sons as replicas of themselves; they can remember being boys and they can imagine their sons growing up to become like them. In contrast, they relate to their daughters in more complex ways. Dads may have a hard time imagining how their daughters will turn out and may not realize that a young feminine girl will want to incorporate personality traits from both dad and mom. It is easier for a dad to non-verbally communicate to his son: "You can become like me." But, he may have a hard time communicating that very same message to his daughter: that she can become like him and still become a feminine woman.
A father may have a difficult time communicating these positive feelings to his daughter when he is uncomfortable with her developing sexuality. He may not realize the source of his discomfort; he only knows that he is constantly being provoked by his daughter to reject her, to fight with her, or to ignore her. That's a contrast to the closeness he felt before she approached puberty. A dad should ask himself: "Why do I feel that way?" This may allow him to understand her reactions and it may allow him to modify his reactions to his daughter.
The greater the dad's comfort in relating to his daughter both as a girl with a girl's body as well as a whole person, the more comfortable he can be during the onset of her sexual development. Mom's comfort with her own sense of self as a woman helps a girl develop comfort as a developing woman. In addition, dad's comfort with his daughter as a girl and as a person helps her experience and accept herself in a more positive way as well. A father can communicate, again not directly, how he, a man, feels, thinks, and acts. This allows the daughter an opportunity to integrate her father's values, needs, and aspirations for herself--as well as begin to imagine relating to the opposite sex.
A father should try to react with equanimity when provoked by a tempestuous daughter. What is most crucial, is that a father should communicate that he accepts her fully as a human being as well as a developing woman. He can communicate both his own sense of competency as a man as well as permit her to identify with him. Our best hope for our children is to communicate to them a sense that we are who we are and we will try our best with ourselves and with them. And with a little luck, things will work out pretty well.
Leon Hoffman, MD