The Father Factor

An ‘Un-distancing’ Pandemic Proposal for Fathers and Daughters

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May 12, 2020


The COVID-19 crisis presents a rare and much-needed opportunity to repair and strengthen father–daughter relationships. Like the virus, the impact of a distant, superficial, or estranged relationship with dad can range from mild to life-threatening for a daughter, including: leading to more troubled relationships with men and higher divorce rates, lower adult incomes and more poverty,  more stress-related health problems, and higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, suicide, drug and alcohol problems, dating violence, teenage pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases. But, unlike the coronavirus, there are effective ways to treat weak, troubled, or “unhealthy” father-daughter relationships.     

Governor Andrew Cuomo alluded to this “treatment” in a news conference where he commented on a conversation he had with his 22-year-old daughter during quarantine:

We talked about things in depth that we didn't have time to talk about in the past, or we didn't have the courage or strength to talk about in the past—feelings I had, about mistakes I had made along the way that I wanted to express my regret and talk through with her.

But a daughter does not have to be in quarantine and a dad does not have to be governor to embrace and to benefit from this emotional “un-distancing” policy.

Having written about father-daughter relationships for three decades, I am reminded by this crisis that the weakest link in most father-daughter relationships is being unable or unwilling to talk openly, honestly, or comfortably about personal things—a problem of pandemic proportions from which even the wealthiest and most famous fathers and daughters are not immune. And although both parents’ relationships with sons and daughters are sometimes plagued by this weakness, the father-daughter relationship is the most vulnerable. Moreover, a daughter is more likely than a son to suffer from clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide, all of which are closely related to the quality of her relationship with her dad.    

There are a number of damaging situations, similar to pathogens, that commonly weaken or lead to the death of father-daughter relationships. One of the most common is the breakup of the parents’ relationship with each other. Another is the mom’s gatekeeping—behaviors and attitudes that close the metaphorical gate between fathers and their children and make it difficult to build strong bonds, especially with daughters. And particularly when the parents’ relationship with one another is coming apart, mothers are more likely to share damaging information or to bad-mouth the dad to their daughters. Then, too, there are a host of damaging, yet untrue, beliefs about men as parents, especially about father-daughter relationships, that work against dads. For example, some people believe there is a “natural” and stronger bond between mothers and daughters because they are both female—and that women have a maternal instinct that men lack. Some also believe that mothers have more impact than fathers do on their children, especially on their daughters.    

Fortunately, unlike the present situation with the COVID-19 virus, there is an effective treatment for the father-daughter pandemic. The first step is opening up about the personal aspects of their lives and talking honestly about meaningful topics. Sadly, too many dads and daughters hold back because they are afraid that having these conversations might cause one or both of them to break down. In fact, those are the very conversations that would help them break open with one anotherAnd, as this pandemic reminds us, when someone we love becomes seriously ill or dies, these opening-up conversations are the ones we regret not having embraced.

For the past three decades, in my university course, I have been asking students: “When was the last time you and your dad talked alone, without anyone else around to interrupt, to intervene, or to ‘interpret” for you? How often do you talk about anything personal or meaningful, for example, your fears, regrets, mistakes, spiritual beliefs, or feelings about illness, aging and death? How much have you shared about what each of you wish you had more of in your relationship? After all these years, how well do you really know one another? And why is that?” 

Does just the thought of having these personal conversations create a certain emotional discomfort or “dis-ease” for you? If so, this is probably a sign that you need to take off the masks you’ve been hiding behind and engage in some serious emotional “un-distancing.”  

To help women and their fathers move beyond the awkward and the superficial, I have dozens of questions for them to explore with one another in my forthcoming book, Improving Father-Daughter Relationships: A Guide for Women and their Dads (June 2020). If you want to sample a dose of my “prescription” questions, as a daughter, you can start with the following questions for your father: 

  • What do you wish you had known about love, work, and money when you were a young adult? 
  • What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve made and what did you learn from them? 
  • What are some of your greatest fears for my future? 
  • What do you believe happens to us after we die? 
  • What do you most want to be remembered for? 

And fathers can re-word these questions and use them to explore their daughter’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Who is she—not just as a daughter, but as a person with a life beyond the family?        

Fortunately, there is no expiration date on this prescription of questions. If you can’t muster up the courage to try personal, meaningful, one-on-one conversations with each other during the current pandemic, the prescription is still valid afterwards.      

Will these deeper conversations sometimes be uncomfortable, challenging, and painful—or tearful, awkward, and humbling? Yes. Will they sometimes be more touchy and prickly than sweet and soothing? Yes again. 

But as Pulitzer prize winning journalist, Kathleen Parker wrote after visiting my “Fathers and Daughters” class at Wake Forest University: “Nielsen’s approach is short on warm and fuzzy.”     

And as David Brooks reminds us in his New York Times essay, “The Age of Coddling is Over,” the pandemic should serve as a powerful reminder to parents and professors: We need to do a much better job teaching young people—especially girls—how to deal with difficult, uncomfortable situations instead of avoiding or wanting to be protected from them. 

I urge fathers and daughters to use the disheartening, frightening COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for creating a more meaningful relationship with each other that will outlast this crisis.

This article first appeared on the Institute for Family Studies blog, and it is republished here with permission.


Dr. Linda Nielsen is a Professor of Education at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, NC. She is the author of an adolescent psychology textbook and five books on father-daughter relationships. Her next book, Improving Father-Daughter Relationships: A Guide for Women and their Dads, will be released near Father’s Day 2020.


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