Dads and Daughters: The Biggest Way to Be Her Hero.

Dads and Daughters: The Biggest Way to Be Her Hero

My parents divorced well after they should have. I can remember the way they would hold each other in a full embrace or let their hands touch while they were sitting beside each other in the car or on the couch. I remember the gentle way they talked to each other and the way they made each other laugh sometimes. I loved that. Sometimes I would interrupt a kiss – one of those long, tender kisses that are gross and unnecessary through the eyes of anyone younger and blood related. 

Then I remember the silence. The awful, empty clamour of a silence that never used to be there.

No fighting. No yelling. No arguing. Just silence. The shift wasn’t a sudden one. It happened over time but through it all I always felt like he loved her. Whether he did or not doesn’t matter, because feeling as though he did was what made the difference. Even when things were strained, he would say lovely things about her to us. Sometimes I would feel the warmth of that as though it was around me too. It was never enough to connect them but it was enough to lift me above the ache of it all, for a little while anyway.

At the time I didn’t know there was another way to be. The dads love the mums and that’s the way the world worked. It made me feel secure and treasured. Treasured because when he was kind to her, I felt that kindness and tenderness as surely as if it was for me. I took the lovely things he said about her personally, because she was my mum. I was proud of her, he made sure of that. If he said awful things about her, which he never has, I’m sure I would have taken those just as personally.

I don’t know what happened when I wasn’t watching. Something did though, or maybe not enough. I don’t know, but there came to be a distance between them that felt hollow and sad. Something wasn’t right between them, I knew that, but I also felt as though it was something about the mix of them, and nothing about the way he loved her. Maybe it was. I don’t know. And it’s not for me to care. What matters is what I believed, and I believed that he still loved her purely and completely, even if neither of them loved the combination of the both of them very much any more.

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Through my naive little girl eyes, I believed all women were princesses – because that’s how he treated her. Even when things weren’t right between then, he treated her like she was made of sunlight and precious things. I came to think that all little girls would grow up to be adored by someone who would love them so much, that nothing else would matter. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t talk. It wouldn’t matter if there was a distance between them. Or if one day they just stopped holding hands and talking tenderly to each other. It wouldn’t matter. 

After a while, they separated. They probably should have separated long before they did. Even after this, he never did or said anything to change my belief that all little girls would grow up to be women who deserved to be loved tenderly, respectfully, kindly, beautifully – because that’s how he treated the woman in my life – like she deserved to be loved that way, even when he would have had his own reasons to treat her like she wasn’t.

My point is this. Dads hold so much power over the way their daughters will grow up to see themselves. The power comes not just from the way they treat their little girls, but also from the way they treat the mothers of their little girls. 

It would have been so tempting for my parents to trash talk each other. It would be tempting for any person to speak badly of an ex, especially one who is hellbent on making your life miserable – I get that – but for dads with little girls, know that you will lift her above the chaos and heartache of a divorce by speaking kindly of her mother, or at the very least, by not saying awful things. Whether you love or hate her mother, she’s the only mother your little girl has – and your daughter will love her, in the same way your daughter will love you. Kids just do. They love their parents no matter what, even the ones who don’t deserve it.

It’s not easy to be kind to someone who has hurt you. It mustn’t have been easy for my mum or my dad – they hurt each other, as everyone does when a relationship turns bad. I know that now, but I’m so grateful to him for never making me feel as though I shouldn’t love her. He could have done that, but he didn’t. Whatever he did or said, I would have loved her anyway. I just would have kept it a secret from him. 

Little girls feel like little versions of the women they came from. Even if her mother doesn’t deserve to be treated like a princess, every little girl deserves it, and there won’t be another man in her life who can make her feel that through to her core like her dad. There will be men who come into her life and love her, but the messages from dads are the ones that are there for the longest, and if we let them, the ones that settle in the deepest. The greatest thing a dad can do is make sure those message that are settling deep into the essence of are ones that she won’t have to fight against one day. 

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To dads, anything you do to love her mother, even if you don’t think that her mother deserves it, will help your daughter to learn how to receive love, give love and most importantly, it will influence the way she expects to be loved – because you will have shown her. You will have shown her not just by the way you’ve treated her, but by the way you’ve treated her mother. She’s watched, she’s listened and she’s felt it all – for better or worse. When you’re kind to your daughter it will help her to define the way she sees herself. When you’re kind to her mother it will define the way your daughter expects the world to see her, because you’re teaching her that this is what all women deserve, not just her, and not just from her dad. The message moves from ‘but of course you say that about me/ treat me like that/ do that for me – you’re my dad,’ to ‘all women deserve to treated well / with kindness/ with respect – you did it even when you didn’t have to, and even when it was hard.’

Dads are heroes. Ask any little girl and she’ll tell you. However you treat her mother, is what your daughter will expect from the men she chooses to let close to her. The world might shake her self-belief at times, but she’ll always know somewhere deep within her that she deserves love, respect, tenderness and kindness from the man she lets in – not just when she’s being who he wants her to be, but always.

It’s easy for dads to treat their little girls like princesses. It’s not always so easy to treat their mothers that way. I learned a long time ago that dads don’t have to love mums. They don’t even have to like them. But a little girl with a dad who treats her mother with respect and kindness and, if he can, with tenderness and so much love has a hero walking beside her. 

8 Comments

Susan

Thank you so much. There is so much here that is helpful and that I will take on board. One thing particularly is making it about his behavior, not about him. I knew this, but I think I was forgetting. Also, your advice about being the person I want him to be. That’s so empowering 🙂 With my gratitude for your compassionate response.

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kim

This is a comment 4 years later! but just incase someone else, like me, is following these conversations:
I found my young daughter conditioned by the ugly dysfunction of our broken relationship when my husband and I seperated and I would coach her saying ‘ people who love each other (insert the required action) are kind, say sorry if they’ve been mean, think of nice things to say to each other’.
It reconditioned me too.

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Susan

Thank you for this article. I separated from the father of my child as soon as I was strong enough, because I didn’t want our child to see a bad relationship. I had grown up in one and knew how distressing it is for a sensitive child. Now I have had to explain to my child’s father many times how he needs to be respectful to me in front of our son. Because the father doesn’t believe I have the right to have feelings – I should just serve as a useful mother – I get that kind of vibe from my son too. It is difficult to negotiate a real and loving relationship with my son when faced with his father’s long-running anger at me (because I left him). Having said this, my son does express his love for me in quiet ways, and I know he loves me and feels that I love him unconditionally. Do you have any advice for teaching my teenager not to take a mother/woman for granted, but to (eventually) be appreciative and grateful, as well as respecting his own needs and boundaries?

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Hey Sigmund

One of the jobs of an adolescent is to separate from his parents. This can feel really awful and as though you’re being pushed away. Often, the closer the parent-child bond before adolescence, the more you might feel the push-away as your son tries to find where you end and where he begins. It’s important to know that this is really normal. The fact that your son shows his love to you in quiet ways is lovely, and important, but I understand that there is another issue here, and that’s your son watching his father and modelling off him in the way he treats you. The best way to teach him about boundaries and respect is through your own expectations of the way he treats you. Keep your boundaries strong between yourself and your son’s father, but try not to speak badly to your son about his father – not because his father doesn’t deserve it, but because you don’t want to give your son more reason to push against you. It’s about noticing and making note of the behaviour without judging it – let the your son make his own judgements about his dad’s behaviour when he’s ready. Try something like, ‘I understand your dad is angry at me and I’m sure he thinks he has his reasons, and if that’s how he feels that’s up to him, but I’m not okay with you speaking to me like that.’ Let your son know what you expect. You won’t necessarily be able to change him, but he will see that you have boundaries and that he gets more from you when he respects them than when he doesn’t. Stay as calm as you can and make it about his behaviour, not about him. Try not to change him – that will come. I’ve found that the more you try to actively influence a teen, the more they’ll push back against you, but if you can validate them (‘I understand why it’s important for you to do your own thing sometimes.’ or ‘It’s difficult for you sometimes when things are awkward/ angry/ between our dad and and I isn’t it. I understand that, but when your with me I need us to speak well to each other, because we deserve that. Okay?’ Being the person you want him to be is the best way to influence him. He wouldn’t want to disconnect with you, but being a teen is hard work and they’re being driven by a brain that’s changing and adapting to the world as an adult. It’s pretty normal for teens to pull away for a while. They come back but it might take time – and that’s okay. It’s just what they have to do. The more you can model the behaviour you want him to take on – setting your own boundaries calmly, lovingly redirecting him when he’s crossing them, having a strong idea of what is and isn’t okay with you – the more likely he is to steer himself in that direction. It takes time though – for all of them. I know it might feel as though he is taking on more from his father than from you – I really get that – but be a strong, loving, non-judgemental presence and let him see what that looks like. Here is a couple of articles that might help you:

. Proven Ways to Strengthen the Connection With Your Teen: https://www.heysigmund.com/proven-ways-to-strengthen-the-connection-with-your-teen/
. Parenting a Teen: https://www.heysigmund.com/parenting-adolescent-11-insights-will-make-difference/

I hope these help. Try to remember that if you feel distance between you and your son, it’s a really normal part of adolescence. He’s testing the world, himself and the people he loves to try to figure things out. You sound like such a wise, loving presence in his life. Keep doing that – your son might not admit to it yet (that’s not at all unusual!) but in time he will come to see how important you are and how lucky he is to have you.

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Hey Sigmund

I really understand how difficult it is to hold back on how you feel when you’ve been hurt like this. The important thing is to separate your relationship with your ex-husband and your daughter’s relationship with her father. If your daughter senses that she should feel sympathy towards you, even if you deserve it, it will put her in the difficult position of feeling as though she has to choose between you and her father, and that might end with her feeling less close to both of you. Whatever he was like as a husband, he’s the only father she has so she needs to be free to be as close to him as she needs to be without confusing it with how you feel about him. Let your relationship with her be completely independent of him and she will be free to see things as they are without feeling the need to protect him or justify her relationship with him. You’re absolutely right when you talk about modelling self respect for yourself. It sounds as though you’ve got that covered. As for modelling a healthy relationship, knowing what not to go for is also important, and you’ve shown your children that. What you’re doing is something so hard, but I know I don’t need to tell you that. You’re modelling a healthy self-respect and you’re being clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not. If you can give your children the freedom to choose what sort of relationship to have with their father, it will be good for them and great for your relationship with them. As hard as it is, remember that you’re ready to leave the relationship with him, but they’re not. You’ve shown a lot of strength and self respect – I really admire that – your children will notice that and they’ll be better and your relationship with them will be be better, and with everything you’ve been through, you deserve that.

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Lisa

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I always find your words comforting and inspiring.

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Lisa

What I’m finding the hardest is the knowledge that for too many years I allowed myself to be treated with love, affection and generosity and then alternatively with disrespect, drunken anger and condescension. Now that we are divorcing (later than we should have), my 20 year old daughter and her younger brothers have been witness for too long of a bad example of a marriage. I’m afraid they don’t really know what it means to respect and cherish someone, and that will mean that they will have difficulty in knowing how to respect and cherish a partner of their own. The difficulty I’m having is that my daughter has seen her father behave badly, including objectifying women, aggrandizing behavior, and alcohol abuse )and seen me act disdainfully, critically and withdrawn in response), and knows her father has been unfaithful to our marriage many times. But now that we are divorcing, she doesn’t seem to have much sympathy for how hard this is for me or how hurt I am. While I know she desperately needs to have a good relationship with her father, it is hurtful to me that she seems to be indifferent to how much he has hurt and humiliated me. How do I rise above this and be supportive of her relationship with him as well as to teach her what a healthy relationship should look like? I do feel that finally saying enough is enough is a good model of having healthy respect for yourself, and I hope to model a healthy relationship for her and her brothers in the future.

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Lee

Thanks for writing this article. I’m not divorced yet, but unfortunately we’re getting there and I feel very strongly about shielding our two girls from this pain as much as possible. As much as I am hurt and want to lash out, this article has reminded me of the importance not to do so. Thanks. I know it’s common sense, but common sense is regularly taking a back seat right now.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I really get the need to want to lash out when a relationship breaks down. For sure common sense can disappear for a while – everyone has their limits – but if you can hold back as much as you can, your girls will be so grateful to you one day.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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