In Consultation

In Consultation

From Estrangement to Engagement

By Cara Brendler

November/December 2011

Q: I often see fathers and their daughters alternate between screaming matches and silent standoffs. How can I help them communicate through their respective developmental transitions?

A: Bridging the gap between fathers and daughters is one of the great challenges for family therapists. The most familiar dynamic we see is estrangement: fathers and daughters orbiting in separate worlds, each invisible to the other. Even “close” fathers and daughters—in enmeshed relationships—can feel this estrangement, rooted in the fear that being authentic will result in disapproval.

Our culture reinforces this estrangement by encouraging fathers to be all-knowing, strong, and in charge. This can make matters worse for fathers who are uncomfortable with emotions, and even more so when it comes to their daughters’ transition into womanhood. Daughters grapple with a mixed message: be strong, independent, and confident, but don’t lose your femininity. This can limit a daughter’s sense of freedom to assert herself with her father, especially when there’s conflict or disagreement. Fathers and daughters still entertain a familiar vision of daughters as “Daddy’s Little Girl,” reinforcing a father’s need to protect and a daughter’s need to be protected.

This estrangement dynamic often intensifies when mothers, partners, siblings—and even therapists—intervene with suggestions, criticism, or prescriptions. While intended to help, these efforts can drive…

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