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From Estrangement to Engagement: Helping fathers and daughters connect

By Cara Brendler

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 fathers and daughters further apart, encouraging mistrust and robbing them of opportunities to negotiate impasses.

Casey, an 18-year-old in her first year of college, is struggling with anorexia and cutting. She and her father are caught in a vicious cycle of control: he attempts to manage her by reminding her to take her antidepressant medication and criticizing her for bingeing. She responds by lashing out—either inwardly, by becoming silent and closing herself off, or outwardly, by screaming at him to leave her alone. Shaking his head disapprovingly, he makes sarcastic comments and storms off in frustration.

Casey’s mother, Elizabeth, uncomfortable with their interactions and frequently asked to intervene by Casey (“Mom, you explain it to him”), criticizes Bill’s awkward efforts to engage Casey: “You’re not listening to her.” Bill snaps back, “You’re always taking her side!” This escalating battle ends with Casey and Bill feeling estranged and Bill and Elizabeth more overtly at odds. Caught in the middle, Casey doesn’t learn to express herself directly with her father or to use her mother constructively as a resource in her relationship with him.

The following are the approaches that I’ve developed and used through the years that have proven to be effective in many situations like this.

Principle #1: Work with the Entire Family

A common pitfall for therapists is to work exclusively with the father–daughter dyad, leaving out the mother/partner and siblings. Isolating the father and daughter from the rest of the family risks creating a narrow focus on their relationship as the problem, rather than seeing it as embedded in the family structure. To counter the pull toward such fragmentation, therapists should work with the family as a whole and in different configurations, as needed, to disrupt old patterns and collaboratively create new, healthy interactions.

Principle #2: Set Up Direct Father–Daughter Interactions

Creating in-session enactments between fathers and daughters provides therapists opportunities to track patterns of thought and behavior that maintain their disengagement. In the vignette below, the therapist creates an enactment that illustrates the symptomatic triangle: Casey begins to talk with her father about a problem she has with him. He cuts her off. She gets exasperated and rolls her eyes in Elizabeth’s direction, recruiting her mother to rescue her. Elizabeth accepts the invitation and jumps in to mediate, creating more conflict between her and her husband. The therapist, to get a clear picture of the family dynamic, encourages the interaction to play out.

Therapist: How about you and your dad talking to each other about the argument you had last weekend?

Casey: I don’t really know what to say. You just do the same thing over and over.

(Bill looks away. Casey then lowers her head.)

Therapist: Bill, can you help Casey elaborate more concretely what she had difficulty with?

Bill: Fine. What did I do wrong?

Casey: (Looking to her mother) He’s making that face again!

Bill: (Exasperated) What face? Why can’t you just talk to me?

Casey: (Turning to therapist) You see? I can’t talk to him. This never happens with Mom.

Bill: (Looking at Elizabeth and then at therapist) So it’s all me? It’s all my fault?

Casey: Dad! No, that’s not what I’m saying. You always turn my words around.

Elizabeth: (Turning to therapist) May I say something?

Therapist: Sure, go ahead.

Elizabeth: (To her husband) You do the same thing to me. Let me just tell you what she’s trying to say.

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