by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.
What topics do teenagers want to talk about with their dads?
A few years back, we asked that question to a group of teenage daughters at one of our father-daughter events. (I try to never miss an opportunity to capture a few more insights and research points to benefit other dads.) We asked them to complete this statement:
“I wish I could talk to my dad about ____________.”
Their responses revealed the challenging and complex world of today’s young women. I have divided the answers into five categories, as you’ll see below. And keep in mind that although we surveyed daughters for these insights, your son will surely have similar questions, although those conversations with him likely require a different approach.
1. They wish they could talk to their dads about boys.
The young women filled in the blank with statements like: “Relationships with the opposite sex,” “Boys … because my dad is one,” “My physical relationship with other guys,” “Dating,” and “The sexual state of men.” This is heavy stuff, and yes, our daughters need to hear from us on these matters. We were that age at one time, and we can share about what young men are likely thinking and feeling in certain situations. We have probably also been around guys (or maybe we were those guys at that age) who don’t have a girl’s best interests in mind. Talk about all that.
2. They want guidance from their dads.
They are concerned about things like where they’ll go to college, their future, whom they will marry, and leaving home someday. And they want guidance from the most important man in their lives. We dads have been around a while. We’ve made big decisions and lived with the benefits and consequences of those decisions. In many ways, we can see the bigger picture through all the ups and downs of life; we know that good and bad things happen, and that having strong character allows us to celebrate or recover from the latest good or bad experience and move forward.
3. Personal issues.
These daughters had big, tough issues to talk through, like a pregnancy, a drinking or drug habit, or other huge challenges. These are the kinds of issues that young people usually won’t share with their dads because they fear that he’ll explode in anger or show some other obvious sign of disappointment. Each situation will be complex and unique in some ways, so there’s no easy advice about how a dad should handle it. But one thing is clear: when a child is vulnerable and hurting, maybe more than anything she needs to know she is loved and accepted. So get used to the idea that something unexpected will likely happen, and be ready for it. Make sure your first words are something like: “It’s going to be okay.” “I love you and I’m on your side, and nothing is going to change that.”
4. They want to talk about God.
Most teens and young adults are asking big questions during that stage of life, and they want to hear their dad’s take on what religion and faith are all about, and what it means to pursue that kind of life. Maybe your family has been active in a church for your kids’ entire lives; they still need to hear your personal stories and experiences that have made faith real for you. And if faith isn’t a big part of your life or you don’t believe in God yourself, your kids are still likely asking questions about spiritual matters. Have those conversations.
5. They wish they could talk about your relationship.
One girl wrote, “I want to get to know him better.” So this could simply be about spending more time together and sharing more. But in many situations there’s been ongoing conflict between you two, possibly some anger and miscommunication, so it may be time to take the first courageous step toward something better. This will likely mean being open to hear about ways you’ve hurt or disrespected your daughter or son. In such a conversation, be ready to humbly accept responsibility for your side of the problems and offer a sincere apology. Even if you take issue with the details or disagree about the conclusion your child has drawn, it’s vital to validate her feelings if you want to make amends and move on to something positive.
Dad, maybe it’s time to just ask your son or daughter: What do you wish we could talk about?
Then clear some time, get away, and catch up with your child. Be ready to listen more than you talk, and try to be open and vulnerable yourself.
Now, I hope what’s above is helpful for you, but I admit that these suggestions from a group of daughters at one event really only scratch the surface. Fortunately, at NCF we have a real expert on these matters—my wife, Dr. Michelle Watson Canfield. She has spent years working with young women and studying father-daughter relationships, and has written extensively about it, including her book, Let’s Talk: Conversation Starters for Dads and Daughters. Here’s more on this from her.
Have you had these kinds of conversations with your kids? Which of the five topics have you explored together? Leave a message and gain insights from other dads on our Facebook page.
Action Points & Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Think about each of your kids for a minute and imagine how each of them would fill in the blank: “I wish I could talk to my dad about ____________.”
- Start planning regular outings with your child, one-on-one, whether it’s every week or a few times a month. Get used to talking about life together—even if it starts out very mundane. You’re setting the stage for deeper conversations down the road.
- Practice saying these words out loud, in preparation for the next time you need to say it to your child: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?”
- Looking ahead, what kinds of topics will you need to address with each of your kids in the next 6-12 months—based on their growing maturity, starting a new grade or a new school, or some other development or milestone?