by Dr. Michelle Watson Canfield
I can easily say that the most common question I am asked by fathers of daughters (in person and via my website) is:
How do I make things right with my daughter? Because things between us aren’t so good.
The exact words that some have used are as follows:
- “I want to be closer to my daughter. If you have anything for rebuilding our relationship, I’d love that.”
- “I need help with my estranged daughter. Why is it hard for her to want me in her life? I ache in my heart and feel a part of my life is missing. I need some wisdom.”
- “How do I get access to my daughter’s heart if I’m being cut out?”
I acknowledge that I often have minimal knowledge of the entirety of the situation when responding. Yet I also want to give dads practical and proactive strategies they can put into action to invest in changing the dance for the better with their girls.
This leads me to a real-life story, one that I had the privilege of being a part of not long ago. Leanne is a 35-year-old daughter, married, and the mother of two. She contacted me to ask if I could help navigate her relationship with her father after years of feeling the strain between them. Both were willing to peel back the layers while knowing they needed a guide through the process.
The dad, Scott, told his daughter that if this would help her heal, then he was committed to joining her even though he saw the task ahead as somewhat daunting and perhaps unnecessary. Courageously, both opened up about the ways that Scott’s often gruff and dismissive parenting style when raising his tender-hearted daughter not only hurt her then, but still has her oftentimes believing that she is “stupid and dumb,” with an overall feeling of being unworthy.
Through this process, Scott gave his daughter one of the best gifts she’s ever received from him. Without being defensive, he listened. For seven weeks in a row, he listened. Far past the point where he normally would have walked away.
All out of love for his daughter.
We finally reached the place where Scott, though hesitantly, was willing to accept an assignment to write Leanne a letter. Not knowing exactly what to write (especially since his daughter is an accomplished writer, which in his mind served to highlight his inadequacy), he used a template to guide the process.
This dad followed directions, put pen to paper (actually fingers to keyboard), and gave it his all. To say he did it right is an understatement!
Scott told his daughter how he sees her embodying the meaning of her name while telling her specific ways he is proud of her, even including unique qualities he admires about her. And he made amends. He said he was sorry for not being gentle and patient with her when she was a little girl.
Now you may be wondering: What good does it do to dredge up the past, especially when bygones are bygones? You may be thinking that it’s cruel for an adult daughter to drag her dad into a counselor’s office just so he can hear her tell him how he blew it when she was little when he was doing the best he could at the time.
You can decide for yourself whether you still hold to that position after hearing what Leanne later wrote to her dad in response to their life-changing session:
There was a moment when you stopped reading for a second and you glanced at me with wet eyes and tears streaming down your cheeks—I don’t even remember what part of the letter it was—that I have permanently engrained in my memory. It’s the strongest you’ve ever looked to me. I find it fascinating, and I think you might think it absurd, that my certainty of your strength was birthed from a moment where you were completely broken down. Even the little six-year-old in me is so proud. “My daddy is so strong!” Dad, you are one of the bravest men I know.
Even as an adult woman, Leanne longed to hear what her daddy thought about her!
She soaked in his words—about being proud of her and why, and about truly understanding the ways he had hurt her.
And Leanne needed to hear him read the letter out loud to her. She needed to hear his heartfelt emotion as he expressed himself. In fact, every year I hear dads in The Abba Project tell the group that reading their letters to their daughters is one of the hardest yet best things they’ve ever done. Why? Because their daughters are able to see their emotion coupled with their words and it bonds each dad and daughter together.
Scott agrees. Something broke free in him by doing this, leading him to say: “I don’t expect myself to be perfect anymore. I’m actually more real now.”
It was in this process of opening up the conversation that both of their hearts moved towards healing. When her father asked forgiveness, his daughter responded with love and grace. Each of them felt more understood as they did this piece of work together. Leanne further explained:
It’s like taking two magnets and flipping them around so instead of connecting tightly, they push against each other in opposition, making it impossible for connection to happen. This letter, both the letter itself and my dad’s emotions in reading it, was the first time our magnets faced the right way for connection to happen.
In reflecting back on this experience, I asked Leanne to share a few highlights that stood out to her from the journey:
The problem is the wounds from hurt don’t get healed if we ignore them; I learned that not only was I wounded by the past, so was my dad. His sobs and streaming tears were physical manifestations of how deep his own wounds are. This means we have pain in common and in a weird way I feel closer to him now that I know.
So to sum up, I want to tell dads everywhere to write and read your daughter a letter because it:
- shows she’s worth pursuing
- lets her know how you feel about her as a person
- allows her to see herself through your eyes, which is far more valuable and loving than how the world will communicate her worth.
My hope in sharing their story with you is that Leanne and Scott will serve as a real-life example demonstrating that it’s never too late for a dad to make amends with his daughter. When a dad comes without defensiveness and is open and willing to hear her heart hurts, he gives her—and himself—the gift of freedom, release, and healing.
Thank you, Leanne and Scott. I believe I speak for us all when I say how extremely grateful we are for the gift you have given us by your courage to share your story.
I trust that every dad in America will take their story to heart and take steps today to make amends with his daughter (and son). Don’t put it off another day.
She’s worth the hard work. And so are you.
More from Michelle: Questions to Help You Make Amends with Your Daughter
And in case you’d like to hear more of Leanne’s insights, they are included as bonus content below.
- All his words meant so much to me that I couldn’t help but cry. I had no idea how he felt; I’ve been running on assumptions all these years, the wrong assumptions, based on few words and past experiences. He’s a new person but I’d never seen or heard the new dad until this letter.
- I literally feel like I heard words I’ve been waiting 30 years to hear. My dad has told me many times he’s proud of me, but he’s never told me why or how he’s proud of me. I’ve never heard how he felt when I was born, that he was scared and felt like he had a skewed knowledge of parenting. I heard him articulate how he sees me as a person and how he feels about me.
- I felt so much more affirmed and adored and valued than I ever have in my life by my dad. It makes a difference. He loves me and values me, which changes the way I see myself.
- There’d even been some tears shed in the past when he’s apologized for the way he treated my brother and me, but this time was different because his full emotions came out attached with more words—there were buckets of affirming words for me. This time it was more than, “I’m sorry. I was a terrible father.” It was “I’m sorry, I feel horrid for what I did to you. You are all these things and I value you and I want to love you differently and better. Please forgive me.”
- The longer we keep things locked up tight, the harder they spill out when the lid is pried off. But then everything is emotionally cleansed and you can breathe again, realizing for the first time how suffocating all that pain had been. I’ve been there, and now I could feel my dad experiencing the same thing. That felt special to me.
- Being vulnerable with each other is really foreign—I think Dad is uncomfortable with his own feelings, especially tearful feelings, and I simultaneously don’t want to make him uncomfortable with my own feelings yet also want to protect myself from rejection if Dad thinks my feelings are unreasonable or stupid.
- My relationship with my dad, past and future, impacts so many other areas of my life—confidence, parenting, my eating disorder recovery, sense of worth. I don’t know the psychology behind why my dad’s connection with me matters in those things—matters in helping trust who I am—but it does. I still need my dad at 35, and I suspect at 45 and 50 and so on because there’s still an inner-‐child who needs the nurturing and love. I don’t know how to articulate the connection, but I know God sees me as this child and interacts with me as such, so there’s a reason why my earthly dad plays such an imperative role.
Read more of Michelle’s articles here.
Dr. Michelle Watson Canfield is a licensed professional counselor in Portland, Oregon, founder of The Abba Project, a 9-month group forum for dads of daughters (ages 13 to 30), and author of Let’s Talk: Conversation Starters for Dads and Daughters and Dad, Here’s What I Really Need from You: A Guide for Connecting with Your Daughter’s Heart (both available on Amazon and Audible). She also hosts a weekly radio program in Portland called “The Dad Whisperer,” which you can access as a podcast on her website and on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play Music. Visit drmichellewatson.com for more information and to sign up for her weekly Dad-Daughter Friday blogs. You can also follow or send feedback on Facebook and Twitter.