A recurring story I hear is from dads who are estranged from their daughters telling me they are lost on what to do next. Their hearts are breaking and they don’t know where to turn. I write from a father-daughter perspective on my blog, but the three ways to not burn a relational bridge will work with your son too.
Serving to illustrate the pain inside a father’s heart, one dad wrote:
Why is it hard for my daughter to want me in her life? I ache in my heart and feel a part of my life is missing. My sister and daughter are very close and she says I need to release her to God’s providence. I can’t imagine my life without her. I need some wisdom. Thank you.
I often feel that any response I give will either be a disservice to the complexity of the situation or might negate the backstory of his daughter’s decision to write her dad out of her life story. Yet in each response, I seek to put my heart on paper while encouraging him to never give up on his girl. I continually share my hope that he will keep pursuing her heart – going after what he knows matters to her – while also honoring her requested need for space.
One of my close friends has been going through this kind of agonizing distance with his daughter. For almost 3 years now he has had very little contact with her. I’ve asked him to share more about the real underside of this kind of heartache from a dad’s perspective…my exchange with him went like this…
Michelle: Have you understood her reasons for distancing from you, or is that a puzzle?
Dad: Yes kind of. She has a lot of anxiety and I cause her to be nervous. I was the “justice” parent and she hates to displease me. Her perception is that she displeased me a lot as a child – that was not my perception. She was the apple of my eye. When she was 12 she began distancing herself from me. I thought it was normal teen angst – but I realize now that it was much deeper than that.
Michelle: What has been the hardest part of her being gone?
Dad: I miss her terribly. It’s very frustrating not knowing what’s going on in her life and I want to help her but I can’t because I don’t know what’s happening.
Michelle: Is there anything you can share about what your thought process has been like in understanding/coming to terms with/being honest about the role you’ve played in her leaving home and not wanting contact with you?
Dad: I didn’t realize how sensitive she was to even the slightest negative comment. I’m not a screamer – and I’m much more encouraging than my dad was to me. So I figured I was doing okay. I tried to say three times as many encouraging things as corrective things. But still, her anxiety has made it really hard for her to hear anything but condemnation.
Michelle: What would you tell other dads whose hearts are breaking as a result of their daughter closing the door and rejecting them? How do you really deal with it when you literally are helpless to reach her, change her mind or draw her back?
Dad: You have to get to the point where it’s not about you. At first, I used to think, “That little brat. She’s so ungrateful.” I thought about retaliating – to teach her a lesson. “If things get really bad for her then she’ll finally appreciate me.” This is the stupid dialogue that went on in my head. But over time my anger cooled and I began to see the bigger picture: It doesn’t matter who’s right. What matters is the restoration of the relationship. So I gave up my right to be right and waited patiently for her to communicate with me. That started again a couple of months ago.
What powerful and healing words: “It doesn’t matter who’s right. What matters is the restoration of the relationship.” This dad came to terms with the fact that his daughter’s heart mattered more than his own hurt. Taking a humble, strong stance like this must start with you, Dad.
I’ve spoken with many dads who admit they’ve had a significant role in destroying the bridge between themselves and their daughters. I want you to hear that I’m not standing in judgment of you for the past, but I am challenging you to take the initiative and make amends today.
If you’ve read my blogs or my books, you’ll recall me saying that men would rather do nothing than do it wrong. This applies to making amends too. Perhaps you’ve held off crossing the bridge to her heart because you think too much time has passed or she’ll never talk to you again. This is where you’ll have to be wise moving forward. Start with a letter if she’s not okay with seeing you or doesn’t feel safe with you, or perhaps a text – without expecting a response – as long as you are honoring her boundaries.
3 Ways to Not Burn a Relational Bridge with Your Child
Another key piece of the rebuilding process is to lay your weapons down. You can’t approach her with defensiveness or in “attack mode” if you want to repair the bridge. If you care more about her hurt and her heart than you do about being right, then you can try these three steps:
1. Ask questions with a sincere desire to know the answer.
“I know I hurt you with my words yesterday. When you came to me I didn’t listen well. You were right about that piece. I want to listen now. Can you please tell me again what you want?”
2. Ask forgiveness for specifics, not generalities.
“Last night I was tired after work and took it out on you. I saw the look of hurt in your eyes when I got angry, yet I chose not to meet you in the way you needed me to. Will you please forgive me?”
3. Never mix amends with criticism (subtle or direct).
(This is an example of what NOT to say) “I know I was harsh, but so were you. If you want to tell me now what you were saying last night, I will try to listen. But you need to meet me halfway and not be as emotional this time around.”
The key here is to picture her heart in yours and proceed with caution because the severity of offenses varies, but the presence of any demands on your part will backfire indefinitely in reaching out to her in love.
To close, here is some of my response to the hurting father at the start of this blog:
One idea for you during this time of estrangement from your daughter is to buy a journal and write letters to her in it. You may or may not ever give it to her, but either way, it can be a place to express the desires of your heart to her—wishes, dreams, ideas, prayers, truths of who she is as you see her and God sees her, verses you pray for her, and random or silly things that you wish you could say to her. This book will serve as a time capsule of sorts should you choose to give her the journal sometime down the road.
Whether you’re a dad who needs to rebuild the bridge to his daughter’s heart or you’re building the bridge in a proactive way right now and things are good between the two of you, I’d suggest doing this journal idea. I cannot imagine a daughter who wouldn’t treasure a gift like this from her father. You could write in it once a week for a year and then present it to her on her next birthday or on Father’s Day as a surprise to switch it up and let her know how much you love being her dad.
No matter the method, no matter the cost, I trust you’ll choose today to invest your time and energy to become an expert bridge-builder to your daughter’s heart.
A version of this post originally appeared at Dr. Michelle Watson-Canfield’s Blog.