“She doesn’t laugh at my jokes anymore. I am no longer funny to her and I don’t what to do. I don’t know how to connect with her.”
This is something I hear from a lot from dads and they are genuinely confused.
“One day I was funny and anything I would say could bring up some giggles. Then literally the next day my humor was met with flat silence and rolling eyes. What happened? What did I do?”
Since she was a little girl, funny noises, faces and voices coming from dad could switch tears and pouty expressions to giggles – with reliability and relief for all. Goofy dad always knew what to do when he wanted a smile from his girl. In this way he felt he could connect with her easily and that was satisfying to both dad and daughter. Whether they would ride bikes, bake a cake or sit and read a book together, dad-inspired giggles was the way they connected. This kind of intimate and heartfelt connection may have been a foundation to their relationship, one that they could count on.
Then one day, dad quickly shifted from the goofy category to “super embarrassing.” Girls often share with me how embarrassing their dads can be when they are trying to be funny. “He just doesn’t get that those things aren’t funny anymore and I am worried he will do that stuff in front of my friends and embarrass me.” When dad hears that, he is hurt and can even take it personally.
What is happening?
It can be one of the hardest things for dads to accept…your daughter is changing. As she should. Dads know logically that she is meant to grow up, but when changes show up in a way that can feel like rejection, it can mean losing an intimate way he relates to his daughter. Dads tell me how lost they suddenly feel. “I feel like she has cut me off and it breaks my heart.”
As girls enter puberty and begin the adolescent years, the amount of change they experience physically, emotionally, mentally and socially can shift and challenge the foundations of all their relationships. But the one I see most challenged is the father and daughter relationship. Suddenly unable to relate to his daughter, fathers tend to withdraw and disappear. Mothers tend to have the opposite reaction as they feel their daughters starting to pull away – they tend to intensify and push themselves upon their daughters which present its own challenges. As preteen and teen girls change, their parents need to make adjustments in their patterns of relating with their daughters. Especially dads.
What can dads do?
1. Don’t take it personally.
This transition time is really about your daughter, not you. She still loves you but needs you to change the way you are relating to her. It is an incredibly rare girl that can say “Dad, the way you use humor to connect with me isn’t working anymore. Could you try something else?” She also doesn’t want to hurt your feelings because clearly, you think you are pretty funny. Let it go. Developmentally, it is her way of asking you to change the way you are relating to her, not for you to go away.
2. Shift the way you interact and relate to her.
Find new ways to get know your daughter. One girl asked me once, “How do I let my dad know that I don’t only want to take long bike rides to be able to hang out with him? I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Clearly this girl wants to find another way to be with her dad. It isn’t her responsibility to do this as she is still the child. Get creative and come up with a fun list of things to do together, things both of you can enjoy and be sure to update it regularly. Maybe only do the bike ride every once and a while and offer to do Pizza Night Fridays where you make pizza together. And while you are cooking, listen to the music she wants to listen to.
3. Notice what she is interested in and make room for it in your relationship.
How well do you really know her as she is changing? Respectfully observe her with you when you aren’t joking around. In his book, Dads & Daughters, author and dad, Joe Kelly has a useful checklist for dads to consider as they get to know and relate to their growing daughters. Below is an example of a few things he asks dads to consider as being true often, sometimes and hardly ever:
- I can name her current three best friends
- I know what school project she is working on
- I know what can make her laugh
- I know what my daughter is concerned about today
- I can list three things my daughter loves to do
Become an active student of your daughter’s interests, challenges and ponderings. Without judgment, talk with the other adults who know her to learn about what they notice about her.
4. Be quiet and make room for her in your life.
Welcome awkward silences – they might give way to her saying something to you. Hanging out in silence without you filling space with your talking shows her there is room for her. No agenda needed. Be patient, this can take some time. When it does happen, be curious, “Tell me more about your friend Lucy, I don’t know her very well.” Then here is the next biggest challenge…be quiet again and let her talk. When she feels shared-out say something like, “Cool, thanks.” That is it. Let her lead the way in your conversation topics, lengths and timing as much as you can. Short, frequent chats work better for preteen girls. Noticing when she is done chatting is a huge challenge for parents. Keep these get-to-know-you chats light and bright. And, be available by doing nothing sometimes. One of the biggest complaints I get from girls is “My parents are so busy, I don’t want to bother them.” Ouch.
5. Trust that she loves you and wants to connect with you.
It just may be that your relating methods needs some updating. Consider it your job to know her and to keep getting to know her as she is changing. She will notice your new interest and likely respond positively over time. Be patient. As her parent, you need to lead the way to consistently find new ways for the two of you to have that heartfelt connection you are longing for. She wants it and is looking to you to create it. When she is an adult she will be able to access those memories like Pizza Night Fridays as some of the sweetest most fun times with you. She might even say how funny you were when you dropped the pizza dough on the floor in an attempt to fling it in the air to impress her.