Fathers and Daughters (page 4)
Dr. Linda Nielsen, Ed.D., a professor of psychology, has a heart for helping daughters to improve their relationships with their fathers. Not only has she written a book on the subject (Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted with Your Dad), she has developed and taught a popular Father-Daughter course at Wake Forest University for the last ten years. Both the book and the course provide practical tips, insights, and research to help daughters improve their relationships with their dads. In the following interview, Dr. Nielsen shares her thoughts on fatherdaughter relationships, her book, and her college course.
Q: Why does the kind of relationship a daughter has with her father matter?
A: The daughter who has a comfortable, communicative, supportive relationship with her father generally has these advantages over other daughters throughout her lifetime: (1) She has more self confidence and isn’t as easily pressured into doing things she doesn’t want to do sexually in order to please boys or to boost her self worth. (2) She’s able to assert her beliefs comfortably and is more satisfied with her appearance (less critical of herself ). (3) She has the skills and attitudes that help her create healthy, loving relationships with men – trust, communication skills, assertiveness, self-confidence [and is] not as overly dependent (needy, clingy) on males for feelings of self worth. (4) [She is] more willing to attempt challenging tasks which, in turn, usually result in better jobs, higher incomes, and financial self reliance. (5) [She is] less likely to develop eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, or to abuse drugs and alcohol.
Q: How can a daughter create a more meaningful relationship with her father?
A: Don’t be sexist or discriminate against your dad because he’s a man. Give dad the same chance you give mom to get to know you and to get to know him. Don’t shut him out “because he’s a man” or “because fathers and daughters aren’t supposed to know each other well or spend time alone together.” Spend time alone with dad and ask more personal, meaningful questions when you’re alone with each other, like “Dad, what were some of the happiest times in your life?” Communicate directly with him. Stop going through other people [i.e., mom, or others] to communicate with him. Understand the difference between asking your dad for advice and asking him for approval. Then tell your father at the outset which of the two you want and stop interpreting his advice as criticism.
Q: How can mothers and stepmothers strengthen father-daughter relationships?
A: Step back, step back, step back. Give father and daughter lots of time alone with one another without acting hurt, jealous, or competitive. Don’t keep pointing out how he could do things “better” with his daughter. Don’t keep secrets with the daughter behind her father’s back. Build a strong marriage so the daughter doesn’t have to offer any of the adults the emotional support or intimacy they ought to be getting from a spouse.
Q: What is it about the father-daughter relationship that intrigues you and led you to create a course on the topic?
A: As an adolescent psychologist, I had studied the research on family relationships for 20 years. Then my father died when I was 40. Even though we loved one another and had resolved our earlier conflicts, I realized that we still had trouble communicating, didn’t know each other nearly as well as my mother and I did, and didn’t feel as relaxed around each other when we were by ourselves. Studying the father-daughter research, I found that most daughters had the same kind of relationship I had had with my father – loving, but not as comfortable, communicative or personal as the mother-daughter relationship. That saddened and bothered me. Second, I married a man with a teenage daughter and watched him struggle to be treated like an equal parent. As a result, I became fascinated with (and disheartened by) the research on divorced fathers and daughters. Third, as a psychologist and author, I was troubled because not one book had ever been written just for daughters on how to improve their relationships with their fathers. This is still true with the exception of my book. Yet there are countless books for daughters about improving their relationships with their mothers and for sons to improve relationships with their dads.
Q: How many students have completed the course?
A: About 300. I limit the enrollment to 16 students andI teach the course twice a year. In eleven years the course has filled to capacity every semester except one and has always had a waiting list of at least a dozen students who couldn’t get in. The course is NOT required for any minor or major. It is completely elective. Students choose it freely. I believe it’s so popular because daughters nationwide are eager to find ways to strengthen their relationships with their fathers and because the college curriculum nationwide provides so much less information about fathers and daughters than about mothers and daughters.
Q: In light of the number of family studies courses and majors that are available in colleges across the country, do you have any thoughts on why your father-daughter course is the only course of its kind available today (as far as you know)?
A: In the same way that TV programs, commercials, children’s books, movies, magazine articles reflect society’s negative beliefs about fathers, college courses reflect the societal myth/belief that father-son relationships are more important than fatherdaughter relationships. Not surprisingly then, nationwide many universities offer courses that focus exclusively on mother-daughter relationships (not just in psychology but in English Departments, Women’s Studies, Sociology). The same is true in college textbooks: more attention is paid to mother-daughter, mother-son, and father-son relationships than to fatherdaughter relationships.
Q: Do you have any memorable “classroom moments” that you would like to share?
A: Instead of thinking in terms of memorable moments in class, I’d rather choose some of the comments from daughters that have overwhelmed and pleased me the most: “It has been so moving to hear my father say that the most loving gift I have ever given him is deciding that I want to get to know him.” “When given the assignment to sit down and talk with my father about his life, I was shocked and terrified. I mean sure, I talk to him about sports, my car, school, money. But to actually talk about feelings? I couldn’t imagine it. But when I started asking him about his childhood, he was fighting to hold back tears. I actually reached over to him and said it was okay to talk to me about his father. It was a first - me reaching out to comfort my dad.” “ When I started this course, it had been 5 years since I’d seen my dad. I never thought I would get any response if I tried to contact him. Dr. Nielsen basically had to force me to contact him. He said my contacting him was the best gift I had ever given him. I always had this vision of him as some opinionated, overbearing, stubborn tyrant who would never apologize to me for anything. But he has. I’m constantly amazed at his willingness to be with me.”
To see all of the National Fatherhood Initiative's quarterly newsletters, go to https://www.fatherhood.org/ftnewsletter.asp.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
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