My teenage daughter has gone to war with her dad. Can I help? | Dear Mariella | Life and style

The dilemma My 18-year-old daughter used to have a good relationship with her dad, but over the past few months has grown antagonistic towards him. She frequently tells him to go away, or asks him what his problem is. When he asks her to do something, she refuses. It’s so sad to see her act this way. I said I hoped their relationship would improve and her reply was: “He needs to be nice to me!” Previously he’s been more likely to criticise than build up, however, now he’s trying to be genuinely interested in her life. It’s usually met with indifference or scorn by her. He gets angry quickly when he asks her to do something and she doesn’t do it (he expects blind obedience, despite me trying to encourage a more negotiated approach), and it normally ends in a shouting match. I have tried to encourage him to step away, but he likes to have the last word. I used to try to referee, but now I can’t bear to hear them like that, so I just leave the room. I would so love to see them get on, but don’t know how to help them.

Mariella replies Breaking up is hard to do! You are witness to a seismic event, as the tectonic plates shaping the childhood relationship between father and daughter begin moving and reordering themselves. It’s a cliché for good reason that almost every daughter has to overcome her early love affair with her dad in order to move on to her own romantic relationships. That’s why those like me, who lost fathers prematurely, spend a large part of their lives trying to replace them, before realising that their doppelgängers weren’t necessarily the ideal either.

At 18 your girl is a bit of a late starter, but it sounds to me like she’s flexing her muscles and practising her power, which is all as it should be. As the years march forward, parents and children all have to learn to develop new lines of communication with each other. From the moment a baby is born there’s a steady migration from the expectation of blind obedience, and your husband’s attempts to maintain patriarchal power will become increasingly outmoded as his little girl metamorphoses into a grown woman. It’s important for him to understand that if he doesn’t now develop a healthy dynamic with her based on mutual interests and understanding, it will be too late and the discord will define their interaction throughout their lives.

Now’s his chance to find friendship with her. In order to do that he’ll probably need to bite his lip and allow her the room to reduce his influence over her. I can understand how hard it must be to find yourself refereeing from the sidelines, but you too probably need to update your position and reinvent your parental role. It’s not your job to act as a buffer zone between your husband and your child and, no matter how dysfunctional their interactions, they need to work it out themselves. There’s a need for your advice, but I suspect it’s squandered when you climb into the ring. You need to try to make your interjections at a time when each of them is listening, but that’s rarely in the heat of the moment and should usually happen separately.

Dads sometimes get a bad press, overshadowed by a mother’s indisputable pole position during infancy, so it’s important to remember what a central role they have in their children’s lives. No matter what gender choices children will later make, it’s through their fathers that they learn about masculinity and it’s a lesson that will shape their future choices in so many ways. Despite the sloganeering from second-wave feminists, whose desperation to achieve equal rights in the face of societal intransigence made dispensing with men altogether seem the only option, both sexes have an imperative and unique role to play in children’s lives.

Nowadays, with separation and divorce no longer the rarity they once were, it’s increasingly important that we find harmonious ways to keep both parents involved in child-rearing. Your daughter’s future relationships and her behaviour within them will be influenced immensely by her father, as well as the dynamic she’s observed between her parents. The better man he can be, the better man she’ll be attracted to. It’s a huge responsibility, but also quite flattering to occupy such a pivotal position in an emerging adult life. It’s certainly worth reminding your husband that he is her male role model and with that trusted role comes a heavy burden to behave appropriately. It’s impossible for her to move on with her life unless she manages to sever the ties with her dad, but how they reshape their relationship now will set the tempo for many decades to come.

Your husband certainly sounds like he’s behaving like an abandoned bear that needs its fur stroking. It’s hard for you to simply be an observer of such cataclysmic change, but aside from gently pointing out how natural this current state of discord is, there’s little you can do aside from gently advising during periods of peace. It’s also worth reminding them both that keeping the gloves on and using your head in any power-play is far more effective than simply throwing indiscriminate punches when emotions are at their height.

If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1



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