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Dad and daughter have a fraught relationship. What can Mom do?

Meghan Leahy

Washington Post – Q: I’m concerned about my husband’s relationship with our 18-year-old daughter. She is about to graduate from high school and will leave for college a few months later.

She is a smart, dedicated and talented young woman, but she suffers from depression, which she has treated for years with medication and therapy.

My husband loves her very much, but he hates that she tends to stay up all night and sleep during the day. We are an upper-middle-class family, and she has many privileges.

She tells me she does not like her father as a person, because he doesn’t respect her.

She is openly disdainful toward him, and it pains him that they don’t have a better relationship, but he also complains that she doesn’t act like an adult. I worry that, after she leaves for college, we won’t see much of her in the future. She can’t wait to move out.

How can I try to improve the family dynamic?

A: You are in a transition phase with your “adult” daughter. I put that in quotes, because we know the law says she’s an adult, but we know that is not the case for many 18-year-olds.

She is on the brink of leaving for college, has many privileges, and it sounds as if she doesn’t have many responsibilities (based on her sleeping all day).

I am not slamming you; we are still pivoting because of the pandemic, and she has been depressed. In any case, she is about to leave your home, and you have to get serious about what is your work and what is not. As the parent who is between your husband and your daughter, you are probably not going to fix your family dynamic in a couple of months.

The only thing you have control over is your relationship with your daughter. Keep that as your North Star. The pain that exists between them is theirs, and if you apply urgency to this, you will probably make it worse. As an adult, your husband is responsible for his emotions and actions, so please place some boundaries around your energy. Are you unknowingly abetting his complaining? Are you playing the intermediary? Are you holding all of their angst, trying to make it OK?

Stop. Their struggle has been years in the making, and you will not undo it now.

What can you do? Go ahead and grieve that their relationship is not what you would like it to be. You are allowed to feel frustrated, annoyed, let down, disgusted, disappointed and sad.

You also can dedicate yourself to making sure you will see your daughter after she leaves for college. If she doesn’t want to come home a lot, let her know that you can go to her. Tell her that you understand why she may stay away and that she is always welcome home.

If she complains about your husband, listen. Remember: You cannot fix their relationship, but underneath her anger is probably deep hurt, so keep those emotions moving.

As for your spouse, he is allowed to feel all of his feelings, too. He can feel disappointed that his daughter isn’t more active during the day and hurt about her disdain.

Repeat, in no uncertain terms, that if he chooses to stay disappointed, hurt and worried, he will ruin what little relationship he has with his daughter, and you will not play a part in it.

Keep saying: “It’s not too late for you to connect with our daughter and begin to heal this relationship. I will support you in doing that, but I will not listen to the complaints.”

Don’t lecture him or beg him to be different; just stay on message. If he would like to speak with a therapist or would even go to a marriage counselor, happily go with him. Otherwise, get busy with playing an active part in your daughter’s life.

I don’t know why your husband cannot seem to move forward, but it is not your daughter’s job to make him feel better about her or to gain his trust. The essence of the parent-child relationship is that the parent maintains maturity and is responsible for their own emotions and behaviours, and, when the communication is strong, compromise can be reached with their young adult. If your daughter feels disrespected and disliked, there is no traction there.

He wants her to “act like an adult”, but it sounds as if he treats her like a child.

If you need to, please see your own therapist or coach, so you can clarify your path forward with your daughter. No matter what, show up for her. Good luck.

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