Dear Mr. Dad: I have 11-year old twin daughters and watching them blossom into young women is making me a tad uncomfortable. They’re always pulling away from me, and I never know if a hug or kiss will feel misplaced to them. Worse yet, suddenly the only parent they talk to anymore is mom—it’s as if I’m no longer needed or important in their lives. How am I supposed to handle all this?
A: Welcome to the ‘tween years. And if you think you’re confused, imagine how your daughters are feeling. Their bodies are changing in all sorts of ways and they’re probably plenty uncomfortable in their own skin. They’re too big to sit on your lap, too old to hold your hand, and they’ve gone from being Daddy’s little girls to wondering what their role is in your life and worried about whether everything that’s going on with them will affect their relationship with you. Oh, and to complicate things even more, your daughters are also just now discovering their sexuality (whether you want to hear about it or not).
So what’s a father to do?
- Two words: stay involved. You’re the most important male in their life, and your daughters are looking to you to show them how the world works. Your behavior around them and your reactions to their “blossoming” will shape how they see themselves now, and will set the stage for their future relationships with men.
- Understand what they’re thinking. One reason they’re pulling away is that they’re secretly hoping you won’t notice their bra-straps or say something that might embarrass them (even if it’s unintentional). And they’re trying to convince themselves—in a way that seems irrational to you but makes perfect sense to them—that if they don’t talk with you about the hair under their arms, menstrual cycles, and boys, those things will simply become non-issues.
- Don’t stop. Just because they’re growing up doesn’t mean that you can’t be affectionate with them. Ideally, you’ll still be able to hug and kiss them (as long as you don’t do it in front of their friends). But take your cues from them. If you sense that physical affection is making them uncomfortable, back off a little and show your love in other ways. Perhaps sticking a little note in their lunch box or spending time together doing something they love.
- Don’t ever say “go ask your mother.” That’s the surest way to get them to stop talking to you. If your daughters ask you something, take it as a compliment, listen carefully, and answer only if asked to.
- Be careful how you react. When the girls do talk to you, don’t wince or make any obvious uncomfortable noises or faces. They’ll take even the smallest twitch as proof that you aren’t happy with the young women they’re becoming.
- Lighten things up. When you feel the time is right, an occasional joke or some gentle ribbing (but not about puberty) could help open up the dialogue. When the girls feel that you’re proud of them and not put off or disappointed that they’re growing up, they may feel safe talking to you about things like boys and, if mom’s not around, maybe even some girly issues.
Remember that your daughters will spend more time in your life being women than they did being babies, toddlers, and children combined. Staying involved and close to your daughters during this uncomfortable time will strengthen your relationship with them for the rest of your lives.