Cancer specialist Bruce Robinson regularly delivers the news that takes patients directly to their moment of truth. The truth he tells them is that they’re going to die. The truth he hears back, time after time, is “I wish I’d spent more time with my children.” His patients are often men talking about their daughters: little girls they cherished and embraced, then stood their distance from as they blossomed into young women sharing a world with their mothers, but increasingly remote from their dads. The Perth-based doctor softens his voice as he begins to explain how so many men underestimate their roles as fathers. “They don’t realise how important they are.”

During the past year I’ve asked 400 fathers across the nation, aged between 38 and 66, and 1300 girls, aged 10 to 17, about their experience of that tricky transition through puberty that can define how dads and their daughters share the rest of their lives. Fewer than a handful of the fathers I interviewed described that bond as crucial. They were the provider as much as the parent, Mum’s backstop and the fun guy with the bad jokes and the barbecue tongs. Sometimes the disciplinarian. Almost always the second fiddle.

“They think somehow they’re the icing on the cake and Mum’s the sort of lynchpin,” says Dr Robinson. “They do not realise how profoundly important they are – how [their daughter] feels about her looks, what they can do for her confidence and particularly how she is going to engage with men. And they don’t know what to do.”

Many fathers with a teen ensconced in adolescence can nominate the exact point when their relationship dipped, or in some cases slipped, into an abyss. It took place years after she would plead with him to join her on the trampoline and belly-laugh at his jokes. It happened on the eve of puberty, when her room became her sanctuary, and the company of her friends trumped anything he could offer. She’d taken a deliberate step back from him, and not knowing how to respond, he’d given her the space she seemed to need.

“I really feel like I mucked it up with her and it’s my fault,” one 45-year-old father writes to me about his teenage daughter. “I have always done everything financially with her – schools, braces on teeth – but emotionally I missed the mark with her big time. Makes me very sad, to be honest, as I feel I failed her, but I guess time will tell.” His daughter hasn’t broken the law, or been in serious trouble at school. But about six months ago, she started shutting him out, no longer wanting to talk to him or spend time with him. Their relationship, he says, has become “strained and fractured”. Her world revolves around others, and he’s left wondering where he fits in.

He says he’s tried and tried to reconnect, and almost given up. “I keep telling myself, ‘It may take years but she will eventually come around and let me in,’” he writes. “Out of all the things I have on my mind with jobs, money, relationships with others and day-to-day life, this is my biggest concern and plays on my mind the most. I need to gain an understanding of how she thinks and what she thinks might be a way to improve it.”

His anguish is shared widely, as fathers recount the perilous time as their daughters raced from 10, 11 or 12 towards the teenage years.

“It was amazing – 10 out of 10 – until she was a teenager. Then the wall came up,” one says.

From another: “At 14, very good one day a week. The rest, not so good. Apparently I don’t understand anything – whatever that means!”

And this: “Challenging and sometimes strained. She has been distant and finds it difficult to strike up a good conversation. Often answers are in one or two words.”

These examples mirror the experience of fathers across Australia. But their sentiment is also articulated by teen girls who know their relationship with their father changed with the arrival of puberty, the influence of friends and the push for independence. Take these responses from girls aged between 13 and 15.

“We have drifted apart,” Sandy* says.

“I feel less comfortable talking to him about things that I might have previously been able to,” Marie says.

“I have become less ‘close’ with my dad. We fight a lot more and I have started to get angry with him lately,” Georgie says.

And from Nicola: “As I’m becoming a young woman, I have become a bit more independent and do not share some things with him any more.”

A few years later, it can be a different story. Some girls quickly re-engage with their father. “I’m closer than I was last year. I hope it continues because it’s kind of nice not fighting all the time,” says Mandy, 16. “I hug my dad in public now. I didn’t do that in middle school!” says Sonia.

Martie says she has learnt to listen to her father more. “He is actually right about more than I thought.” But others find it harder. Lucy and her friends explain that their fathers don’t know them any longer. Exhibit A: what he would choose if entrusted to go clothes shopping for them?

“A pair of shorts with unicorns on them,” Lucy chuckles at what she thinks her father would buy. Emily joins in: “Not ripped jeans, that’s for sure!” Annie waits her turn: “Something he’s seen me wear, because then he’d think there was more of a chance I’d like it.” Kate hangs back. “I wouldn’t know,” she says. And she doesn’t want to find out. To these girls, those years are now lost, and while they want to bridge the gap and share the bond shown off in the family photographs around the home, they don’t know where to start.

Fathers, too, struggle to know how to stay or re-engage. Indeed, the impetus for this research came from a father who followed me to the car after I’d given a talk in Adelaide on teen girls. “I’ve tried everything,” he said. “Really everything. Just tell me what else I can do to reconnect with my girls.” This father has a daughter and a stepdaughter, and until they hit adolescence he shared a close and warm bond with both. Now, he explained, it was like he was invisible; as if they were embarrassed by him. They greeted him with silence, rolled their eyes at every opinion he offered and eschewed all affection. He didn’t quite remember when it started. It crept up on him, and now he just didn’t know how to retrieve the relationship he treasured with both.

Put that question to dozens of school principals, psychologists, doctors and researchers and four factors emerge as a possible vaccine against the common fracturing of the father-teen daughter union. Bonding over a passion and participation in sport, particularly gender-neutral sports, is unsurprising, perhaps. So too is the strong bond of fathers with girls, particularly boarders, who want to return to the land and work on family properties.

Showing affection, even when it was spurned, and refusing to step back when their daughter reaches adolescence, feature as the top pieces of advice along the way.

But another factor stands out as a red alert to fathers of girls grappling to find their way in this world. Those who demolish an argument posed by their daughters without properly hearing it, or considering it, risk harming their daughter’s self-esteem, and driving a wedge between them. The girls hear a subtext that says they’re not smart, that they don’t understand things, or are immature. It’s a “putdown”, and girls explain two options: they can either antagonise their father by prosecuting their case, or they can stay quiet. Most decide not to share their views again.

“Dad just says I’m wrong when I try to say what I think – so I don’t bother any more,” Aimie says. Adds Chelsea: “I just go quiet, I try and say something – like on refugees – and he just slaps my argument down.” Tanya questions why she’d talk to her father about her opinions. “I’m not allowed to have an independent view. And I’m not about to agree with Dad and his views on same-sex marriage.” Educators – school principals, teachers and school welfare officers – nod when this is put to them. “Fathers should leave being QC in the courtroom and be Dad in the lounge room,” one says.

Others point to the obvious irony here. Many girls today are being schooled to have convictions, analyse different sides of an argument, find supporting evidence, and prosecute their case with passion and clarity. Fathers support that in the school context, as witnessed by the resurgence in the popularity of public speaking and debating. They also applaud strong marks for assignments based on research, analysis and communication. They like that their daughters can hold their own in front of the class, and they fork out money for them to be able to do that. Then the girls come home wanting to present their case to their fathers, and they’re dismissed.

Sally, 15, reckons her father, an SAS-trained defence-force dad, is odds-on favourite to win the Most Overprotective Father Award. “He says he’s prepared to use force against any partner of mine,” she tells her friends. “He’s told me they [the SAS] will be following him, or anyone else he doesn’t know.” She stops for just a moment. Her group of 15 or so friends are listening to every word. “I assume he’s joking. I think.”

Tanya, 14, says her father could top that. “My dad will let me catch the train into the city and I think, ‘That’s cool,’ and then I learnt he’s actually tracking my phone,” she says. “One time – I live two streets away from Coles – I went down to get something for dinner. My phone died, which meant Dad couldn’t track it anymore.” Tanya says she was away for less than 10 minutes. “He got into the car and started searching the streets around Coles. He thought I’d been picked up by someone!”

Each of these girls tells her own story; one in which she thinks her father’s actions to protect her were disproportionate with what was needed, and out of whack with how their brother or brothers are treated. They’re seen as “more vulnerable”, “not as strong”, even “weaker” than their brothers. Alex explains it this way: “When my brother leaves for boarding school, Dad says, ‘Off you go,’ and when I go, he actually cries.” It’s the difference in treatment she notes, not the fact that her father is sad to see her leave.

Many girls see that while their father is more protective of them, he’s often more demanding on their brothers or less forgiving of their shortcomings. “Even the way Dad talks to us, me and my brother, is different,” says Rachel. “It’s easy-breezy with me and really strict with Thomas.”

Fathers don’t flinch at the suggestion that they parent according to gender. Indeed, most acknowledge that immediately. “I expect different things from my son than I do from our girls,” Dave says. Many fathers expect their sons to be better at sport than their daughters, to work harder or to “be tougher”.

From Ted: “Because he’s a boy, I am less protective.”

Liam says: “There’s always more to worry about with a daughter!”

This worries every expert who hears it. Julie Wilson Reynolds, principal of St Hilda’s School for girls on the Gold Coast, sums up the disquiet of several who see a new protectionism limiting girls’ ability to judge risk, develop critical thinking skills, and even just live life. “The overprotective father can really damage the self-efficacy of his daughter,” says Wilson Reynolds. “I think dads can be tempted to ride in and fight the dragons and fix everything for his distressed daughter. He just has to see her in tears.”

Asked about the motivation for this, another principal thinks long and hard before answering: “It’s dads who don’t have good relationships with their daughters. They have some guilt over it and they just want to fix things.”

I take that answer to two other principals, who between them have 60 years of experience in education. They nod their heads in agreement. “It’s like, ‘I haven’t been there for her, so I’ll fix this,’” one says.

But across the board, experts warn that treating a girl as needing more protection than her brother can actually lead to her becoming more vulnerable. It starts a belief structure in their heads: if they need to be protected, then they must be vulnerable. Angela White, executive director of the not-for-profit Adolescent Success, advises fathers to flip the issue. “If they’re worried about something, then teach them the safety stuff, don’t do the protection thing,” she says.

Despite the long list of grievances teenage daughters offer about their fathers, the list of those traits they admire runs to pages. Many see their fathers as rational and hardworking, organised and calm. They love that issues are less dramatic when their fathers are involved.

“Mum overthinks things too much – she says, ‘This might happen, then this might happen and then this might happen.’ Geez, it’s like she’s read horror stories all night,” Sylvia says. Annie says if she gets a C-grade in maths, her father will inquire whether she thinks she needs a tutor. “Mum would just be upset.”

Girls appreciate advice without emotion, and most girls consulted for this project also believe their fathers don’t push them beyond their abilities. Trying their best is good enough. “Sometimes Mum cries about my mark,” Jodie says. “It’s my mark, not hers! That just makes me feel worse. Dad says it’s okay if I tried my best.”

Adelaide-based clinical psychologist Kirrilie Smout urges fathers to try to “coach” their teen girls. “We know that the girls have skill gaps. There are things that they can’t do well yet, and they don’t know that they can’t do them well because they’re teenagers and sometimes they don’t know what they don’t know.” Smout gives examples such as sticking to tasks, organisation and even managing conflict. “What dads can do is think, ‘How do I coach my daughter in this?’ “

Research has repeatedly quantified the power of a solid father-daughter relationship. Fathers can raise academic performance; influence hugely who they choose as a future partner; and encourage them to take calculated risks. They can gift them a sense of belonging, a self-efficacy and a resilience for life; and their relationship can be the impetus for learning reason. Fathers can also teach their daughters the value of saying “sorry”, to be brave in the face of fear, and to speak up when they – or someone else – is wronged.

They can teach practical skills too, like using a hammer and nail, changing a tyre and a light bulb, and setting up a tent. Mothers can of course also teach these skills, and do; the point is, they’re skills fathers routinely offer their sons, that they should replicate with their daughters. “You need to teach her the same sort of things that are important for your son,” parenting expert Maggie Dent says.

Briony Scott, principal of private Sydney girls’ school Wenona and mother of three adult daughters, is one of a dozen experts who recommend a regular father-daughter get-together, such as breakfast every second week, as a way of building a solid, independent bond. “You build the relationship as part of the ritual, and when life gets tough, as it invariably will, and they start to withdraw, you say, ‘Well, every second Friday, we are having breakfast.’ You keep the connection open,” she says. This also gives teen girls the top two requests they say they have of their fathers: firstly, to be afforded more time, and secondly, to really “be there” more.

Take 15-year-old Annie, whose father is an anaesthetist, a fact she announces without a hint of pride. “I’m in bed every night when he comes home from work, [and] we’ve got to be quiet on Saturdays because he needs to catch up on sleep, so I really only get to see him on Sundays.” She characterises her relationship with her father as more cordial than warm. She stops, and you can see she almost feels bad revealing this to her peers, sitting around a classroom table in a group interview, so she quickly explains that she wants for nothing. Family holidays are overseas. She has been skiing, on and off, since she was a tot. She was one of the first in her friendship group to get the new iPhone. But along the way, she feels as though she’s missed out, too. “We just don’t spend much time together,” she says.

Annie’s remarks are replicated dozens and dozens and dozens of times.

“Be there more,” Bronte says.

“Put the phone away and not just focus on the solution. Talk about it,” Kelly says.

Kirsty says while her father is home a lot, “he’s not always mentally present”.

Asked what activities they’d want to do with their fathers, the girls’ answers range wide.

“Play with me,” says Ruby.

“I’d like to go camping once,” says Tracey.

“My father would be available for me on the weekends to play a board game or cards or a video game,” says Katharine.

“I’d take him on more bike rides and not be embarrassed riding along the street with him,” Sophie says. “I used to do it, but now it’s a bit weird riding along with your dad with a massive helmet on.” Would you do it if he asked? “Yes!” she says. So why don’t you ask him? “Because … I don’t know.”

At a hall in central Victoria, dozens of schoolgirls and their fathers are gathered. They’re here to participate in a program called Time & Space, which aims to give kids a perspective on what it’s like to walk in their parents’ shoes, and their parents an insight into being a teen in a world packed with social media, peer assessment and wall-to-wall marketing. On this father-daughter night, girls and dads have been asked to bring along a “treasure” – something important to them that reflects their relationship with each other. One teen arrives with a live yabby that she caught. It’s in a little takeaway food tub, filled with water and decorated with greenery. The organisers ask her about the significance of the yabby.

“This is what I do with my dad,” she says. “This is what I love.”

Without prompting, the girls start recalling the childhood activities they loved doing with their fathers. While they don’t know how to ask their dads to do something with them any more, they want that special bond to continue. They say they’d talk to their father more if he talked to them more. They’d hang out with him more if he showed signs that he wanted to do that, too. Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller says the inability of many girls to seek out what they want reflects the lack of role-modelling of father-daughter connections. “I can’t think of an example in popular media of a really good father-daughter relationship,” he says.

Fathers might not have all the answers, but some of the questions the girls want answered show how they yearn for the time when they were catching yabbies or holding hands on the way to school.

Peggy has this question for her father, but hasn’t been able to find the time or words to ask him. “If you die, what career would you want me to have; and are you proud to be my father?” Janelle wants to be able to ask her father this question: “When was the last time you went through a struggling time? What helped? How long did it last?”

And Jenny’s request is simple. “I wish I could talk to him about boys.” She even knows the answer she wants to hear. “I wish he would tell me, like they do in cheesy movies, that no one would ever be good enough for me.” What she’s really saying, I expect, is that she wants to know he thinks she’s special.

“There’s something special about a father-daughter relationship and when you look at the research, no one can really explain it,” says Paul Dillon, the founder of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia. But it takes work, and time, and practice.

Carrie is 17 and has had little experience with fathers. She has only recently enjoyed having a father-figure in her life. “I think you should remind all the fathers that, despite all the groaning and carrying on that happens when it comes to dads (especially with dad jokes and embarrassing dad comments), they are so incredibly important in their daughters’ lives,” she says. “They should never underestimate the influence they have.”

* All fathers’, daughters’ and sons’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.

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