Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking to nearly 100 dads across the country whose daughters (and, in some cases, sons) are either suffering or in recovery from an eating disorder. At the conclusion of my remarks, I shared the fact that one of the most meaningful and powerful counseling sessions I ever attended in terms of relationship-building with my daughter involved her reading a “Letter to Dad” that she had written at the urging of one of her therapists prior to our session.
Ashley began the letter by expressing her love and admiration of me and then attempted to explain, in ways I hopefully would understand, the nature of her illness and the extent to which it had consumed and, at the time, was consuming her life. The letter led to a series of heartfelt and very emotional exchanges and embraces between the two of us that had a profound and lasting impact on both of us – and the therapist barely had to say a word. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
In that moment, I was reminded of what I think I instinctively have known since I was a very young man: letter-writing is a powerful, but too often overlooked, tool in the relationship-building/restoration/healing tool-kit and it is particularly powerful when it comes to fathers and their daughters – all fathers and daughters, not just those who, for whatever reason, find themselves in the midst of a crisis situation. Indeed, a number of the letters I’ve written to Ashley over the years form the foundation of my new book.
With that in mind, I asked the dads in attendance at the conference what I already knew to be a mostly rhetorical question: “When is the last time you wrote a letter to your daughter? I don’t mean an e-mail or a text or Facebook message – I mean actually sat down with a pen and a piece of paper, wrote a personal and heartfelt note or letter, folded it, put it in an envelope, addressed it to your daughter, found a 45¢ stamp and stuck it in the mail?” I might as well have asked: “How many of you are from outer space?!?”
I broke the awkward silence that followed by sharing my belief that one of the best strategies for opening, re-opening or simply re-enforcing the lines of communication between a father and his daughter and fostering a sense of trust and intimacy involves the writing of letters – 4 letters to be precise, one on each of the following topics, sent in the following order, with appropriate “spacing” in between mailings:
“A Profession of Love” – This one is “easy”. Tell your daughter that you love her unconditionally and that you have since the day she was born.
“A Request for Understanding” – This one will be the most difficult. Daughters put their dads on the highest of pedestals. They want nothing more than to make their dads proud of them. Many are fearful of disappointing their dads, falling short of what they perceive to be their dad’s expectations/standards. In this letter, you need to acknowledge your humanity. As obvious as it may be to you and to everyone else in your world, your daughter needs to hear you recognize that you’re imperfect, that you’ve made mistakes and that you likely will continue to make them, despite your best efforts. If the circumstances warrant, you might also use this letter to ask for her forgiveness if there is a “wound” in need of special healing.
“Words of Affirmation and Encouragement” – Let your daughter know that you are proud of her. Allow her, perhaps for the first time, to see herself through your eyes (http://tinyurl.com/a9tdsco). Affirm her, by “showing her” the many attributes that you see in her that make her special (e.g., her kindness, her creativity, her courage, her determination, her love of animals, her sensitivity, her loyalty, etc.) – and then offer words of encouragement.
“A Commitment for the Future” – Make it clear to your daughter that you’re not going anywhere. That you are fully committed to her and that you will continue to be there for her. Let her know that she can count on her dad for unconditional support. Don’t just assume that she knows that. In fact, in writing each of these letters don’t make any assumptions about what “she already knows.” It’s what she needs to know that matters here.
I’m pretty confident that if the dads out there will take the time and devote the thought these “simple” letters require, their lives and, more importantly, their relationship with their daughters will never be the same again!