Parenting Q&A: Teen struggles to connect with dad; he feels she’s being too sensitive

Q: My 14-year-old daughter and I are very close, but she struggles to connect with her dad. She wants to talk to him and get closer, but he has a tendency to only want to talk on his terms, when he feels like it and he gets upset with her when that’s not when she’s in the mood to talk (usually right after school when she’s tired from her day). Then he gets frustrated and says she’s too moody and he won’t bother trying to talk to her anymore. It breaks my heart when she tells me she feels like her dad doesn’t like her. When I tell him that she’s feeling this way, he says she’s being ridiculous and too sensitive. What can I do to help?

A: There are few things worse than being in the middle of two people who are struggling to connect. You love your spouse and you love your daughter, but that’s not enough to help connect them. In some ways, playing the intermediary may be making their relationship tougher, not easier.

I don’t know anything about your family, so I’m hoping that your spouse is more mature than he sounds. He isn’t the first dad to have his feelings hurt by his teen daughter, but only talking to his daughter when “he feels like it,” and then punishing her when she’s tired is not a good look for an adult or a parent. Does he demonstrate emotional immaturity across the board, or does this seem particular to his daughter? The distinction matters because if he is like this with everyone, it’s a red flag that you are co-parenting with someone who not only cannot carry their share of the load, but can cause damage. Teens can be “ridiculous and too sensitive,” but that’s not an excuse to write them off or stop trying to connect. Surely, there are more hours in the day than the one directly after school for them to talk.

If your normally emotionally stable spouse is suddenly sullen about his teen daughter, his feelings may be truly hurt and he may not know what to do. Many fathers enjoy great relationships with their young daughters only to feel a bit distant, pushed out and awkward as puberty hits. Their relationship doesn’t have to take a terrible hit, but it is typical that the dynamics change. That’s life, and it is okay for a teen parent to feel adrift, unsure and hurt. The problem isn’t the awkward dynamics, it’s when the parent doesn’t right the ship. Connection is a two-way street, and you can counsel your daughter to connect with her father after school in small ways, but it is always the parent’s job to connect to their teen and tween, not the other way around.

To begin, get out of the middle. Like it or not, you’re part of the problem. You are carrying messages back and forth between them, and this only contributes to more miscommunication. In the most direct way, I would sit them both down and say, “Larry, your daughter is exhausted after school and doesn’t want to chitchat. Jennifer, your father wants to hear about your day and you blow him off. When is a good time for you guys to catch up on your lives in a way that works for both of you?” And then let them work it out, together. Maybe they meet weekly for coffee. Maybe they get doughnuts on Saturdays. Maybe they walk the dog in the evenings. Even if you think the relationship could be better, let them work it out on their terms.

Another idea is to have your spouse take his daughter somewhere special for a couple of days. It can be inexpensive and easy. Sometimes a stretch of time is needed so emotions thaw and conversation can begin. I recommend a couple of days because your spouse and your daughter simply need time together that feels easy (or easier).

If your spouse is immature or incapable of problem-solving with your teen, then seek out a parent coach or parent classes that can serve as intermediaries, as well as give the third-party distance needed to help some information go down a bit more smoothly. You can couch it: “I’d like us to learn more about our daughter and how we can parent her entering into these prickly years,” so he doesn’t feel put on the hot seat. The truth is: You both need it. You don’t want to stay in the middle, and it may help you understand your spouse better as well.


Finally, don’t encourage your daughter to tiptoe around your spouse. At 14, she is capable of coming up with some small ways to connect with him that transcend the after-school mess. Encourage her to think of other ways to communicate with her father, but also empower her to speak for herself and voice what would work best for her.

Good luck.

Meghan Leahy

Meghan writes about parenting for the Washington Post. She's the mother of three daughters and the author of "Parenting Outside the Lines." She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and secondary education and a master’s degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach. Send a question about parenting to