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Boyfriends as Substitute for Father's Love?

QUESTION: I am a single mom with an 11-year-old daughter, whose father has chosen not to participate much in her upbringing. She has actually articulated to me that she feels her father doesn't love her. I believe her attitude toward her father is a cover-up for the hurt she feels from his rejection. My greatest fear is that she will seek out the comfort of teenage boys. What can I do to reassure her that boyfriends are not a substitute for a father's love?

ANSWER: Your daughter's emotional openness to you is a sign that she is ready to embark upon a journey which will help her understand the reality of who her father is and who he is not. This process will help her form realistic expectations, rather than experience endless pain and disappointment.

The essence of adolescence is to establish a true and separate sense of self. Do not fear this process, instead embrace it as an opportunity for strengthening her identity. Working though her feelings about her father will help her be more discriminating in her relationships, not less so!

While it may be true that her father loves her in the best way he can love, it is also painfully apparent that he has not been capable of putting her needs first. Support your daughter's ability to cope with the facts, and be careful about projecting despair that can manifest into helplessness, rather than helping her cope with her situation. Also, be aware of the possibility that your own anxieties may color what you see. For example, you may overreact to normal dating in her teenage years if you are looking at your daughter as wounded instead of capable.

Do not underestimate the power of having you as her role model. Address her pain and help her identify her feelings, needs and what she wants for herself. Believe in her, as well as her ability to create healthy relationships.

Your daughter's self-esteem is an evolving process. Her capacity to face the reality of her relationship with her father, with your love and support, is a part of what will strengthen her. Her identity is not formed from her father's actions, but from what she comes to understand about herself.

Children need only one good parent to develop in ways that are healthy. As long as you are willing to discuss her feelings and develop your own ability to be strong and consistent in your discipline, your daughter will have no reason to substitute an adolescent boy for parental bonding. Instead, she may simply enjoy healthy dating!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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