Dear David Coleman: I don't know how to talk to my daughter – I feel I have failed her

Q I have an 18-year-old daughter who grew up mostly with my mom. We only started living together while she was in her teens. She has very low self-esteem and is always trying to hide herself. She seems afraid of going out and having meaningful relationships. When she’s at home she’s mostly in her room and I don’t know how to talk to her. I feel like every time I try, she just gets irritated and I stop. I want to build a relationship with her, but I don’t know how to help her. I feel I have failed her as a parent.

David replies: You don’t explain the circumstances of how it came to be that your daughter was cared for by your mum for all those years, but I assume the reason must be significant. When you talk about feeling like you have failed her as a parent, I wonder if it is your absence during those years that is forefront in your mind?

I think both you and your daughter are starting from a difficult position in terms of rebuilding your relationship, and rebuilding it successfully seems to me to be a precursor to you being in a position to help her with her self-esteem and sociability.

In truth, of course, it seems that it was her grandmother who did most of the caring and most of the parenting of your daughter and so that may be whom your daughter even considers to have been her parent. It may have been a difficult transition for her, in her teens, to acknowledge you as her parent when you came to live with her, also in a role of authority.

I wonder if you feel guilty about not being available to her in her earlier years, and perhaps that guilt is also a block to you feeling confident and being able to support her. Even some years back into your role as parent, it sounds like you still feel enormous self-doubt and/or inadequacy about your competence.

Perhaps given the unique set of circumstances where you haven’t been in a parent role with her for years, and given that she is 18, you might even want to reconsider your role with her. Could you think of her as a friend whom you are advising or guiding? That might help you to recognise that you have lots of skill and experience to share, but may also allow you to share it as with an equal, more than the way we parents can sometimes share our advice in a manner that appears critical, patronising or even dictatorial.

When you speak with her as with a friend, I think she will pick up your genuine interest and concern and will recognise the authenticity of your desire to be a support and a help to her. That might limit her apparent irritation with you when you do try to talk to her. Indeed, that concept of talking “with” rather than talking “to” or even talking “at” someone is also important. Talking “with” emphasises the two-way nature of relationships.

Because the relationship is two-way, your daughter also shares some of the responsibility for it. She too must invest. That can be helped by your willingness to show interest in her life, perhaps even without offering advice!

If things don’t feel easier, or you don’t feel you can support her, then it’s okay to draft in assistance from other friends or family, who may have a different style of relationship with her and may be able to offer the same advice you want to give, on your behalf.

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