Over the line

Over the line

Former ‘Daddy’s girl’ must now remind father she is an adult

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 01/03/2013

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Dear Patti, 
My mother died when I was 13 and my father, who is ex-military, raised my brother and me by himself. I’ve never doubted that he loves me, but I am now 35, have lived on my own for the past nine years and am a successful professional. Despite all this, he still treats me like an adolescent. 
 
He frequently criticizes my shortcomings and freely gives too much unwanted advice. Frankly, I don’t understand why. My brother is three years younger than me, and my father never talks disrespectfully to him like he does to me. My brother observes this behavior as well and assures me it’s not because I act childish in some way. Nor does he believe it’s a gender issue, as our father had female mentors in the past whom he admired and respected. 
 
My aunt and brother tend to believe it’s partly because my brother is married and has children and that my father sees me as a little girl who still needs his advice and protection. When I’m not there, he boasts about me. But when I’m around, he treats me like I’m a child, not a grown woman.
 
I have kindly but firmly set up boundaries with my father, but these last only a few days or a week at the most. Normally he’s very good at keeping appropriate boundaries, but, for some reason, he insists on treating me like I’m helpless. 
 
Besides staying firm with boundaries, do you have any advice? I love my father dearly. He’s a big part of my life, I’m grateful for all he’s done for me and I don’t want to have to distance myself, but sometimes the way he treats me gets me in a low mood.
 
— Jeanine

Dear Jeanine,
Is there a possibility you’re wondering what it is about you that’s causing this behavior from your dad, while the reality may be that it’s less about you and more about him? If he normally respects adult women and you’re behaving as such, maybe it’s not that he’s treating you as a girl but mistreating you as his little girl. What’s the possibility he’s having trouble letting go of being your protector? After being helpless from losing your mother, your father may be unconsciously afraid something could happen to you and, above all, probably wants to feel needed by you. It may help your mood as well as your self-esteem to realize this may have very little to do with you and, accordingly, focus building your self-esteem with self-approval, supporting and parenting yourself and maybe not needing reassurance and approval from your father but, rather, giving it to yourself. 
 
When your father starts to criticize you, listen carefully, show him you value his opinion and are taking his advice seriously. Ask him — without being defensive — what personal experiences led him this point of view. Encourage him to tell you his personal family stories. Sometimes, you might want to ask for his advice before he even offers it, leading him to realize that you care about his views. Perhaps you could call him more often or before he calls you. Ask for his expert knowledge and give him an opportunity to be useful. Let him know you value his outlook and will take it into consideration, but that he raised you to be an independent thinker who will ultimately make her own decision. Insist that your autonomy be regarded.
 
You obviously don’t need to report your behaviors and actions to anyone, including your father, but if you don’t keep a lot of secrets, he may tend to see you more as a trustworthy adult. Let him know who you are. Share your beliefs and values, what you like and don’t like and what makes you happy. Be specific with him on whether or not you want advice or support on a particular issue.
 
When he’s particularly controlling or bossy or ”talks down” to you, explain to him that he is no longer behaving in an adult role, but is behaving in a parent role that ended when you became an adult. Tell him it’s not his job to parent you in a condescending manner or rescue you from your problems. Keep firm with your boundaries and explain to him how he can respectfully and happily be in your life. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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