Fathers and daughters. This is a unique relationship with powerful implications. Dr. Michelle Watson of The Abba Project is helping us understand exactly what this means. Michelle created The Abba Project with a desire to strengthen and improve father-daughter relationships across the country.
4word: Why is the father-daughter relationship so important?
Michelle: Where do I begin?! There are so many aspects to the father-daughter relationship that are key to a daughter’s identity that I could talk your ear off for the next hour. But I’ll rein it in and give you some basic highlights!
First, there is mounting evidence to support the fact that a girl’s sense of herself largely ties to the quality of her relationship with her dad. A father’s role in his daughter’s life impacts everything from her academic success to career decisions, from selections in romantic relationships to her sexual choices, from her self-esteem to body acceptance, to name just a few. Our individual core beliefs and core identity as women is directly shaped and fostered by our connection (or lack of) to our dad.
Now, let’s add in the spiritual realm to say that the way we interface with our dad sets the foundation for how we come to understand God as a Father. If that human relationship has been secure, consistent, fair, loving, and safe, we will most often project those qualities onto Father God. And when the opposite is true, it makes sense that God would be the last person a wounded woman would want to trust. Horizontal injury with our dad easily lead to vertical confusion, angst, and mistrust with our heavenly Dad.
4word: What are some common causes for poor relationships?
Michelle: There are two main ways that our dads can leave scars: father wounds (what our dad did do to hurt us) and father voids (what our dad didn’t do that negatively impacted us). Of course, we all have these realities in varying degrees, and our dads do as well when it comes to their own unhealed injuries. And because our dads grew up in a generation where fathering looked different than it does now, they may lack a clear template of what a good father looks like. Of course, I’m not saying that a father is exempt from dialing in now if he didn’t have a great male role model, but I am saying that this is a common cause for poor dad-to-daughter relationships.
Then, add in the fact that a lot of dads may relate better to their sons than their daughters, with them implicitly or directly saying to mom (in terms of parenting their daughter), “you’re a girl; here, you go in.” This especially happens during the turbulent years of adolescence, which I believe is the key time when many dads back off. I always say that men would rather do nothing than do it wrong, so when they think they are making things worse, they usually take a step back rather than step toward their daughter.
One other reality for us as girls is that when our dads have hurt us one too many times, we tend to put up self-protective emotional walls. It’s easy to then go into a mode of telling ourselves that we don’t care anymore (which is a crock, because every woman cares about every relationship all the time; God made us that way!) The downside of building a hard wall around our heart is that we bear the negative impact of that hurt, anger, resentment, unforgiveness, and sadness. We weren’t made to isolate and hold all that pain inside. All this to say, it is worth addressing these realities honestly, since we’re the ones who suffer most, not always our dads.
4word: What gave you an interest in the father-daughter relationship?
Michelle: For me, most of my “father wounds” came from my grandfather. He sexually abused me when I was a young girl, and for those of you with this same history, you understand how abuse complicates everything.
In my life, it led to not only to mistrusting men but also drove my desire to prove my strength in wacky ways (like thinking that lifting heavy sound equipment when I was in a band meant I was strong) while craving their approval, because I didn’t really know how to feel it or connect with it from God. Out of desperation in my late 20’s, I finally went to see a counselor, because I wasn’t coping very well. The miraculous happened (over the course of many years---there’s no quick fix, that much I know for sure): Jesus came into memory after memory and walked alongside me while helping me rework the lies that had been embedded in my wounds. Finally, I was able to reject my grandfather’s mirrored reality about me (and the distorted reality from stupid boys I dated) as my brain got rewired with Jesus and Abba Father’s truth. It was a long process, but I stuck with it even when I wanted to quit. You’ve got to believe me when I say that I started out as one big mess. If true healing from a painful past can happen for me, it can happen for you too!
One other thing I want to say about this theme comes from my friend Paul Young. He said that it took him 50 years to wipe his father’s face off the face of God. Like Paul, I had a misperception of God as Father and didn’t think I needed His love since I had enough of it from Jesus. But now that there’s no longer a gunky projection of my grandfather onto my Abba Father’s face, I completely trust His heart, and it’s awesome! Consequently, I am passionate about seeing women get their love tanks filled from their Abba Dad, because whether or not you had the best father in the world, we all need more than an earthly father can give.
4word: What can dads and daughters do to overcome these common pitfalls?
Michelle: Typically, it is women who have more motivation to look inward than men (this isn’t a stereotype but is based more on empirical data). I cite this to invite those of you who are reading this to consider taking the initiative by writing a letter to open up dialogue first with yourself and then with your dad. Consider both the hits and the misses and identify the cost that each one of those things has had on you. You don’t have to give this letter to your dad. You are giving a voice to yourself most importantly.
After you have done this you can consider doing one of three things:
1. Give the letter to your dad.
2. Rewrite it and only use some of the content.
3. Decide not to give it to him at all.
You might want to send him the letter or perhaps read it to him face-to-face. Regardless of the option you choose, allow yourself to be honest about the impact that your relationship with your dad has had on you, all the while opening your heart to the unconditional, healing love that your Abba Father has for you as His daughter!
4word: What do you do if you’re a daughter who wants to engage with her dad, but you don’t know where to start?
Michelle: Men often connect by doing something rather than talking (typically as women, we’re wired just the opposite), and if you’re the one who is initiating contact this would serve you well to come up with an activity that allows you to share in something together as a starting point.
If you want to engage in conversation and don’t know where to begin, I would suggest trying something that I have been doing with my dad for about three years. I call it: Opening the Closet Door. I ask my dad to tell me one or two stories from his childhood, often that correlate to the current time of year. The awesome thing is that I have heard stories about my dad that even my mom hasn’t heard! I limit these conversations to our ten-minute car ride home from Costco and can assure you that I have bonded with my dad in a new way (and I believe he has with me) through this. Then, I come home and type out his responses, because I am taking my role as historian very seriously! It’s really fun!
4word: How does The Abba Project address these areas?
Michelle: Over the course of nine months, I provide each group of dads with tools to better connect with their daughter’s hearts. As a “band of brothers,” these guys also support and challenge each other along the way. Every month, we address topics to help expand their understanding of issues their girls deal with (body image, self esteem, personalities, dating, romance, etc.) while I tell them things like, “your daughter didn’t come with a playbook, but you’re going to write the playbook.” I teach them about the vital importance of asking questions, followed by active listening, and all the while learning to pursue their daughter’s heart intentionally and consistently. My goal is to help them succeed in reaching that goal through a process that builds their confidence as they engage in action steps that increase competence.
4word: Why did you create The Abba Project?
Michelle: Obedience to God’s call is the first reason I started The Abba Project. I started this group when, during my quiet time in December 2009, I was reading about how Zechariah was told that his son John would help turn the hearts of fathers to their children. I heard the Father whisper to me and say, “Michelle, that’s what I want you to do.” Two days later, while blow drying my hair, I heard the name “The Abba Project.” Abba means “Daddy” in Aramaic, and men love a project. Hence, the name! And with that I’ve been off and running, having led five groups of dads through this so far, with the sixth group ready to start next month.
The second reason is because I am passionate about girls and women. I long to see our country restored from the ground up, which I believe has to do with fathers engaging intentionally and consistently with their children. Because daughters too often go “looking for love in all the wrong places” in an attempt to numb a father wound or fill a father void, my desire is to help dads heal, restore, and nurture their relationships with their girls. The means to my end of seeing America healed is helping equip dads with better tools to succeed in being or becoming the best dad he can possibly be to his daughter by dialing in to her heart.
4word: Where can 4word readers receive more information about The Abba Project?
Michelle: You can go to my website at www.theabbaproject.com. If you would like an additional resource, my first book is coming out on September 1st and is titled Dad, Here’s What I Really Need From You: A Guide for Connecting with Your Daughter’s Heart.
It is written specifically to dads of daughters (I primarily target ages 13 to 30, but this can be a resource for dads with younger daughters, because it gives a template of where he’s headed so he gets the road map in his mind early) and gives them practical tools to use in building a more solid bridge to their daughter’s heart.
The father-daughter relationship is unlike any other relationship. It has the power to hurt or to heal. Michelle’s wisdom, experience, and insight into why men will act certain ways have helped her provide tools to dads and daughters alike for better relationship building. We encourage you to check out The Abba Project for more specific tools and ideas.
What is your relationship with your dad like? Have you ever written a letter to him identifying your wounds? Don’t be afraid of healing the wounds and building a better relationship.
Dr. Michelle Watson approaches life and relationships with one ear turned upwards, listening to her Abba Father’s voice, and another turned horizontally towards His kids. Whether in her counseling office or speaking to teens, women, or dads of daughters in their teens and 20’s, she seeks to keep it real while pointing to her Healer. Valuing humor as a way to joyfully engage with life, she loves telling her God-written redemptive story while standing in awe that God uses her to be a truth-teller. Her first book will be released on September 1, 2014 as a resource to help dads with daughters entitled Dad, Here’s What I Really Need From You: A Guide to Connecting with Your Daughter’s Heart. You can read more about The Abba Project and her ministry to dads at drmichellewatson.com.