A Second Chance at Fatherhood

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter is 19 and has been in rehab three times. When she was five, her mother died and my daughter was placed in foster care because I wasn’t mentally stable enough to care for her. She was then adopted by her foster parents, but they divorced. Now I’ve got my life together and she’s coming back to live with me. How do we re-establish trust and rebuild our relationship after all these years? I’m scared and don’t know what to do.

A: Wow, what a difficult situation for both of you. But most of all for your daughter. She lost her mom at a young age and has been shuttled around between different homes and families ever since. You don’t say what kind of addiction issues she had that landed her in rehab so many times, but it’s pretty safe to assume that it has something to do with her unstable life. You also don’t mention whether the two of you had any contact at all over the past 14 years, or whether you’ll be building your father-daughter relationship completely from scratch.

Actually, none of that really matters either way because you both now have a chance at a new beginning. But don’t expect that your daughter will come to you with a clean slate—or a friendly attitude, for that matter. She has years worth of scars left behind from all those upheavals and years of instability. And those wounds are going to take a while to heal. Your daughter probably feels hurt, rejected, unloved, and angry—at you and at society as a whole. Her behavior may reflect those conflicting and heart-wrenching emotions.

For example, you may find that she resents you for having abandoned her after her mom’s death. Whether or not you believed you had valid reasons for not being in her life for the past 14 years is irrelevant at this point. Her hurt is real and she may verbally lash out at you. You can expect to hear things like, “I hate you!” “You can’t tell me what to do,” or “Where have you been my whole life?” (Just so you know, you’d probably be hearing some of those things from a teenager anyway—even one who hadn’t had been through what your daughter has.)

So if you think you’re going to be able to pick up with your daughter where you left off 14 years go, you’ll need to re-think that strategy. Establishing bonds of trust with any teenager is never easy, but in your case it’s an even bigger challenge. Be very, very patient and understanding and, above all, don’t expect overnight miracles. It’s going to take time, plenty of soul-searching (on your part), forgiveness (on hers), and open communication (from both of you) for you to start building a peaceful relationship. One based on mutual trust and respect between two adults who may be related by blood but, really and truly, know almost nothing about each other.

Where do you begin? By seeking help immediately—this is something that’s much too big for you to try to handle on your own. If your daughter isn’t currently in therapy, she should be—and so should you—individually and as a family. You both have a lot to work through and you need a professional to guide you.

Consider yourself lucky. Real second chances don’t come our way very often, so take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to be the father you want to be—and your daughter needs you to be.

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