The Touch Taboo: Dads and Daughters
How Dads Can Overcome Awkwardness and Maintain Closeness with Their Maturing Daughters

“My Dad and I were really close when I was a kid; we were our own special team. But when I started developing breasts, it seemed like he pulled away completely. I couldn’t figure out why he cut me off, and I kept trying to reach out to him, but no dice. So, I started acting out, even doing irresponsible sexual things. But none of it seemed to get his attention. He left me out in the cold and was never close to me again. I don’t think we’ll ever be close because, 15 years later, I’m still really pissed off at him for abandoning me.”

– Katie, now 30

“How can I keep hugging or touching her now that she’s an adolescent and has developed? Won’t my wife, or other people, or my daughter think I’m a pervert if I hold her close? Sometimes, brushing by me, her breast will touch my elbow or something, and I jump; it’s like I can’t let her touch me even by accident, because she – or someone – will think I’m doing something wrong.”
– Father of adolescent girl

As I travel the country speaking and learning about father-daughter relationships, I hear a disturbing number of stories like these.

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4 Key Principles

From a daughter’s earliest days, her father or stepfather may worry about her adolescence, and the immutable fact that she will blossom into a sexual being. When a girl is young, that fatherly concern often centers on anticipating threats from people outside the family (i.e., boyfriends) once she reaches puberty. How many times have we heard the father of a baby girl say, only half jokingly, “She’s not dating until she’s 35!”?

But, when adolescence actually happens, a dad can be caught unprepared for the whirl of feelings surrounding physical affection between himself and his daughter, questioning what’s appropriate to say or do, and fighting the urge to emotionally (or even physically) flee from what feels like a highly charged situation.

What’s going on here? Why is father-daughter touch such a loaded and taboo subject?

The Social Context
The most obvious reason is our culture’s still abhorrently high rate of sexual abuse. Too many of our fellow men behave sexually with their daughters, sons or other children placed in their trust. Recent news coverage of sexual abuse by priests has both increased and obscured public awareness of sexual abuse. It throws light on the lifelong, horrible damage that sexual abuse inflicts on a child. Lost in the sensational stories, however, is the fact that perpetrators of sexual abuse are not confined to the priesthood.

For some men, abusive sexual behavior – running the gamut from pornography use to pedophilia – is an accepted part of being a man. The prevalence of this range of sexual abuse makes every father suspect. For example, when it comes to leaving daughters in the care of a parent, we tend to trust fathers less than mothers.

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">So what in the world can we fathers do about this? As with most other aspects of fathering, the solution is twofold: address the issue both at home and out in the larger community. We must hold our fellow men accountable for abusive behavior, while openly supporting fellow fathers who consistently nurture their children. We must raise our sons to believe that abuse and masculinity are polar opposites – and demonstrate this same belief (through both word and deed) to every boy we encounter.

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Bringing Good Touch Home
The societal picture is one thing, but how can we effectively respond to the awkward feelings and situations that spring from our own personal relationships with our daughters? We start by understanding the concept of good touch.

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">The best time to lay groundwork for good touch is from our daughter’s birth all the way through her childhood. We fathers should change diapers and clothes, burp, rock and tickle our babies and young girls – there are thousands of opportunities (even in the most mundane tasks) to lovingly touch our children. As your daughter grows, these activities can be as simple as starting a pillow fight; grooming the dog or building something together; lying side by side in a hammock to look at the stars; or taking dad-and-daughter dance lessons.

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Our daughters need our fatherly affection, no matter what their ages. Good touch is physical affection that:

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">• comforts her

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">• affirms her as a person

6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">• supports her

• respects and is sensitive to her person and her boundaries

• is given with her permission

• is given freely, with nothing expected in exchange

• helps her feel strong, lovable and able to delight in herself and

• is not sexual.

Boundaries and Connections
Adolescence brings new challenges for fathers because now we must hone our sensitivity to our daughters’ emerging body boundaries. Every adolescent works through body boundary issues such as personal privacy. But girls’ boundary issues can be more complex than boys’.

Girls learn from us that they are more vulnerable to violation of their bodies, so they feel an imperative to command their personal space. At the same time, however, girls put great value on relationships and being connected to others. This can create a contradictory and confusing (to you and her both) tug-of-war between her desire for connection and for separation from danger.

Fortunately, every father or stepfather knows a woman who was once an adolescent herself. These women can make great coaches when we run up against our daughters’ unpredictable tug-of-war – especially when it includes our attempts to be affectionate.

When my daughters were teens, they’d cuddle up next to me on the couch one evening, and give me nothing but withering looks the next. This hurt me deeply, but my wife (a former teenage girl) assured me it was normal. Indeed, I ultimately learned that when my daughters alternated between embracing and rejecting my affection, they demonstrated a kind of trust in me. They trusted that they could reach out to me for affection, and simultaneously trusted that a temporary rejection of me would not bring an end to my love for them. Thus, they had a solid, loving father to safely “push off” against as they strove to develop their independence.

The bottom line? During adolescence, it may feel like your daughter wants nothing to do with you. But it’s essential that you build on the strong emotional connections you’ve built during her younger years. Positive, loving affection will strengthen the vital father-daughter connection as she develops into a woman.

Staying Close

Emotional and physical closeness are mutually reinforcing. Here are some key principles to help you navigate this tough terrain:

t-weight: normal">Don’t withdraw. Adolescence is emotionally challenging for father and daughter. Your daughter may shut the emotional door on you, and you may be unable to predict when she’ll even accept a hug from you. That may feel like your daughter is personally rejecting you. Remember, she’s experimenting with who she is becoming, and one way she does that is to push off against someone whom she trusts will continue loving her, even though she sometimes pushes away. So, your task is to hang in there. Sure your feelings will be hurt sometimes, but pain is part of parenting, and the worst thing a dad can do is respond to his daughter’s temporary rejection by abandoning her emotionally or physically.

t-weight: normal">There’s more to her life than dating. You may think that every girl is totally boy-crazy, including your daughter. She will have a natural, compelling interest in her sexuality. But that is not her only interest; so don’t treat her like it is. Ask about all of her interests – school, girl friends, community activities, sports and other aspects of her life.

• Listen to her. A girl’s voice may be her most important tool. Do everything you can to encourage her to speak up about her beliefs, feelings, ideas and passions – even when they may make you feel uncomfortable. Girls today get incredible societal pressure to focus on their external appearance and to base their behavior on whether or not it is sexually attractive. As the “first man” in you daughter’s life, you have tremendous power to counteract those often corrosive cultural pressures. When you turn the spotlight of your attention and time to her voice, heart, soul and mind, you demonstrate a vital truth – inner beauty matters most.

t-weight: normal">Be affectionate, never sexual. We all need affection. No matter what stretch she’s traveling on her growing-up roller coaster, your daughter needs you to be in touch with her. It’s often a tough balance to maintain, but she needs you to both respect her physical boundaries and to keep on hugging her. Dad’s physical affirmation and encouragement cements his emotional and verbal affirmation and encouragement. Yes, she’s growing up, and needs you to honor and help develop good boundaries around her body. She’s also still your kid, and needs regular hugs and kisses to feel good about herself.


Dads and Daughters (DADs)  – A national membership organization for fathers with daughters, DADs provides tools to strengthen fathers’ relationships with their daughters and to transform the pervasive messages that value our daughters more for how they look than who they are.


Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand and Support Your Daughter When She’s Growing Up So Fast, by Joe Kelly, Broadway, 2002.

• “Daughters: For Parents of Girls” –, 1-888-849-8476 – This newsletter features personal experiences and practical information on raising healthy, confident girls.

200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem, by Will Glennon, Conari Press, 2000. Offers practical tips and ideas to draw on every day.

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher, Ph.D. This is the classic best seller that describes the serious issues girls face, and what we can do about them.


>Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell and the Teen Book Project, Times Books, 1998. This is a comprehensive and honest guide to the physical, emotional, sexual and social changes adolescence brings to girls and boys. It’s a fabulous resource for daughter or dad.

The Girls’ Guide to Life: How to Take Charge of the Issues that Affect You, by Catherine Dee, Little, Brown & Co., 1997. This down-to-earth guide offers ideas on how to take action personally and in the community.

New Moon Friendship: How to Make, Keep and Grow Your Friendships, edited by girls, Crown, 1999.

New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams – 1-800-381-4743 – the award-winning, international magazine edited by and for girls ages 8 to 14.

• The Period Book: Everything You Don’t Want to Ask (But Need to Know), by Jennifer Gravelle and Karen Gravelle, Walker & Co., 1996. Written by a teen and her aunt.

Totally Private and Personal: Journaling Ideas for Girls and Young Women, by Jessica Wilbur, Free Spirit, 1996.

 Joe Kelly is executive director of Dads and Daughters, a national nonprofit education and advocacy organization, and publisher of the national newsletter “Daughters: For Parents of Girls.” His new book is Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand and Support Your Daughter When She’s Growing Up So Fast. Kelly and his wife, Nancy Gruver, are the parents of two adult daughters.

Related Reading: Dads, Daughters and the Protective Instinct