A healthy father-daughter relationship is key for developing a girl’s positive self-esteem. For all little girls, dad is the first male figure in her life. He and mom are everything; they become the child’s world. If that relationship between father and daughter is strained at an early age it can make for a lifetime of internal challenges and struggles with the opposite sex.

This powerful relationship between father and daughter begins around age 2 and lasts a lifetime, but the critical (formative) years are ages 2 through 4. The basic questions that go along with development at this age are: Is it OK to be me? Am I free to explore, to experiment with my new environment and enjoy the things I gravitate toward?

If parents allow the child to be self-sufficient, to explore, and be repetitive in her actions, then she will grow with a sense of autonomy. She will also learn to understand that parents are there as a united force of safety and security. If dad demands too much of the child at this age, ignores her new skills and doesn’t allow them to be exercised repetitively, then mastering her environment cannot occur and she can develop self-doubt.

This self-doubt can seep into how the child sees herself and limits her actions moving forward as she grows older. Statements like “I can’t try out for the school play. I can’t run fast. I can’t enter the spelling bee” may be heard in the home. This leads to second-guessing her actions and can slowly turn into low self-esteem. Parents can mislabel her as “just shy” or “cautious” when she is neither. She is looking for signs of approval or disapproval from her parents instead of exploring new things freely. There is no curiosity in the child, no experimentation, just rules she has learned. This can be exhausting.

If not dealt with, these issues will consistently resurface well into adulthood. We will continually play out our role from childhood if we don’t see and correct the negative patterns. Dads, encourage your daughters at a young age to try new things, cheer them on, allow them to make mistakes. Offer advice when asked, look her in the eyes when talking to her, be patient when teaching new things and lend a supportive shoulder for her to cry on.

Find something that just the two of you can do together. Don’t make fun of the father-daughter dance — go! Find something that is special and meaningful such as working on a project together for a few hours every Sunday. Try cooking dinner together one day a week, hiking, taking a drive to the beach, or playing a game of basketball after dinner. The options are endless. It’s never too late to start this supportive pattern and I guarantee your daughter will look forward to it. Remember to let her be part of the suggestion and selection process too.

Women who grew up with positive relationships with their fathers (and mothers) feel confident, choose appropriate partners, respond to situations in emotionally healthy ways and can have meaningful relationships with both men and women.

We are truly a product of our environment. Dads, the best gift you can give your daughters is the gift of respect. Showing her and her mother respect consistently in your actions and with your words is incredibly powerful and sets the standard for how she feels she should be treated by other men. You have the power to put a healthy pattern in motion that lasts a lifetime. The old saying “girls marry their fathers” is true. Regardless if the relationship was positive or negative, we are human and gravitate toward what’s comfortable and familiar to us. There’s no bigger job and title than dad, and none more rewarding.