Can't please dad

Dear Alice,

It seems as if anything I do is not enough for my dad. I don't get in any trouble at all, I'm on the honor roll, I don't go out, I obey him, I don't talk back, I clean his shoes, I heat up his car, I cook for him, also. I do all this and it's still not enough. He never smiles and he never appreciates anything I do for him. I love him so much and I want him to love me back, but it seems as if I'm not good enough. Please tell me what I should do. By the way, talking doesn't help much. I tried and he never changes. Please suggest another solution because it really hurts me.

Sad and Unhappy

Dear Sad and Unhappy,

It sounds like you're in a really challenging position. Your dad's lack of response to you and your good deeds most likely has little or nothing to do with you. Your dad, himself, may be struggling with feelings of sadness, anger, or lack of control related to something outside of his range of understanding, and he may be allowing those feelings to impact how he relates as a parent to you. Though it may feel challenging, this doesn't mean that you need to stop trying to communicate your feelings. However, understanding your family structure and your options for handling this problem may help you to cope with the situation going forward. Families are the main source of how people learn to see each other, themselves, and the world around them. Healthy family dynamics help support children as they grow into adults, establish their sense of self, and start to build their own relationships. On the other hand, unhealthy dynamics, such as when a parent fails to provide physical or emotional support for their child as they grow up, may increase the likelihood of children experiencing low self-esteem and having difficulty establishing satisfying, healthy relationships with others. Thankfully, family dynamics and their effects aren't immutable, and there are many ways to improve familial relationships or lessen the impacts of unhealthy ones.

You mentioned that you've tried to talk with him, and it hasn't worked. When it comes to negotiating relationships, it needs the commitment of all people involved to help make it work. This would require open communication if you're looking to forge a deeper connection with him, so you may find that talking to him about this again may be your best option. That being said, you may think about approaching the conversation in a new way and do some reflection before entering the conversation. As you think upon your relationship with your dad, are there memories of painful or difficult experiences that stand out to you? Reflecting on the impact of these moments and how you can heal may help you to take the necessary steps to improve the relationship dynamic. If you decide to address the situation directly with your dad, it may help to plan for this conversation ahead of time. You might begin by regularly initiating casual conversations about something small. If your relationship with your dad feels strained, these smaller conversations may help ease you both into more significant ones. When you are ready to address your concerns head-on, you might consider the following approach:

  • Think about what you want from the conversation: Make clear what you need. Do you need him to listen and understand what is bothering you? Do you need to make it clear that he should not intervene until you are done speaking?
  • Identify your feelings: Nobody will know how you feel until you communicate it. When beginning your conversation, are you scared your parent may get upset? Sad? To the best of your ability, make your intentions direct without letting your fears stop you from talking.
  • Pick a good time to talk: Ideally, choose a time when your parent isn't doing something else. Have a list of key ideas or concerns that you want to bring up to reference during the conversation.

During the talk, it can be helpful to be clear about your feelings and wants. However, it may also be useful to keep in mind your dad’s point of view. Is there something that has happened in the past that is influencing his current behavior? Is he worried for your safety? Does he still enforce the rules from when you were younger without regard for your growing maturity and independence over the years? Whatever the case may be, it’s strongly recommended to try not to turn the talk into an argument. Maintaining a friendly and respectful tone may encourage your dad to take you seriously. The objective here is progress between you and your dad, not perfection, and change is often a slow, gradual process. If this approach fails, know that you aren't alone. You may consider seeking support from a mental health professional, other family members you can trust, or close friends to find the emotional and physical support you deserve.

That said, sometimes the desired changes in relationships are just too difficult to achieve. If you feel that you can't heal your relationship with your dad and that it’s negatively impacting your physical and emotional well-being, it may be helpful to remind yourself that it isn't your fault. Relationships take the work of the people involved, and it’s hard to effect change if the other person isn’t committed to the process. If you find yourself in that boat, it may helpful to establish boundaries for yourself. Boundaries, or identified rules and limits set regarding reasonable ways for other people to behave around you, are necessary for maintaining self-respect and healthy, communicative relationships. If a boundary needs to be set between yourself and your dad, it’s often helpful to state it clearly and respectfully. However, if you can, don’t stress too much about his reaction, as you're only responsible for communicating what will make you most comfortable. Though you may feel guilty or embarrassed at first, healthy boundaries can be empowering and are within your right as an individual. This may also take off some of the pressure you feel to constantly make him happy. You deserve to be in relationships where you're loved and supported, and if you're not receiving that, you may also choose to set boundaries if continuing those relationships as you have causes pain. 

If you’re struggling to find care and support, or you’re not sure who to go to for some TLC (tender loving care), a number of resources are available to help. You may find that speaking with a mental health professional provides a safe and supportive environment to voice your feelings. In addition, they may be able to help you understand that your dad’s actions toward you aren't your fault and give you some tips for repairing the relationship going forward.

Wishing you fulfillment in all of your relationships,

Last updated Dec 10, 2021
Originally published Sep 25, 1998

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