5 Questions To Ask Your Emotionally Distant Dad On Fathers Day

Photo: Jacob Lund /
Dad and son fishing

Every human being has a deeply held need to feel known. Funny thing about men of a certain age: many were raised to not talk about themselves, to not need much, and to not share much.

If you are a Gen X, millennial, or Gen Z, your dad is likely either a baby boomer or was raised by baby boomers. Many, many men of these generations grew up in families that actively, or perhaps subtly, squelched their emotions and discouraged them from talking about their feelings and themselves.  

This type of child-rearing was not necessarily a result of mean or unloving parents at all. It was simply a product of the common child-rearing wisdom and mores of the time.

Sometimes it takes a little prodding to find a way through that tough, outer layer of anti-emotion. You just need to know what to ask!

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect

If your dad is a baby boomer, he probably received a double dose of the emotional squelching described above, which is called Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. That’s because, in both past and present society, boys’ and men’s more tender feelings have been viewed as weaknesses with one exception — anger. Anger is the most “acceptable” feeling that men are permitted to have.

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The Silent Generation

Sharing and feelings equal weakness, and silence equals strength. The parents of baby boomers belonged to the aptly named “silent generation.” The silent generation received their name for a reason: They were children of war and deprivation.

They grew up in families where the men were at war and the women were scrambling and desperately working for money and supplies. In those times, there was no room for talking or feelings or needs.

Silence and selflessness were necessary requirements, and both were valued as a sign of strength.

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Even if your dad can be silly and fun sometimes, even if you know, without a doubt, that he loves you, there is a very good chance that he has, all of your life, been holding his true inner self back; not from you in particular, but from the world in general.

No matter your own age as you read this, whether you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or beyond, your dad likely grew up with some powerful messages about what it means to be strong. He may have overcome some of them somewhat, but there is a good chance that those old messages are still at work in your father’s head to this day.

Here are a few of the emotionally unhealthy messages that many baby boomer and generation X men were raised with:

  • Don’t talk too much.
  • Don’t feel too much.
  • Don’t ever be (or appear) vulnerable.
  • Don’t let your weaknesses show.
  • Keep your feelings to yourself.

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Every single human being alive has things they need to say, deep emotions, and personal challenges and weaknesses. Yet, thanks to Childhood Emotional Neglect, legions of people have grown up receiving strong messages from their parents that they must keep all of it under wraps.

Your dad likely has far more to say and share than he has ever allowed you to see.

Fortunately, today the world is in a far different place. The fields of psychology, neurology, and social work have researched happiness, family dynamics, and emotion. We now know that holding ourselves back is not conducive to healthy people or relationships.

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5 questions to ask your dad on Father's Day

Father’s Day is the day to celebrate your dad, of course. But this year, it’s also your chance to try to make it something more. You can use this day to see if you can forge a more rewarding connection with him by asking: 

  1. What was your favorite thing about your childhood?
  2. What was your least favorite thing about your childhood?
  3. What were you like when you were 21?
  4. In hindsight, is there anything in life that you didn’t try, but wish you had?
  5. What’s the greatest hope you have for your future?

You can introduce these questions to your father in many different ways. You can also add your own. For example: 

  • “So Dad, it’s your day today! I’d like to honor you by asking you some questions that I’ve never asked you before. Will you try to answer them really openly and candidly? I really want to know these things!”
  • “Hey Dad, I just read a blog with questions to ask your dad on Father's Day. It made me curious about how you would answer. May I ask them?
  • “So Dad, you know you’re not a big talker. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve had questions about you that I’ve always wanted to ask. In honor of Fathers Day can I ask you today?”

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Tips for introducing your questions

Be sure to tailor your introduction to your dad’s unique personality and your relationship with him. In general, asking the questions individually may permit a more personal connection with your dad, and allow deeper answers. You can also team up with your siblings to ask him the questions together.

Every human being has a deep need to feel known. Even the most curmudgeonly of dads have that need in there somewhere. If your dad is more open and outgoing, he will still appreciate being able to share some new things about himself with you.

That’s why these questions are a gift that goes both ways. You get to make a connection with your dad. You get to know him better, and he gets the gift of feeling known.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) tends to transfer silently through generations of a family. It's important to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire.

Dr. Jonice Webb is a licensed psychologist recognized worldwide as the pioneer of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. She is author of Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. 

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