Father’s Day is approaching, and with it socks and ties as presents, sleep-ins, and watching the footy.
It is also a time for recognising that some popular notions of fatherhood are often out-of-sync with current reality.
We now know that an involved father can play a crucial role in their child’s development, particularly their cognitive and behavioural development, as well as their general health and well-being.
The times they are a’changing
For a long time, a father’s importance was defined by how well he provided for his family and enforced discipline with the kids, and apart from maybe playing a bit of sport with their children, they were otherwise seen as quite absent from parenting.
We now know that the modern-day father comes in various forms. He is no longer always the traditional married breadwinner and disciplinarian in the family. He can be married or single; employed or stay-at home; gay or straight; an adoptive or stepparent; and a more than capable caregiver to children facing physical or psychological challenges.
Until recently, psychological research was also stuck in past conceptions of a father and did not place much importance on his role.
Research often reported his influence on the development and growth of his child as ‘insignificant’, and the term ‘parent’ in the literature often referred to the mother, and the impact of the father, if mentioned, was seen to be equivalent to ‘other influences’.
The importance of men in their children’s lives
Now parenting research is more inclusive of men, and the results show that there is no question that they play an important part in their children’s lives.
Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections.
The influence of a father’s involvement also extends into adolescence and young adulthood. Numerous studies find that an active and nurturing style of fathering is associated with better verbal skills, intellectual functioning, and academic achievement among adolescents.
An involved dad similarly contributes to future generations of family involvement and gender equality. Daughters are more likely to have greater career aspirations and sons are more likely to become good life partners when dads are involved in their young children’s lives.
The impact of men’s mental health on children
Children’s wellbeing goes hand-in-hand with their dad’s mental health. Evidence shows fathers who are sensitive and supportive have children who develop better social skills and language, regardless of socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.
Research also shows when fathers experience mental illness, their children are at higher risk of behavioural and emotional difficulties. The magnitude of this risk is similar to mothers experience of mental illness.
Men’s mental health
Fathers need to care for themselves as well as their kids – but they often don’t. Men can find it difficult opening up about their mental health and seeking support because it goes against the kinds of messages they received growing up.
Many cultures have strong cultural stereotypes around how men should behave, especially around managing their emotions and appearing ‘strong’.
With such internalised gender stereotypes, coping strategies mean men often supress or displace their mental discomfort.
This leads to men with mental health issues often reporting symptoms such as anger and aggressiveness, irritability, frustration, substance misuse, trouble concentrating, persistent feelings of worry, engagement in high-risk activities, and unusual behaviour that concerns others or gets in the way of daily life.
Men experiencing poor mental health often also report physical symptoms, such as changes in appetite and energy, new aches and pains, digestive issues, and trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual.
Recent research found that one-in-five dads have experienced symptoms of depression and/or anxiety since having children. This includes nearly one-in-ten dads who report experiencing postnatal depression.
How can men care for themselves?
Probably the most important way for men to look after their mental health is through social support.
Speaking out and opening up to trusted friends and family can allow men to become more aware of how they are feeling.
The importance of physical exercise, diet, and sleep can never be underestimated either, as well as drinking alcohol in moderation. And if need be, speak to your doctor – help is out there, along with ways to manage your mental health.
Fortunately, research also shows that being an involved dad makes men happier and healthier.
How can men be more involved with their kids?
Involved fathers provide emotional support and act affectionately toward their kids. Here are some other ways to share love and connection with your child:
Allow yourself to feel and explore the magic of the world through your child’s eyes. As well as listening, also ask your children questions – this can significantly increase your child’s communication skills and language development.
Boys commonly struggle to develop empathy and emotional intelligence. It is important for fathers to unlearn any of their own outmoded ideas of masculinity, and instead model good behaviour for their boys (especially when it comes to interactions with women).
Men’s interactions with their children tend to be more physical and less intimate, with more reliance on humour and excitement. That’s OK. A father’s more playful interactive style turns out to be critical in teaching a child emotional self-control. Fathers spend a higher percentage of their one-to-one interactions with children in stimulating, playful activity than mothers do. From these interactions, children learn how to regulate their feelings and behaviour.
Create trust by sharing yourself: who you are, what you love, your history and childhood. As humans, sharing our feelings and experiences, and taking the risk of being vulnerable, is important to building meaningful, loving connections. There is strength and beauty in the vulnerable gift of yourself.
Adventure and explore
As children begin to explore the world more independently, they enjoy engaging in rough and tumble play and learn boundaries, how to follow rules, and social-emotional skills. In play, fathers also often push their children to get through difficult feelings when they want to quit, and in so doing help their child build resilience. They support thinking and problem solving, and often model and explain the reasoning or decisions for completing a task. This supports the child’s development of critical thinking and executive function skills.
Reading and stories
Spending time with a child in this way helps them create a love of reading and develop listening, critical thinking, and literacy skills. It also can be a special time to experience a calm relaxing time together, feeling secure and connected.
Be intentional about how you live your life, what you show your child, and how you treat the people you and your child love. Children are watching and learning from men all the time. Be the best dad or caregiver you can be.
Resources for dads:
raisingchildren.net.au – a government funded website that has lots of evidence-based, dad-specific, and general parenting information
healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au – has a website called ‘Dadvice’, with “tips for nailing this whole dad thing”
au.movember.com – has a section devoted specifically to mental health that encourages men to start a conversation about their own mental health and reach out for help and advice
Lifeline on 13 11 14.