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For men who raise troubled kids

For men who raise troubled kids
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Where are the men?

Every year, I attend several conferences around the nation that focus on the families, children, and policies associated with children’s mental health.  The majority in attendance are women.  As part of my job, I also attend many meetings on children’s mental health in social services organizations and advocacy groups where, again, the majority in attendance are women (often 100%).  I’ve facilitated family support groups for 11 years, open to the public, mostly attended by woman:  bio mothers, adoptive mothers, girlfriends, stepmothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters involved in caring for a troubled child.  Anyone else notice this?

<At the end of this post are studies and articles on the many benefits caring men provide to troubled children and teens.>

We need the men.  I know they are out there.  I know they are engaged in raising a troubled child and probably alone with their concerns.  They are not just bio fathers either, they are stepfathers, boyfriends, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, uncles, and brothers, but I’ll call them all “dads” here.

The recent national “Building on Family Strengths” conference in Portland, Oregon, had a presentation on the subject of dads helping dads.  It was the first time I attended a seminar where mostly men attended.  I asked the panel, founders of Washington Dads, www.wadads.org, “why hasn’t there been a gathering like this before?”  Apparently, panel members tried to find help and it wasn’t there, so they started a support organization for themselves.  They believe it’s the only one like it in the nation.

The messages – One panel member said men feel they are supposed to fix the problem, but they can’t and feel like failures.  Another said that “dads are often not the main caregivers, and perhaps they lack experience,” and after trying what they think will work, are at a loss when it doesn’t.  Another, “we want a quick fix, but a clear concrete fix will do… we want to know how to problem solve.”  That’s a big one, men fix things, they want to get together and hash out solutions.  “Men talk solutions right away instead of talking through emotions.”  They said men like rules or instructions such as Collaborative Problem Solving techniques, the use of technology, and carefully considered plans such as IEPs. 

In general, moms tend to feel guilty, but dads tend to be resentful:

  • Of the public nature of the family’s problems
  • Of mom’s leniency towards the child
  • Of the over-the-top attention given to the child
  • Of the loss of quality relationships with all family members

“We’ve been down on our knees in pain for our kids, and we’ve been trying to bring them into society, and it’s a long road.”

Dad’s emotions are there but expressed very differently.  “Some men need to vent aggressively… blow a gasket, but only other men are OK with this.”  Some want to reveal things to each other they wouldn’t share with their wife or partner; “men need to bond without women present” and with personal face-to-face contact.  Men tend to have custody issues too, and often face challenges to their rights to visit their children or maintain relationships with them.

Washington Dads Network – organized to empower fathers and other men who care for troubled children and teens.  They want to see similar groups forming nationwide.

Washington Dads Network – organized to empower fathers and other men who care for troubled children and teens. They want to see similar groups forming nationwide.

Gentlemen, trust me, moms want you to have support.  Form a group and get yourself some buddies.

Below are previously published articles on the influence of fathers on children’s mental health.  I could not find any articles about issues faced by many fathers, such as custody of the children, disagreements with mom, the influence of their decisions about treatment, or placement, or educational issues, or the need for support in tune with men’s particular cultural and social needs.

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Involvement of nonresident fathers may protect low-income teens from delinquency January/February 2007 issue of the journal Child Development

Many American children live without their biological fathers. A substantial proportion of fathers who live apart from their children have lost touch with them and therefore don’t provide consistent parenting. A new study has found that when nonresident fathers are involved with their adolescent children, the youths are less likely to take part in delinquent behavior such as drug and alcohol use, violence, property crime, and school problems such as truancy and cheating.

The study, by researchers at Boston College, is published in the January/February 2007 issue of the journal Child Development. The research was funded, in part, by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Planning and Evaluation, Administration on Developmental Disabilities, Administration for Children and Families, Social Security Administration, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Researchers looked at a representative sample of 647 youths who were 10 to 14 years old at the start of the study and their families over a 16-month period, gathering information from the adolescents and their mothers. The families were primarily African-American and Hispanic, and most lived in poverty.

Taking into consideration adolescents’ demographic and family characteristics, the researchers found that when nonresident fathers were involved with their children, adolescents reported lower levels of delinquency, particularly among youth who showed an early tendency toward such behavior.

They also found that adolescent delinquency did not lead fathers to change their involvement over the long-term. But in the short-term, as teens engaged in more problem behaviors, fathers increased their involvement, suggesting that nonresident fathers may be getting more involved in an effort to stem their children’s delinquency. This finding was most prevalent in African-American families and contrasts with the pattern in two-parent, middle-class, white families, where parents often pull away and become less involved in the face of adolescent delinquency.

“Nonresident fathers in low-income, minority families appear to be an important protective factor for adolescents,” said Rebekah Levine Coley, professor of applied development and educational psychology at Boston College and the study’s lead author. “Greater involvement from fathers may help adolescents develop self control and self competence, and may decrease the opportunities adolescents have to engage in problem behaviors.”

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Early Father Involvement Moderates Biobehavioral Susceptibility to Mental Health Problems in Middle Childhood

Boyce, W. Thomas; Essex, Marilyn J.; Alkon, Abbey; Goldsmith, H. Hill; Kraemer, Helena C.; Kupfer, David J.;  Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, v45 n12 p1510-1520 Dec 2006

[my summary in everyday English:  When fathers are engaged in nurturing and parenting a child from infancy, the child develops healthy responses to social situations when they reach the middle childhood years ~age 9.  The father’s engagement actually improves brain function on the emotional level and reduces activity in the stress area of the brain.  If a father is not involved, the child is at a high risk of behavioral problems.  Also, if a mother is depressed in their child’s early years, the child is at an ever higher risk of behavioral problems.]

Objective:  To study how early father involvement and children’s biobehavioral sensitivity to social contexts interactively predict mental health symptoms in middle childhood. Method: Fathers’ involvement in infant care and maternal symptoms of depression were prospectively ascertained in a community-based study of child health and development in Madison and Milwaukee, WI. In a subsample of 120 children, behavioral, autonomic, and adrenocortical reactivity to standardized challenges were measured as indicators of biobehavioral sensitivity to social context during a 4-hour home assessment in 1998, when the children were 7 years of age. Mental health symptoms were evaluated at age 9 years using parent, child, and teacher reports. Results: Early father involvement and children’s biobehavioral sensitivity to context significantly and interactively predicted symptom severity. Among children experiencing low father involvement in infancy, behavioral, autonomic, and adrenocortical reactivity became risk factors for later mental health symptoms. The highest symptom severity scores were found for children with high autonomic reactivity that, as infants, had experienced low father involvement and mothers with symptoms of depression. Conclusions: Among children experiencing minimal paternal caretaking in infancy, heightened biobehavioral sensitivity to social contexts may be an important predisposing factor for the emergence of mental health symptoms in middle childhood. Such predispositions may be exacerbated by the presence of maternal depression.

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Devoted dad key to reducing risky teen behavior – Moms help, but an involved father has twice the influence, new study finds  [EXCERPT],  By Linda Carroll, June 5, 2009

Teenagers whose fathers are more involved in their lives are less likely to engage in risky sexual activities such as unprotected intercourse, according to a new study.  The more attentive the dad — and the more he knows about his teenage child’s friends — the bigger the impact on the teen’s sexual behavior, the researchers found.  While an involved mother can also help stave off a teen’s activity, dads have twice the influence.

“Maybe there’s something different about the way fathers and adolescents interact,” said the study’s lead author Rebekah Levine Coley, an associate professor at Boston College. “It could be because it’s less expected for fathers to be so involved, so it packs more punch when they are.”

Dad’s positive effect
Parental knowledge of a teen’s friends and activities was rated on a five point scale.  When it came to the dads, each point higher in parental knowledge translated into a 7 percent lower rate of sexual activity in the teen.  For the moms, one point higher in knowledge translated to only a 3 percent lower rate.  The impact of family time overall was even more striking. One additional family activity per week predicted a 9 percent drop in sexual activity.

Child development experts said the study was carefully done and important. “It’s praiseworthy by any measure,” said Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University.

Why would dads have a more powerful influence?

“Dads vary markedly in their roles as caretakers from not there at all to really helping moms,” Kazdin said. “The greater impact of dads might be that moms are more of a constant and when dads are there their impact is magnified.”  Also, Kazdin said “when dads are involved with families, the stress on the mom is usually reduced because of the diffusion of child-rearing or the support for the mom.”

In other words, dad’s positive effect on mom makes life better for the child, Kazdin explains.

The study underscores the importance of parental engagement overall, said Patrick Tolan, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  “For one thing, the more time you spend with them, they’re going to get your values and they’re more likely to think things through rather than acting impulsively.”

Coley hopes that the study will encourage both moms and dads to keep trying to connect with their teenage children, even as their kids are pushing them away.  “…it’s normal for teens to want to pull away from the family, [but] that doesn’t mean they don’t want to engage at all,”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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The Father-Daughter Relationship During the Teen Years – Ways to strengthen the bond  [EXCERPT],  by Linda Nielsen

According to recent research and my own 30 years of experience as a psychologist, most fathers and teenage daughters never get to know one another as well, or spend as much time together, or talk as comfortably to one another, as mothers and daughters.  Why is this bad news?  Because a father has as much or more impact as a mother does on their daughter’s school achievement, future job and income, relationships with men, self-confidence, and mental health.

When I ask young adult daughters why they aren’t as comfortable sharing personal things or getting to know their fathers as they are with their mothers, most make negative comments about men.

  • “Because he’s a man, he doesn’t want to talk about serious or personal things.”
  • “Because men aren’t capable of being as sensitive or as understanding as women.”
  • “Because fathers aren’t interested in getting to know their daughters very well.”

If a daughter grows up with these kinds of negative assumptions about fathers, she will not give her father the same opportunities she gives her mother to develop a comfortable, meaningful relationship. As parents, we strengthen father-daughter relationships by teaching our daughters how to give their fathers the opportunities to be understanding, communicative and personal.

Creating more father-daughter time alone – Regardless of a daughter’s age, the most important thing we can do is to make sure fathers and daughters spend more time alone with one another.  Since most fathers and daughters haven’t spent much time together without other people around, they might feel a little uncomfortable at first.  If so, they can start by taking turns participating in activities that each enjoys.  One idea:  The father could choose 15 or 20 of his favorite photographs from various times of his life — as a little boy, a teenager or a young man — and then use the pictures to tell his daughter stories about his life.  The key to the success of this father-daughter time is that they alone are sharing this experience.

Staying involved during dad’s absence – Teenage daughters and fathers can strengthen their relationship during dad’s absence through e-mails, letters, pictures and a touch of silliness.  Before dad departs, for one example, father and daughter can talk about how much their relationship means to each of them and agree to write or e-mail at least twice a week.

Linda Nielsen is a psychology professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Her most recent book is Embracing your Father: How to Create the Relationship You Always Wanted With Your Dad. For more information on father-daughter relationships visit www.wfu.edu/~nielsen/.

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Filed under bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, mental illness, oppositional defiant disorder, parenting