Engaging fathers

Children’s mental health and wellbeing is enhanced when fathers take a strong interest in their development and learning.
Two men and a child in a rural setting

The role of fathers

Children thrive on the feelings of belonging and affection that come from caring and supportive families. Whether families have one parent or two, include step-parents, grandparents or other carers, they can build strong, positive relationships that support children’s mental health. 

A father is a male parent or carer of a child

A father may not be biologically related to his child or live with his child all the time. Some children have contact with a father, while others don’t. He may be a grandfather, step-father, foster father or adoptive father of a child. Some children might have more than one father or relationships with other males who undertake a significant portion of parenting.

There is no ‘right’ way to be a father

Each father brings unique ideas and experience to being a supportive adult, and has a lot to contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of his child and family. Supporting a child and having their best interests in mind is what’s important, as this has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. 

Fathers can be involved with their children through: 
  • engagement (direct contact with their children)
  • accessibility (being available to their children even when they’re not in physical contact)
  • responsibility (taking a role in looking out for their children’s care and welfare).

There are many ways fathers’ involvement with their children, and the early learning service or school, can benefit children’s mental health and wellbeing.

  • Why are fathers important for children’s mental health and wellbeing? 

    Father involvement is positively linked with children’s overall life satisfaction and wellbeing.

    Children with connected fathers are more likely to experience:

    • higher levels of self-reported happiness
    • higher levels of confidence
    • fewer feelings of fear and guilt
    • less emotional distress and upset.

    Babies whose fathers are involved in their care are more likely to feel connected to them, be better able to handle new and unfamiliar situations, to manage stressful situations, and are more curious and eager to explore their environment.

    Children benefit from quality interactions, where fathers engage and bond with them.

    Young children who receive lots of affection from their dad will have a more secure relationship with him. Fathers can give children a person to trust, to bond with and feel secure around. Boys who feel connected with their dads often have more self-control, while girls connected with their dads often have strong feelings of being confident and capable, and have a positive sense of identity. 

    Fathers also parent their child in different ways from other family members – for example, dads can provide special experiences through rough-and-tumble play, which helps develop children’s physical abilities and helps them to manage new and exciting experiences. 

    Good father-child relationships in early childhood are also associated with good relationships between fathers and children in adolescence.

  • Why are fathers important for social and emotional development? 

    Children whose fathers feel good about being a dad, and are sensitive and responsive to their needs, tend to have better social and emotional learning skills.

    Children who have fathers who are emotionally involved (for instance, acknowledging their children’s feelings and helping them deal with difficult times), are more likely to feel emotionally connected themselves and have more positive relationships with other children. They’re better at turn-taking and sharing and likely to behave less aggressively towards their peers. When dads are affectionate and helpful to their child, children are more likely to get on well with their siblings.

    When fathers are involved in their child’s everyday activities (for example, eating meals together, reading and helping with homework), children also tend to have fewer behaviour difficulties and better social skills.

  • Getting involved is good for fathers too

    Spending time being involved and taking care of children provides fathers with opportunities to display affection and to nurture their children.

    Involved fathers are more likely to see interactions with their children positively, be more attentive to their children’s development, better understand and be more accepting of their children, and enjoy closer, richer father-child relationships. 

    Fathers who are involved in their children’s lives are more likely to be more satisfied with their own lives, feel less psychological distress, and be more able to understand themselves and empathically understand others.

    Feeling involved is also good for dads because they have a greater sense of self, greater general wellbeing, marital stability and relationship happiness. This is because being involved increases a sense of connectedness and inclusion.Involved fathers also have a strong sense of how important they are to their children.

  • New dad stress

    Most people are aware that anxiety and depression can affect new mothers, but did you know that fathers are also at risk? 

    The signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression in new dads are broadly the same as those experienced at any other point in someone’s life. But because becoming a father represents such a big life change, there are also some feelings and responses that are unique to the new situation.

    Previous research by Beyond Blue identified that:

    Men experience significant internalised pressure in their role as fathers.

    While fatherhood is a time of great joy and happiness, men can feel overwhelmed by the need to be the financial and emotional support of their family and the sacrifices they have to make in their new role. New fathers perceive they need to be ‘the rock’, and bear the weight of their responsibilities without the support of others.

    First-time fathers whose child is under 12 months of age are at the greatest risk of psychological distress.

    Thirty-nine percent of fathers in this segment reported high levels of psychological distress. They are also likely to see their own feelings and experiences as less important than their partners.

    Men do not want to identify ‘dad stress’ with depression and anxiety

    The negative attitudes towards depression and anxiety generally, and specifically towards postnatal depression among fathers, present a significant barrier to men seeking help and support in their role as fathers. As men are more open to acknowledging the challenges of fatherhood, engaging through notions such as ‘dad stress’ are likely to work more effectively.

    The partner relationship is of critical importance and facilitates access to support and information.

    Having a child deepens the relationship between parents, but is also changes it fundamentally. Couples that are aware of the challenges that lie ahead, and who have planned and negotiated their roles and responsibilities prior to the birth, fare better than those who are less prepared.

    Fathers tend to seek information reactively and rely on their partner to be a conduit for advice and direction.

    New fathers are open to seeking help and information, but tend to ‘learn as they go’ and seek information specific to the challenge they are currently facing.

    Fathers show a general lack of satisfaction with their engagement with professionals and the availability of father-specific support and advice.

    There is a sense that men feel somewhat remote from the pregnancy and restricted in their new role as a father as the majority of information and support is directed towards the mother.

  • How can services and schools supporting fathers to get involved?

    Children spend significant amounts of time in their service or at school, so it’s important fathers engage with these communities.

    However, it’s not always easy for fathers to get involved. Some dads don’t have the time or availability to get involved because they work long hours or work or live a long distance away. For other dads, the early service and school is simply a new environment they’re not familiar with and they may feel uncomfortable or unsure of what to say or do. 

    When fathers are made to feel welcome at services and schools, it becomes an inclusive family environment and fathers can become involved in another part of their child’s world. This is beneficial for children’s mental health because they look forward to seeing their dad and greeting them at the end of the day and can spend time together sharing stories on the way home. By taking the first step of connecting, fathers become closer to their child and can bond with them at a place that’s a big part of the child’s world.

    Schools and services can encourage father involvement
    • Observe how often fathers are involved. Is most of educators’ contact with mums or other family members? Do you know the names of dads of the children at your service or school?
    • Take time to build trust and form relationships with fathers who are new to the service or school. When fathers get to know educators, it makes it easier to approach you when they have a concern or question about their child. Fathers can also be more comfortable with sharing exciting news or developmental milestones with you one there’s familiarity. It’s important for fathers to try and become familiar with this part of their child’s world and to see the physical space (for example, different rooms and the playground) that their child enjoys.
    • Create opportunities for dads to spend time at the school or service and meet other dads. For example, organising specific father-and-child events, such as a dads’ breakfast, suppers, working bees or movie nights, at times that suit fathers.
    • Provide a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, supported by including newsletters, pamphlets, and posters which recognise the positive role fathers have with children. You could also encourage dads to borrow materials such as library books.
    • Avoid asking fathers to communicate information to their partners. Fathers want to be informed about their child’s day and valued as a primary carer in their child’s life.
    • Include dads when contacting with families. For example, initiating discussions with mothers and fathers, asking fathers specific questions about how their child’s going, keeping in regular contact with fathers via text messaging and email.
    • Check you have contact details for all adult family members and balance communication between mums and dads (address letters or correspondence to all).
    • Consider family situations when sharing progress information such as written feedback and portfolios. For example, it may help to prepare two copies, one for each adult family member, if they don’t live together.
    • Have pictures of fathers and children around the school or service. This will help children feel happy to see the picture, and dads to feel comfortable when they visit.
    • Tell dads you appreciate their involvement – this will make them feel included and proud, and make it more likely they’ll continue their involvement.

    Be You Professional Learning

    Check out tips for creating and maintaining strong partnerships with families in the Family Partnerships domain.

  • References

    Beyond Blue (2015). Healthy Dads? The challenge of being a new father. Retrieved from: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/research-projects/research-projects/dads-research.

    Sarkadi, A., Kristiansson, R., Oberklaid, F., & Bremberg, S. (2008). Fathers' involvement and children's developmental outcomes: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Acta Paediatrica, 97(2), 153-158.

    Tehan, B., & McDonald, M. (2010). Engaging fathers in child and family services. Melbourne: Communities and Families Clearinghouse Australia. Retrieved from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/sites/default/files/publication-documents/ps2.pdf.

    Weston, R., Gray, M., Qu, L., & Stanton, D. (2011). Long work hours and the wellbeing of fathers and their families. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from http://www.aifs.gov.au/institute/pubs/respaper/rp35/rp35.pdf.

    Wilson, K. R., & Prior, M. R. (2011). Father involvement and child well‐being. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 47(7), 405-407.