It takes many kinds of skills to be a father. On any given day, you might be planning a birthday party, tending to skinned knees, mediating sibling conflicts, or making a school lunch.
With all that’s on their plates, fathers need support, too, and in many places, they don’t get it from the start. For example, prenatal doctor’s offices often have unfriendly environmental cues like décor with pictures of only moms and babies, which can signal to dads that they’re not welcome or expected to be involved in their baby’s care. What’s more, the United States does not have a national policy for parental leave.
While dads look for more support from outside, there are some well-being skills that they can cultivate themselves that are a significant resource throughout their parenting journey. Here are a few.
Having a sense of purpose as a father can help you sustain your energy and be persistent when you run into obstacles. But sometimes parenting can lead us to feel untethered, which might make dads wonder whether it’s even possible to cultivate a renewed sense of purpose.
In a recent study, researcher James Mahalik and his colleagues explored ways to help increase fathers’ sense of purpose. The researchers studied over 180 fathers of young children who were mostly white and married. In a brief reflection writing program, some fathers learned about research on how children benefit when dads are involved. Then, they were asked to reflect on and write about their sense of purpose as a father using prompts like these:
- As you think about the type of life you want your child to have, what long-term goals and aspirations do you have for them?
- Think about a recent positive experience you had as a father with your child. Please briefly describe it then identify two or three of your core values it reflected (e.g., going to the playground represents my value of fun, connection, and growth).
- What are two or three specific character strengths you bring to being a father? (e.g., hard work, compassion, loyalty).
All fathers completed a questionnaire about their sense of purpose in life across three main areas: having a sense of meaning, being oriented toward goals, and impacting others.
The results? Compared to fathers who didn’t engage in learning and reflection, fathers who participated in the writing program grew in their sense of purpose, particularly in the sense that their lives had meaning and an impact beyond themselves.
Taking time to reflect on what it means to you to be a father can be a powerful way to feel reinvigorated, because it helps you gain a clearer focus and affirm your role as a dad.
“Whether it be brief online reflection exercises or conversations with a trusted health care practitioner, helping new fathers to recognize what they find meaningful about fatherhood, their hopes and goals for their children, and how they as fathers hope to impact them—such interventions represent a promising way to support fathers and their children’s healthy development,” explain Mahalik and his colleagues.
There’s plenty of mistake-making in parenting, and sometimes it can be easy to spiral into feeling like a hopeless failure. But practicing the three parts of self-compassion—being kind to yourself, recognizing that mistakes are part of being human, and being mindful about your thoughts and feelings without overidentifying with them—can be a powerful way for dads to handle their inner critics’ relentless negative chatter.
A recent study by researcher Vincent Mancini and his colleagues explored how self-compassion helps dads navigate the hard parts of parenting and stay connected with their kids. They studied 175 fathers of young children mostly in the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as a few dads in about 20 other countries, like Nigeria, Argentina, Bulgaria, the Philippines, and Yemen. Dads completed a questionnaire measuring their self-compassion, their negative emotional symptoms (like depression, anxiety, and stress), their stress specifically around parenting, and their sense of self-efficacy around parenting—believing they’re competent to meet parenting demands. Finally, to measure father-child attachment, dads answered questions about their patience and tolerance for their child, pleasure in interacting with their child, and affection and pride for their child.
Mancini and his colleagues found that dads who practiced greater self-compassion tended to have fewer negative emotions and, in turn, less parenting stress. What’s more, dads with less parenting stress tended to feel more efficacious as parents and, in turn, have stronger attachment with their children.
“Self-compassion has emerged as a promising target for treatment approaches to improve the health and well-being of parents and children,” explain Mancini and his colleagues. Adopting a habit of practicing self-compassion by taking self-compassion breaks, for example, can be a helpful way for you to navigate the everyday challenges of parenting and nurture a strong bond with your child.
The consequences of loneliness have made it a heightened public health concern. About one-third of parents feel chronically lonely, which can be detrimental to both our own well-being and the well-being of our children. What’s more, fathers of children with autism tend to be lonelier and have less social support than other fathers. Social support can be a transformative way to nurture fathers’ well-being.
In a recent study, researcher Suzanne Brown and her colleagues studied how social support helps fathers, particularly those with a history of challenging childhood experiences. They enlisted nearly 40 soon-to-be dads who were mostly Black. To induce stress, the researchers had dads listen to a life-like doll that “cries” for 10 minutes using the audio of an actual baby’s crying.
The researchers measured dads’ cortisol—a hormone that is secreted in the body as a response to stress—from their saliva five times: before they arrived at the lab, right before they experienced the simulation of the crying baby, and three times afterward. Release of cortisol helps the body respond to immediate threats, but this response becomes harmful to the body when it is prolonged over an extended amount of time. It can also get in the way of sensitive parenting.
The researchers also surveyed dads’ exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like abuse, having a parent with substance use or mental health problems, and witnessing domestic violence, as well as their social support from family, friends, and significant others.
The researchers found that social support seemed to protect fathers who had had difficult childhoods. Among dads with greater ACEs, those with higher social support had lower cortisol than those with lower social support. In fact, they had about the same level of cortisol as those who hadn’t had difficult childhoods.
“Social support for parents leads to better emotion regulation and increased resilience in both parents and children,” explain Brown and her colleagues. “Screening for ACEs and assessment of social support may be important as part of prenatal care for fathers as well as mothers.”
While prenatal and parent-and-me groups are widely available for moms, the findings of this study suggest that many dads would benefit from similar opportunities to foster social ties, which can help them cope with stressful parenting experiences during fatherhood.