Here we’ll look at some different ways that you can support the dads that you work with, and also explore why it’s vitally important for dads to receive the support they need.
Traditionally, parenting research can focus on the impact mothers have on their children. Fathers can also have deep and lasting effects on how their child’s brain, emotions and body develop and so it’s important to support them to build positive relationships with their children.
Fathers are now present in their children’s lives more than ever before. UK figures show that 96% of fathers attend their child’s birth, and in research from the Western world shows that dads are spending more time with their children now, as compared to 20-30 years ago. This is due to a range of reasons, such as more women going to work and providing for their family economically. Also, evolving attitudes to fatherhood means it’s more socially acceptable (and desirable) for dads to be hands on with caring for their children. Same sex parenting is also much more common now, than in the past.
What is also less talked about is that new fathers can experience challenges throughout their partner’s pregnancy, and during the first few years of their child’s life. In fact, according to some research, 10% of new fathers report experiencing mental health difficulties. Dads might also suffer from high levels of anxiety about their newfound roles and responsibilities, their relationship with their partner, or their relationships with the new baby. Also, at times, new dads might feel isolated, low in mood, and less motivated to communicate with friends and family. These kinds of feelings can apply to all dads, including those who are in same sex relationships or single parents.
An engaged and supportive dad can help children develop in a more positive way. For example, with being more confident with exploring the world, finding it easier to regulate their own feelings, and being able to build better social relationships with their peers in childhood. So it can be really helpful to support dads with some of the challenges they face. This in turn can contribute to enhancing their children’s cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional development.
Despite the evidence that shows that dads are important to child development, and can be at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties, there is very little support for new fathers out there. Gender inequality still exists in early parenthood, and services can often still reflect more traditional family structures. For example, new dads often describe feeling overlooked when they access family-centred services after the birth of their babies.
Sometimes early years workers might also hold their own assumptions about fathers, and how they may be dealing with parenthood, which can affect how they view or treat them. All these things can lead to dads falling through the gaps, with many saying they feel marginalised or isolated as new parents.
Early years workers are in a great position to support dads at this crucial time. It’s a real opportunity to encourage positive, nurturing interactions between them and their children.
1. Use the dads’ names whenever talking to them
Ensure that you remember, and use the dads’ names. It sounds obvious, but this can really help dads feel included and important to their child’s care.
2. Acknowledge the dad’s involvement with their child, and engage with them about it
Encourage and acknowledge dads' involvement in caring for their baby or young child. Take time to have conversations with dads about how they think their children are doing, in the same way you would with a mum.
3. Take time to stop and ask dads how they are doing
Ask dads how they are getting on, and how they are coping with fatherhood. You could Ask: ’What has surprised them?’ or‘What has been easier/more difficult than they had expected?’ Often these questions are saved for mums.
4. Be curious about the different challenges dads can face
Learn more about the different challenges and mental health difficulties that dads can experience at the time of pregnancy and parenthood. Also learn about any challenges that may be faced by dads bringing up children in their own, divorced dads, and those in same sex relationships.
5. Encourage couples to support each other
You can also gently encourage couplesto listen to and support each other. For example, listening actively to each other, and also chatting reflectively about their experiences and feelings , can help them both beto be more confident and preserve their relationship.
6. Create a ‘dad-friendly’ work environment
Ensure that your workspaces and materials are dad friendly – would dads feel welcome? Are men shown in a positive way in posters/materials?
7. Invite dads to meetings, as well as mums
Ensure that dads are invited to all meetings about their child, even if you think they will not be able to attend.
8. Prompt dads to look closer at their child’s actions
Encourage dads to watch and notice their baby’s and child’s actions and behaviours. Think with them about those behaviours might mean and what their baby may need from them.
9. Encourage dads to have quality time with their child
Encourage dads to have joyful, engaging interactions with their baby/child. Maybe you could suggest they have a regular time in the day or week to sing songs together, or share a picture book together.
10. Encourage dads to seek support if needed
Suggest to dads that they get help if they are struggling – GPs, midwives and health visitors can help, and can signpost dads to support available in their local area. Click on the link to read more about our service for fathers, Mind the Dad.
11. Think about the way that you view dads yourself
Take some time to think about what your own feelings and assumptions are about fathers. Think about how this could perhaps affect the way you work with them.
Dads matter and our views about dads matter. We each hold an emotional and mental representation of fathers based on our early life experiences, and this is true whether he was present or absent, loving or abusive, alive or dead. Take a minute to think about your own father.
What was he like? What did your experiences of him tell you about a man’s role in the family? In what way do you think of the father on your caseload as the same or different? Whatever you dad is or was like, even if you never met him, the probability is that he will have shaped you, your life and your practice in some way.
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