As dads and stepdads, we are often the initial male influence in our children’s lives, setting standards for how they expect to be treated by boys and other men in our society. Yet, many of us are confused about how to parent, and seem content to take a back seat when it comes to the day-to-day. We may think that moms are better at connecting and communicating. And when our children experience mental health struggles, we are often at a loss for how to support them.
Despite our doubts, children hunger for connection with their dads and stepdads. When we act to feed that hunger, our kids can benefit in wonderful ways—and throughout their lives. Dads and stepdads play tremendous roles in the social and emotional development of their children. There is simply no excuse for us to remain distant in their lives. This involvement becomes key when kids are struggling and can even be lifesaving. Families can be a source of great healing when a child is suffering from an eating disorder, mood, or anxiety disorder. Families are also key in affirming our children who may identify in ways that have been marginalized or considered atypical by societal norms, for example being gender-expansive or having a neurotype such as autism or ADHD.
Here are 11 tips for leveraging the power and potential of your relationship as a dad or a stepdad:
Listen and encourage your child to love who they are.
Focus on what your child thinks, believes, feels, dreams, and does—rather than how they look. Take them seriously and see them as a whole person, capable of anything and you will instill confidence and encourage the use of their talents and influence in the world.
Be affectionate, while also teaching about consent.
Healthy touch nourishes and grounds kids, showing them that they deserve comfort, joy, and closeness. At the same time, it is also important to teach our children that they get the final say on physical touch and affection, and that consent plays an important role in bodily autonomy.
Engage in joyful movement and activities with your children.
Enjoy playing catch, challenging your kids to a game of tag or hide and seek. Jump rope together, shoot hoops, play hockey, kick around a soccer ball, or simply take walks. This helps kids learn the great and powerful things their bodies can do and helps them resist the world’s hailstorm of “how you look is more important than who you are” messages. Movement can also help diminish symptoms of anxiety and depression. Talk about influencing physical and emotional well-being!
Get involved at school and in preferred activities
Volunteer, chaperone, attend the PTA meetings and stay involved. Make sure your children’s/stepchildren’s school(s) proactively address sexual harassment and bullying. Drive the carpool, coach, direct a play, teach a class—and demand equal opportunities for all genders. Expressing interest and asking to participate in your child’s preferred activities is a great, affirming way to connect with a kid on the autism spectrum who may have intense likes and dislikes, and opens doors to communication and building trust. Share your work and interests too. It’s a great way to bond and demonstrate ways to be passionate about work and life.
Help make the world safe & fair for all genders.
Work with others to fight violence against females, homophobia and transphobia, hyper-sexualization of girls, ultra-masculine stereotypes of boys, pornography, and all gender inequity.
Learn from others.
Parents are walking encyclopedias of experience, expertise, and encouragement, as are teachers, therapists, coaches, and a myriad of other adults that regularly interact with children and families. Participate in doctor’s visits, and teacher meetings. If your child is in therapy or treatment, make it a point to attend family sessions and care-giver support groups instead of leaving it to your spouse to fill you in. You are an expert on your child, even in situations where you feel lost. Share what you know and listen to the wisdom of others.
Be willing to admit when you are wrong when you have struggled or failed.
We need to model for our children what it means to be “not perfect” and that its ok to be imperfect. This includes acknowledging when, in attempt to be supportive, you get it wrong. Saying something like, “I was hoping to say something that might help you right now and I see that it did not help. I’m really sorry about that. Can you help me to better understand what you need from me right now?”
Be willing to acknowledge your own fears and anxieties with your child who may be struggling with a mental health concern.
Often, we just want our child’s suffering to stop because their distress causes caregivers to feel inadequate, scared, or frustrated. Sometimes, Dads will respond to these more uncomfortable emotions with irritation, dismissiveness, or statements like, “It will be OK,” “Don’t worry,” or “Don’t be so sensitive.” Our child can experience these reactions as invalidating and can create more distance at a time when you are trying to get closer. It may be more helpful to say something like, “I’m so sorry that you’re having such a tough time right now. It actually is really hard for me to see you this way and I don’t exactly know how to make this better for you. Just know that I care about you, and I am willing to listen.”
Be an example of adulthood.
One of our main tasks as parents is to help our children grow up to be independent and productive human beings. If you routinely come home from work exhausted, disconnected, shut down, anxious or stressed out, this can teach your children that being adult is difficult and overwhelming. Being a positive adult role model for them means taking care of yourself in appropriate ways. We want our children to be excited about reaching their developmental milestones and seeking more independence, not to be afraid of it. Your children benefit from your work—and they need to see you enjoying your life, your relationships, and your passions.
If your child tries to exclude you from their treatment, resist (for their own good and yours).
Treatment is hard, and it works. You (and your child) will probably experience serious discomfort during treatment. That’s part of the journey, and we can’t turn away from it. What sends your child a powerful, clear message that you will walk with them through even the most challenges of treatment? And that you are fully committed to their getting well? Showing up consistently. Listening. Speaking up. Keeping your commitment even when it’s hard.
Be curious, not furious.
We may be hurt, disrespected, or angry when, for example, our child gives the silent treatment. If they don’t want to “let you in” to their life right now, we may feel the urge to punish, judge, or lash out. But that’s self-defeating. Instead, practice curiosity. Invite your child (and others) to “tell me more.” Ask yourself and your child, “Am I doing or saying something feels like I’m not interested in you or your problems?” Being curious (not furious) helps us consider the possibility that our behaviors may not be reflecting our values or intentions. Or that your child misunderstands something about your behaviors–and that mutual curiosity can generate deeper and more thorough conversations with our child. Bottom line: we matter.
May you find joy, challenge, and purpose in your own parent-child bond every day!