Father playing with Child

The Role of Fathers in a Child’s Life

Fathers, whether they are the primary caregiver or live separately, are stepfathers or grandfathers, play an important role in their children’s lives. Supportive, involved fathers can contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of their children and create a stronger family unit. The father role can be even more important when a child has a disability, but there continue to be some barriers for fathers to access services that might support them and their families.

Many fathers feel a bit out of their depth when a baby is born. With the first few months of newborn life, the mother is often focused on establishing feeding and sleep routines, and fathers can feel a bit left out or inadequate. When a child is diagnosed with a disability, there can be complicated fears and worries for both mothers and fathers, which can lead to feelings of isolation and helplessness. Some fathers feel like they have failed to protect their family from harm, and they can feel even more inadequate.

Mothers and fathers can react quite differently to the news of disability in their child; a mother might throw herself into finding the right therapies, while a father might worry more about the future. Mothers may have more opportunities to connect with other mothers, whereas this peer connection might be more limited for fathers, who then may feel more isolated.

Parent's Support for Their Child

Siblings can also feel very confused by what is happening around them; they too might feel left out amidst the extra activity needed for a child with disability and fathers can play an extra role here to ensure that siblings feel loved and cared for, by finding activities they can share and have fun together.

Service providers can support dads to be involved in their children’s lives. Ultimately, though, the best thing that service providers (disability, community services, health) can do, both for the child with disability and their siblings, is to assist in strengthening the parent relationship. Here are some other things to consider:

Information

Ensure available resources about parenting target fathers as well as mothers.

Involvement 

Encourage fathers to be involved in the care of all their children. Assist them to attend review meetings, therapy sessions for the child with disability, to be informed and to increase their understanding of their child’s development and needs. This can result in a closer bond with their child, improved communication skills, and increased confidence in parenting. In addition, if fathers are present and involved, they can play an important role in making sure siblings are seen and heard and allowed to follow their normal routines as much as possible. Siblings Australia’s e-learning course, SibWise, will assist parents to better understand and respond to sibling needs and challenges.

Father's involvement in Child's Activities

Peer support 

Establish fathers’ groups where they can share valuable insights and coping strategies and, as a result, feel less alone. These might need to be very informal catch ups over beers and a pizza, say. Outcomes might include decreased feelings of isolation, the development of a supportive community, stronger sense of self-worth and commitment to their family.

Parent relationship 

Encourage parents to seek support for their relationship either within the organisation that supports the child with disability or in the community. No families are the same, but it can help if each partner is conscious and understanding of the other’s reactions and can validate and support them. If parents can remain strong together, regardless of their living situation, the whole family will benefit.

Parents Support Group

If you are a parent, remember that all your children will benefit from the support of trusted adults in their lives. If you are connected to a disability support organisation, ask what services there are for you and your partner to ensure a strong relationship and to connect with other parents. These groups may be face to face or online but either way they can add enormously to your confidence in creating strong family relationships. Also, look at supports for your sibling children, there are peer support programs for teens and adults run by Siblings Australia as well as resources for young children – if all members of the family are tapped into supportive networks the whole family is likely to communicate more easily and feel trust in each other, leading to more peaceful family time.

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