The Father's Involvement

Dear parent,

Let’s focus on the important contribution fathers and male therapists have in moulding your child’s future and preparing them for entering adulthood. As a father and a therapist I would like to share with you some of my insights; I strongly believe in love and boundaries in helping a child develop. I also support being compassionate, reassuring, reflective and empathic. I believe a child should explore his own willpower and learn to believe in himself from day one. Although every child is different and none of us were born with an ‘instruction-manual’ regarding our needs, there are basic communication skills I am sure most of you are very familiar with or intuitively apply.

Some of the following information could help you save years of therapy. I personally would rather you spend your time with your child, and your money on his/her future education, than finding yourself needing to spend it on prolonged therapy. So the question is how to maximise the ‘quality time’ you spend with your child. There are a few ground rules, which if you are able to follow them, will emotionally nourish your child, while he is in therapy and for the rest of his life:

  •       1. Physical contact
  •       2. Feedback
  •       3. Emotional sharing
  •       4. Capacity to demonstrate a tolerance of frustration
  •       5. Healthy competition
  •       6. Guide and help to explore who he/she wants to be
  •       7. Passing on your values; like humility,self-respect, and consideration

Physical contact:

From the moment of birth until death our body needs to be touched. Contact of varying pressures stimulate receptors in our nervous system and helps our brain to develop. Touch, as a non-verbal communication tool, provides us with feedback about the quality of our physical contact and teaches us about social interaction. It also especially helps a child with sensor-motor integration difficulties, like dyspraxia, to regulate and process his emotions and provide clarity for the thinking process.

Touch can ground your child when he/she is ‘spiralling out’ into their imagination or becoming anxious. It grounds them in reality and provides proportional views of the situations they are in.

The child has a bodily understanding that he came out of his mother’s body into the world. As she looked after him in his early stages of development, the physical contact of ‘holding’ and ‘handling’ contributed to the development of his sense of self. As the child grows, his needs change. Some reject the motherly contact, especially if it is perceived as infantilising, or in some extreme circumstances, if during upbringing the child experienced long periods of dependency, due to illness, developmental delays or trauma. But it does not signify that the need for contact subsides; it only means it needs to be different.

How different, varies from child to child. The best advice I can give, is first of all to find out how the child wants to be touched and especially how he does not want to be touched. For example; most children giggle when tickled. It’s a reflex and does not mean that they necessarily like it – ask them. Secondly, when applying different pressures, observe their reactions both physically and verbally.

A father’s participation is very important, especially from the age of 5+ in order to prepare the ground for open communication well before the child enters the teenage years, otherwise, sometimes, the child grows to isolate himself within his family as well as socially.

Contact could be from 'rough and tumble' to a very light stroking, like head stroking at bedtime, morning hugs before school or a light massage just for the sake of contact. Contact should be simple, and unconditional, as it carries a very strong message which often bridges unbearable tension and keeps the communication open in difficult times.

The physical contact between father and son/daughter is significant; it provides reassurance for future social interaction. For boys, it also carries a message that gentleness is not only a quality that girls are allowed to develop in their teens. Such messages are directed especially at boys with a very gentle character. The soft touch from their father (especially in their teens) can provide reassurance and reduce internal conflict to show that it’s good to become a man whilst keeping in touch with your gentleness.

If you want to be a role model for your child,you can hopefully demonstrate that the two can co-exist, that it’s o.k to become a gentle- man. Some boy’s social behaviour can become - in extreme circumstances - ‘the bully’ of the class as an attempt to deal with the greater fear of their own gentleness.

In addition, as the first man in your daughter’s life, you have been given the opportunity to help her understand how she would like to be treated in relation to her future partner. Take your time to observe what is it that you are demonstrating to her as a man when it comes to touch.

Physical contact is one of the simple ways to express love, warmth and reassurance. Due to our busy way of life, sometimes, instead of following our gut impulse, we tend to forget to prioritise touch. When helping our children to deal with their anxieties, we try to understand what they are voicing, while what is really going on underneath is a lack of physical contact to complement an important conversation you both need to have. For some people touch is not an easy and simple thing to apply. Therefore, it is even more important to explore ways forward for the sake of the next generation in your family.


Feedback:

Verbal feedback allows the child to understand the impact of his actions on the receiver; you or others. Verbal feedback also has a tremendous effect on the development of his/her self-esteem and confidence. Phrases like; ‘well done’,‘I’m proud of you’are the obvious ones, but no less important, phrases such as ‘not like that’ or ‘you’re doing it the wrong way’ are nurturing his heart and mind.

Feedback provides the child with an understanding of ‘how am I doing’. When a child grows with a lack of feedback, especially from his father, he may develop a strong sensitivity to not being appreciated for the work he does; by his partner, employees and especially by figures of authority, like his boss. So tell your child simply how he is doing and tell him as often as you possibly can.


Emotional sharing:

Has your child looked tense coming back from school, but when you asked how his day was, he just says ‘fine’ and goes to his room? Have you found your child restless, that they can’t find a way of telling you what it is about and instead do all sorts of irritating things to others around them, or simply withdraw?

Let me ask you a question; how do you think a person develops an emotional vocabulary? It starts from the reflection his mother gives him: when he cries, as she picks him up she might say ‘Poor you, you look really upset’; or when he is clumsy and falls, she picks him up and says ‘Oh, you must be very tired’; or when other kids want to play with his toys, as he starts to cry and throw them about, she might say something like; ‘I know it’s made you angry, but you need to share’. Such reflections, and others like them, help the child to develop his first emotional vocabulary. Sometimes it is not enough to get it from ‘Mum’. You need to demonstrate to him how to share by sharing yourself first.

Share with him at bedtime how was your day, and while you describe the unfolding events of your day, you can also talk about your feelings regarding some of your experiences. You’ll see in time he will stop you and identify himself in you, by talking about his day as well.

Some fathers finds this part of the relationship with their child hard to change, as they were not taught themselves by their dads how to share their feelings. Take your time to share what you feel comfortable to share. Your child will copy your hesitations, your courage to change and your openness. As his role model, you will show him how sometimes it is ok, it is safe, to share vulnerability as it can only strengthen him.


Capacity to demonstrate a tolerance of frustration:

In an emotional conflict, a child, (especially one with a lack of emotional vocabulary) could act out his tension instead of finding ways to cope with the situation he is in. For example: restlessness while reading or writing, lack of concentration, displaying social problems,these can be reduced by an adult’s acknowledgment of the child’s frustration. Sometimes acknowledgment is not enough as the complexity of the child’s emotional conflict needs to be looked at from different angles.

On a physical level, there are exercises you can do with your child, to enable him to push himself to achieve more than he thought he could .Taking a long walk with you on a Sunday morning; running with him or timing him running around trees in the park etc.’. Acknowledging the moments when he pushes himself provides reflection and encourages him to tolerate the physiological effort; “you are doing it now, carry on, go go go...well done”. This is a fundamental ability your child needs to have. His body is the place in which the ‘charge’, or the frustration can be contained.

At the next stage, while you both rest from the walk or the run it is time to try and verbalise the sensations in the body. First share with him your aches and pains in your muscles, the tingling sensation, or the pleasure of the wind on your sweaty skin. Then ask him about his sensations.

Following your observations and your acknowledgement of his reactions, talk about your conflict between listening to your pains to stop what you were doing and how at the same time you kept on going – walking, running. You are modelling to your child how you ‘hold’ your conflict; how you contain your frustration, in order to achieve your goal.

Moving on from the physical stage, share with him how it makes you feel being able to achieve a target you set. Usually keeping the same breathing pattern in a long physical effort helps you both to understand a bit about how you both coped, how keeping control over the breathing helped with ‘holding’ on.

Being aware of your body, helps to contain ‘tension’. Talking to your child about your physical state while you try to handle difficult challenges, demonstrates your resourcefulness. For example, you can say to your child; “I had a hard day at the office yesterday; there was this client, he was angry and I had to wait until he had finished talking. It was hard as he was shouting and I knew I was right, but I felt it was best if I waited. So I closed my fists, which helped me feel my hands, wriggled my toes, which helped me feel my legs and that helped me wait until he had finished talking”.

When sharing a conflict, sometimes you can also ask your child for advice. It sounds strange but you may be surprised at his new inventiveness in advising you. He will feel equal and touched by your new approach to him; then he might open up to you like he has never done before.

If your child mostly talks about how he can’t contain his frustration and feels disappointed in himself, it would be of great importance at that moment to avoid criticism and just show compassion; “Yes son, you right. It is not easy”. His ability to reflect about his experiences is an important step towards containment. And if he does come to you and say he controlled himself, ask him how he did it.

L (6) a dyspraxic girl, was always forgetful, so whenever she had a thought she had to voice it. She was unable to wait while others finished talking. After I helped her to structure her thinking process, she was able to hold her thought for a while, but due to her impulsivity, her thoughts needed to come out, sometimes inappropriately. Once I was talking to her dad and noticed she was leaning on the wall, waiting for me to finish my sentence. I stopped my conversation with her dad and asked her to pay attention to what her body was doing. She realised that the pressure her right elbow was making on the wall helped her to wait. It became her ‘anchor’; it helped her ‘hold’, tolerate her restlessness. It was clear to her that she was actually doing it, as I put the focus on the ‘how’. Since that moment she has been much more able to ‘hold’ her impulse whenever she wants to. She used to ‘show off’ whenever I came to her house, now she positions her elbow on the wall. I was proud of her and she was proud of herself, as for the first time she felt in control.

S (aged 8) is a very bright boy who has hyper - tactile sensitivity. For a few years he struggled to contain himself in the classroom, especially when the subject was ‘boring’. Fortunately, for the first 3 years at his school he had a very understanding teacher. When he moved to year 4 he frequently disturbed the class and could not do his work. S is also a very emotional boy and still looks at the world mostly in black and white. The following diagram was drafted in one of our sessions, which helped him understand that he does have a way of regulating his frustration and therefore does have a choice of how to respond to a developing ‘tension charge’.

As described in the following diagram, to enter his world I had to first relate to the ‘black & white’ by offering only two options that may develop from having a lesson in class. Then, as the diagram develops so does the different possibilities, one by one, these were added over a period of two sessions. Most of the words in the boxes came from S’s world and as the process of the diagram unfolded, more frequently S held his breath and his eyes moved across the paper, in an attempt to understand how ‘black & white’ could make ‘gray’. Frustration does not necessarily have to lead to disruptive behaviour.

Diagram

As the diagram developed I introduced the concept of a TV remote. S found that the concept of a ‘remote control’ answers the question of ‘WHAT’ needs to happen to help him make the right choice and avoid getting into trouble. He started to understand that perhaps he has a choice: ‘WHAT’ can he do when the ‘tension’ gets unbearable?

Then I asked S the more difficult question of the ‘HOW’. Apparently there are times when the lessons in class are difficult and he manages to ‘stay calm’ (his words). I then asked him ‘HOW’ he does it, how he calms himself when he gets bored – irritated – frustrated – angry – disruptive? I needed to ask S again and again in different ways, to get an answer to that question. It was not easy for him to understand how he does it, how he chooses to makes himself calm, as an alternative that results in him being able to do his work and avoid getting into trouble. Only when S closed his eyes for a few seconds and saw himself in the class, could he see that he was looking at the clock above the door, thinking when the lesson would finish. I highlighted to S that that is the ‘HOW’; that is how he calms himself. S looked pleased as he then knew what I was talking about.

It is of high importance that the child gets an understanding of ‘HOW’ he regulates himself to allow the containment of frustration to develop. See how you feel reading the following statement: “It’s OK not to get what you want”.... pay attention to your thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings while you close your eyes and repeat that statement for a few times. For me, it surfaces the conflict of my willpower versus my patience. What does it do to you?


Healthy competition:

Competition is part of life: it challenges us to arrive at our target; it motivates us mostly when our confidence is developed. Losing in a competition is very painful, especially for a child with low confidence and self-esteem. Therefore, the child will try to avoid such a challenge, and, as a result, miss out of the development of an important social skill.

As a father, how would you intend to provide your child with the tools to become positive about being in a competition so he’ll get the most out of himself? Perhaps you had already started to do so when he was little, by playing different games like ball games, chess or Monopoly. More than once you probably found out how difficult it is to moderate the ‘right pressure’ your child needs in order to feel that the competition is manageable. More than once, as he was about to lose ,your child would try his best to manipulate the result to his benefit. More than once you probably tried to let him do it, knowing he needed time to grow confident.

Well, you’re right. He does. The concept of ‘optimum frustration’ is what your child was hopefully exposed to in his early years when he was crying for his needs to be gratified, but had to wait.While getting his needs met,it eventually registered in his mind that frustration is part of life. Now it is your job to ‘remind’ him of that experience in relation to other people and in relation to the competitive society in which we are living. Just like he waited to be fed, changed or picked up, he can now wait while ’fighting’ to win in competition with someone else, to get what he wants. You don’t need to share with him that concept, but keep it at the back of your mind as it will help you to break down the challenges you want to set up for him.

For example, by declaring “let's play football- level 1”, as you play at a pace which will allow him to win, it could in time motivate him to ask you to play the next level. Or when you ‘play fight’ with him, declare the same thing; “Let’s fight- level 1” just like in his computer games. Don’t crush him to show him who is stronger... your size, knowledge, skills and experience will stop looking so intimidating, and potentially defeating, and will allow his ability to compete with you, and then with others, possible.


Guide and help to explore who he/she wants to be:

For many generations and in different cultures, it has become a norm that the ‘father’, the spiritual person, the Rabbi, the Priest or the Guru, has the role in religiously guiding young adults in finding their way in life. In our modern civilisation, there are many other role-models that play an important part in moulding your child’s future. You as the father, play a very important role, even if the feedback from your young teenager is a very negative one. Although, in modern society, parents find themselves taking equal responsibility in raising their children, while at the same time developing their own style, in most cultures, the child learns about the different roles parents take in relation to them, their siblings and the rest of society.

Children are experiencing their mother as the one that looks after their needs, while their father mostly spends time at work. I know such a statement is potentially provocative and not completely true for all families, but from my observations, it does not diminish the importance of the father’s role in guiding the child, especially in times when he feels at a turning point.

Your advice, which comes from your experience in life, is no less important than the very important advice he/she is getting from the mother. Sometimes, you need to overcome your perception of how well the child’s mother helps him/her, which may be true, and understand that your input (even if it’s completely contradicting your partner), is important for your child mostly because it comes from you.

If you are still not sure of the significance of ‘fatherly advice’ then perhaps you may be interested to explore first what kind of advice you internalised from your father and how this impacted your life.


Passing on your values; like humility, self respect, and consideration:

Can this be done? My understanding of this is that it is one of the most difficult things to do. You can try and explain to your child “in my time, if I just opened my mouth...” or “I was only allowed to speak when I was spoken to”. Well fathers, it’s not your time or mine anymore, so how do we teach them to be good human-beings today?

My only comment for now is that you need to be a role model through actions and not just words. As I said before, your child is more likely to copy your behaviour and what you radiate than what you say. Your child is exposed to how you relate to others like, neighbours, friends, your parents, your boss or your employees. He will also take in how you respect your wife, yourself and him. He will also notice how you look after yourself.

Your child sees it all and takes it all in. Perhaps, when you come home, you ask him to behave in the opposite way of what you ask of yourself. Why should he?

© Myrom Kahaner