“Anyone can be a father (well, almost anyone). It can be as simple as having a bit of fun on a Friday night because being a father is merely being a part of creating life. However, there is a difference in being a dad. For me, being a dad means being involved, active, and engaged in the child’s life. The world has enough fathers – I want to be a dad.”
This was part of a memorable conversation I had with “Steve.” This conversation is one of the many experiences that influences me both as a counsellor and as a dad. The world needs more dads.
I began my counselling career working almost exclusively with men. Later, I shifted my focus to working with children, youth, and families in crisis. As I worked with these families, I was surprised (and saddened) by the lack of dads involved in the counselling process.
Where are the dads? How can we engage them? What’s the best way to involve them in the therapeutic process?
These key questions have shaped and bettered my practice.
Dads are needed in all areas of family life, including in the counselling process. Children and youth benefit in terms of personal wellbeing, growth, and development with father involvement. Within family counselling, father involvement has been shown to influence less “drop out” and produce greater therapeutic outcomes. Despite this fact, many fathers are absent from the counselling process.
The unfortunate reality is that many men experience obstacles both internally (i.e., the myths of masculinity isolate and silence men from seeking help), as well as externally (i.e., assumptions made by service providers about the level/lack of involvement of fathers and men).
How do we help men overcome these obstacles so they can become better dads? This topic could be a whole book, or at least a chapter (SPOILER ALERT: I’m passionate about this topic and will be writing a chapter on it for an upcoming CTRI book).
For the purpose of this blog, I want to share some learnings on how best to engage men in the therapeutic process so they can be the engaged dads that kids and families need.
Check our assumptions
We all make assumptions about things, places, and people, but the problem is, these assumptions influence our understandings, thoughts, and actions. When it comes to fathers, some of the dominant assumptions/stories range from the benignly neglectful to the wilfully abusive. We are bombarded with these messages as they play out on TV, in movies, and on social media. As helpers, we need to be aware of these assumptions as they will shape our engagement, or lack thereof, with fathers.
I experienced the impact of some of these assumptions firsthand when I was a young father. Whenever possible, I attended meetings with teachers, health care professionals, etc., with my partner regarding my boys. I clearly remember the majority of the conversations and eye contact being directed towards their mother. These meetings left me feeling ignored, dismissed, and frustrated. I can see how these experiences can be a disincentive for men to be involved in counselling.
Rather than falling into such assumptions, be curious with and about the father. Engage with him directly about himself and his experience:
- As a father (both being a father and his relationship growing up and currently with his own father)
- Of joys and concerns as a parent
- With how he sees and understands the issues, challenges, and solutions of family life
Take additional steps to engage dads
There are many obstacles (e.g., myths of masculinity, assumptions of what counselling is about, previous experiences with helpers, minimizations of their role in the family, etc.) that can limit dads’ involvement in counselling. Early in my career, I was able to recognize these barriers and realized that, if I wanted to involve the dads, I needed to take additional steps in order to engage them. Here are some ways you can engage dads in the counselling process:
- Make specific contact with dads by phone, letter, email
- Introduce yourself and explain your work and the need for his involvement in terms of value of his insight, experience, and contributions to the family
- Be flexible in terms of timing and location of meetings (e.g., evening appointments, weekends, home visits, etc.)
- Explore his experiences, insights, hopes, and concerns regarding the family and his role
- Continue to work at keeping him informed and involved
Look beyond “the bio dad”
My work with children and youth has taught me the importance of also working with the important adults in their lives, which might not be the biological parents. As it has often been mothers bringing in their children for counselling, I have found that it’s important to inquire into significant men in their lives – a “dad figure.” This may be a stepdad, grandparent, hockey coach, or even a favourite teacher. As Steve so eloquently described, there is more to being a dad than making a baby. Wherever possible, I have found it helpful to include these men in the counselling process.
Being a dad is the most rewarding and challenging experience of my life. It is something that I value and it has not always been easy. I have been fortunate to have had a great dad as a role model and am part of a community of other dads that support, learn, and grow alongside each other. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have these types of role models and supports. Dads need support for both themselves and their families. As helpers, we need to be aware of dads’ needs, obstacles, and contributions to the family. We need to be aware of our own assumptions around men/fathers and take steps to better include them in the counselling process. Better engaging dads leads to better-engaged dads.
For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.