Dad, Your Emotions Matter

Emotional wellness comes from coping with stress and making positive contributions to the world.  Fathers play a role in this for children.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Help your child feel safe and connected to you and her environment.  A sense of belonging encourages a child’s confidence and trust.
  • Nurture resiliency. Be there to help your child face adversity and learn to handle tough situations.
  • Encourage your child to make decisions.  Making decisions and taking responsibility for them builds self-confidence and respect.
  • Provide opportunities to help others.  Teaching your child that he will influence other people and can make a difference in the world builds social skills.
  • Let your child test new abilities.  Building competence in different tasks teaches a child how to accomplish their goals.
  • Support your child’s physical health.  Healthy eating habits, physical exercise and adequate sleep help a child handle stress.

Did you know . . .

  • Looking after your own emotional health is important for your children’s health?
    Children learn to care for themselves by watching their dads. The habits they set will last a lifetime. So dads need to role model positive ways of managing emotions.
  • Emotional health is affected by our lifestyle choices?
    It is important that dads get enough exercise, eat healthy diets and get enough sleep themselves. Carefully monitoring and controlling the use of alcohol and other substances matters, too.
  • Emotional health affects everyone at different times?
    It is normal for most men to experience emotional ups and downs. Age, relationships and the environment will affect how men feel.
  • Emotional health covers a lot of things we may experience in our day to day lives?
    Emotions may become a problem when depression, anxiety, stress and anger become overwhelming. Things like work, leisure time and relationships become tough to manage.
  • There are ways to get help if you need it?
    Talking to a good friend, a counsellor or someone else you trust can be a good way to keep balance in your life.

The Five Things You Should Never Say to A New Mom

by John Hoffman

You know how they say babies don’t come with an instruction manual? Well, neither do new moms. And a really important part of being a good dad is understanding and supporting the mother of your children, a task that can be very challenging in the early days of parenthood. So, new dads, here’s a crash course. And, just for fun, I’ve built it around the five things you should never say to your new mom partner.

1. I think the baby needs changing.

Shared dad/mom care of babies should be a given in today’s dad/mom families. It’s fair. It’s good for your partner and it’s good for you because changing diapers (and doing other aspects of baby care) is not only how you learn to parent, it’s how you get to know your baby.

Here’s the thing. It is so easy for men (even guys who believe in gender equity) to slip into a backseat where Mom is doing the bulk of the work. So it’s important not only to do your share but also to take initiative: to see what needs to be done and do it, without being asked.

2. Where’s my dinner?

Recovering from childbirth is a major deal so new mothers need care and feeding. All cultures – women, at least – have understood this. Traditionally, networks of women – grandmas, aunties, sisters and female neighbours – have fed new moms, cleaned their houses and helped look after babies. Those female support networks are much less available than they once were. Fathers need to step up, and food prep (or bringing in prepared food) is a great contribution. She’ll love you for it.

3. Why is the baby crying?

She may not know. And being asked to explain something she can’t explain adds to the stress your partner is already experiencing. Nobody needs that.

Babies cry. Some more than others. And it’s sometimes hard to figure out why, even for experts. So what’s the right thing to when you can’t figure out why the baby is crying?

  • do your share of the comforting
  • give the baby back to mom if that’s what she wants
  • do as little as possible to make the stress of a crying baby worse than it already is
  • ask for help if you need to

For more tips about crying check out newdadmanual.ca.

4. Why are you crying?

Same answer. She might no know. And besides, she doesn’t want to explain. New motherhood is an intensely emotional experience. Your partner feels a lot of pressure. Hormones that affect emotions are very active. New moms may burst into tears for any number of reasons, big or small.

This can be challenging for men. We like concrete explanations and we want to know exactly what to do to “fix” a situation. But there isn’t always a quick fix (or explanation) for a crying mom. Sometimes the best we can do is summed up by something my wife said, after our third baby (when I really should have known better): “Stop trying to fix what’s wrong. Just be nice to me while I cry.”

5. But I worked all day

Don’t go there. This is absolutely the wrong thing to say to your partner (on parental leave) if she asks you to do something. She worked all day too. Some days that work can be tiring and lonely. Hey, maybe you both had tough days. Your best bet is to work as a team to make sure the necessary “home” work gets done and that you both get the breaks that you need.

 

Speaking of teamwork. Parenting teamwork is not just about getting work done. It’s also about sharing the highlights, the fun times, those little cosmic moments of bliss. Those moments are your new parent “fuel.” Sharing them with your partner is just as important as sharing the work – maybe even more so.

Dads and Stress

by John Hoffman

Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a good mood you’re a better parent? You don’t get as upset or frustrated by your children’s behaviour. You are more patient, better at solving in-the-moment parenting problems and you enjoy your kids more. When you’re in a bad mood you don’t do any of those things as well.  Right?

So what can a Dad do to make sure he’s in a good mood more often? I’ve got two words for you: manage stress.

The ability to deal with stress is one of the keys to a successful life. Seriously.

When we’re highly stressed, or stressed for a long time without relief, a big chunk of our inner resources are monopolized, trying to keep a lid on stress overload. That reduces the amount of thinking power, social smarts and emotional skills we have available to help us do the things we want to do, like exercise self-control, think clearly, make good judgments – or be good fathers.

So, whatever else you do to be a good dad, deal with your stress.

We have two ways main ways to tackle stress. Reduce and cope.

Reducing stress is not just a question of trying to avoid all stressful situations. Many of the most important things we do, like looking after children, are stressful at times. And we’re not going to stop doing those things. But we can find ways to reduce or prevent some of the stress associated with raising kids.

Here are three ways to do that.

1.Build your skills and knowledge. Any challenging situation is more stressful if you don’t have the knowledge and skill to handle it. Parenting is a skill. Sure, some people learn as they go. But lots of good parents help themselves by building skills. They read parenting books, learn about child development, or take parenting courses (no, parenting courses are not just for “bad” parents).  As they learn more, you increase your confidence and reduce their stress.

2. Watch how you behave in stressful moments. Recently I talked with a mom who realized that one of the reasons she found discipline so stressful was that she and her husband undermined each other and often argued during discipline episodes. After they discussed their philosophical differences and agreed to stop undermining each other, their stress levels went down. Changing the way you behave in a stressful situation can reduce the amount of stress you feel.

3. Adjust your thinking.  Picture a guy trying to deal with a preschooler’s tantrum. If he thinks of that behaviour as manipulative, or unacceptably immature, he will be more stressed out by the tantrum.  But if this Dad sees the meltdown as the sign of an overwhelmed kid who needs Dad’s help to calm down, the tantrum may still be stressful, but not as stressful.  And he’s less likely to do or say something that makes it worse (see #2).

Coping.

Coping is important because we can’t possibly avoid all stress. There are two parts to coping. Being able to get through it without going to pieces is the part of coping we think about most often. But there’s another crucial part – recovering. If you can’t get back to normal after stress is over, too many of your resources get sucked into the stress vortex. It becomes hard to function and stress gets worse and worse.

What affects your ability to recover stress?  Lifestyle for one thing.  If we don’t eat right or get enough rest, if we drink too much alcohol or caffeine, that exerts a kind of stress on the body which can drain our stress resources.  Taking breaks and doing things we love to do (for ourselves) help us recover too.

And let’s not forget the single most important coping mechanism we humans have:  social support. Mothers know this. That’s why they hang out together, flock to playgroups and form online communities. Men tend not to be as good as women at seeking out social support. But dads need it too. There is actually a fair bit of research to show that when fathers feel well supported (particularly by their partners) they tend to use better parenting strategies.  Why? It’s at least partly because their parenting efforts are not constantly undermined by stress.

So, if you want to be a better dad address the stress. Work as a team with your partner, connect with other dads (Saturday morning Dad programs are a good way to do that) and, generally, surround yourself with as many supportive people as you can get. It will make a difference.

Daddies Have Hormones, Too!

by John Hoffman

iStock_000011070557MediumPeople often talk about mothers and hormones. But, in the last few years we’ve learned a lot about the way hormones affect new fathers. And to cut to the chase, the story here is not just that guys have parenting hormones – which shouldn’t surprise anyone –  it’s that men’s hormonal systems are flexible and responsive, ready to support whatever kind of parenting role and activity a father needs or wants to take on, including being the primary caregiver.

First, let’s clarify the role of hormones in human behaviour. People often talk as if hormones cause behaviour. But that’s not really true. Testosterone does  not “cause” aggressive male behaviour any more than estrogen “makes” women sensitive. The hormone-behaviour connection is more a case of the brain detecting what a person needs to do, or is trying to do, and then telling the body to pump out the hormones that will help them do it.

Research has shown several ways in which this biological dynamic plays out in fathers.  Some examples:

Compared to childless men, fathers have lower levels of “guy hormone” testosterone and higher levels of the “female hormone” estrogen.

Similar to women, men have elevated levels of the hormones cortisol and prolactin in the weeks just prior to the birth of their babies.

In one experiment, fathers with experience in baby care had bigger surges in prolactin (a hormone associated with nurturing behaviour and breastfeeding) than childless men in response to hearing a recording of a baby crying.

Filipino fathers who sleep in the same bed as their babies (a very common practice in that culture) have lower levels of testosterone than fathers who don’t co-sleep with their babies.

But, for me, the most interesting findings about dad hormones comes from the work of Israeli attachment researcher, Ruth Feldman. Feldman has documented that, like mothers, fathers experience increases in the hormone oxytocin after interacting with babies.  Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone,” because it’s associated with bonding, mating and sex. In parenting, one key function of oxytocin is that it supports fathers’ (and mothers’) ability to tune into social cues.  Obviously that is very important for parents trying to get to know and understand newly born babies.

Feldman’s research shows that while interaction with babies gets the oxytocin flowing for both genders, different types of interaction turn the tap on for dads and moms. For mothers it was affectionate touch (cradling, kissing, caressing etc.) that caused increases in oxytocin. But dads it was what the researchers called stimulatory touch – moving the baby around, more vigorous pats and strokes, playfully poking the baby with a toy or other object.

Very interesting. But what does it mean? Does it mean that moms are designed to be caregivers and men are designed to be playmates? I’ve never believed that. When I first read this study 3 years ago, I assumed that the Mom/Dad differences Feldman found mostly reflected the fact that play was the caregiving context in which fathers were most experienced (and comfortable). The mothers in this study were the primary caregivers, so they spent way more time in “caring mode.” The fathers, who all worked outside the home, spent less time with the babies and probably spent more of their baby time in play mode. Therefore play became the mode of interaction they were most comfortable with (see my last blog) and unconscious parts of their brains figured that out and worked behind the scenes to support it.

Last year, another of Feldman’s studies supported this idea. In this experiment, her team included a group of fathers who were primary caregivers. They chose men in gay parent couples, because they knew that at least one of the fathers had no choice but to be a primary caregiver. In this study, which also included primary caregiver mothers and fathers who were secondary caregivers, she did brain imaging to detect where in the brain the oxytocin was going.  And she discovered that mothers and secondary caregiver fathers were using somewhat different brain pathways when interacting with babies and, to oversimplify, the brain knew where to send the oxytocin to support parenting behaviour in men and women. But in guys who were primary caregivers, brain activity was sort of in between what was happening in the mothers and secondary caregiver fathers. And their brains figured out how to send oxytocin to the right places.

So what does this boil down to?dad_son

1. We should pay as much attention to dad hormones as we do to mom hormones.

2. Male biology is ready to support a man who takes on a primary role in the care of a baby.

3. The brain is able to tell where to send hormones to support various types of fathering behaviour in men, depending on the nature of a father’s involvement and the way he and his baby interact together.

4. Involved fatherhood is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you interact with your child, the more your brain and body will support you in doing that. Thus, as time goes on, interacting with your child will feel better and more and more natural.

Father-child Rough and Tumble Play. Good, Bad, or Indifferent?

by John Hoffman

Much has been made of parenting differences between fathers and mothers.

“Mothers hold babies in close. Fathers hold them facing out into the world.”
“Moms say, ‘Don’t climb too high!’ Dads say ‘How high do you think you go?’”
“Mothers focus on security. Fathers encourage independence.”

I’ve heard all those points made at various times. And I understand where they come from. I’ve seen those differences in my own family and often wondered how important they were. Some people think dad/mom style differences are very important for children’s development. I’m not so sure. First of all, they don’t apply to all parents. I do not believe that a guy has to interact with his child in some sort of ideal male way in order to be a good father.

Rough n Tumble with Dad

Unfortunately – or maybe it’s fortunate – research can’t tell us much about the importance of dad/mom style differences, except in one area: rough tumble play (RTP). Fathers definitely wrestle and roll around with their kids more than moms. Some people believe that father-child RTP is good for kids. One Canadian researcher proposed that RTP comprises a new kind of attachment relationship – an idea that hasn’t really caught on as far as I can tell.

Another claim is that RTP teaches kids the limits of aggression. If that’s true, you should be able to show that kids who engage in RTP with their fathers are less aggressive in play with peers.

But actually, one Canadian study found that kids who did higher amounts of RTP with their dads were actually slightly more aggressive overall. Yikes! However, a subsequent study clarified things. It turns out that the important thing about RTP is not how much or how often, but how Dad handles it. According to another fairly recent Canadian study, RTP is not a negative influence when fathers play a sensitive leadership role where they set limits and regulate the flow of the play. In other words, Dad doesn’t let things get out of hand, keeps tabs on how his child is feeling and tones things down if the child gets too wound up or stops having fun. When dads in the research study played that leadership role, kids did not go on to show higher levels of aggression with their friends. But when fathers did not set limits on RTP – when they let kids be too rough or didn’t settle things down when necessary – high amounts of RTP were associated with more aggression with peers.

What does this boil down to for the average dad?

  • By all means wrestle and roll around with your kids (safely!) – if they like it and you like it. If neither of you are particularly comfortable with RTP, don’t feel you have to roughhouse in order to give your child some sort of quintessentially male parenting.
  • Lead by following. If you’re wrestling and rolling around with your kids, don’t let things get out of hand. Don’t let your child hurt you or be reckless. If he or she is getting too wound up, bring it down a few notches, take a break or switch to a quieter activity.

This type of sensitive leadership from parents, which actually applies to other aspects of parenting, is very important for teaching kids how to regulate their emotions and behaviour. When children are little they have very little ability to control their feelings and behaviour, so they need our help – lots of it. Children need the repeated experience of being “regulated” by people who love them before they can learn to do it themselves. RTP is one of many situations in which fathers can help children learn to manage their emotions and behaviour.

But my personal take is that the most important thing about RTP is that lots dads and kids like it, so it is a great way for them to enjoy being together. Being together in ways you and your kids enjoy is what makes father-child (and mother-child) relationships tick. And, if you want to be a good parent, it all starts (and continues) with a good relationship.

Regent Park

There is momentum for fathering programs in the Regent Park Community in Toronto.   As part of their program planning that includes increasing father involvement, Parents For Better Beginnings is having a number of Dads & Kids Days in the winter:

sledding in January;

a winter carnival in February;

ice skating in March.

They have put out a call asking for donations of new winter skates and helmets (and other protective skating gear) for children up to six years of age.  These will be given to families in their programs so that they can participate in the March skating day.  Each of the Dads & Kids Days will include food, hot beverages and fun!

In the past, Parents for Better Beginnings have had success with their Dads & Kids Days that included a space for fathers and their children to gather for the day, eat lots of tasty foods, and participate in fun activities including sports play activities (geared to young children) that involve fathers actively playing with their children.

For more information and to make a donation of skates, helmets, or cash, contact Diane MacLean at 416-362-0805 ex 222 * dianemac@regentparkchc.org  or Nury Rugeles at 416-362-0805 ex 230 * nuryr@regentparkchc.org.

Involved Fathers Make it Safer for Women

In honour of White Ribbon Day, Canada’s national day of remembrance and action on violence against women, I’d like to highlight the role that nurturing, involved fathers can play in making society safer for women. Along with everything else we do in pursuit of that important goal, men need to do their part to make sure that our boys to grow up within a model of masculinity that includes men in caregiving roles. Children are exposed to countless examples of men as fighters, killers or take-charge agents of decisive action.  That needs to be balanced – overbalanced really – by ensuring that boys also see lots of men, especially their own fathers, in caregiving roles: changing diapers, feeding babies in high chairs, wiping their chins, comforting crying kids, and “wearing” their babies in carriers. It’s also crucial that children observe their fathers treating their female partners respectfully, caring for them at times and working as equal partners in child care and other domestic work.

whiteribbondayIf a boy grows up seeing his dad, grandfathers, uncles, other kids’ fathers and male teachers doing the work of caregiving, the idea that men care for people will become embedded in his brain. When you care for children you have to pay attention to their needs. You’re constantly on the lookout to make sure they’re OK, and if they’re not you find ways to help them feel better. When you’re doing a good job, you get this instant feedback that tells you, “I helped a little, dependent person feel OK.” That mindset is totally antithetical to a model of masculinity that involves controlling or hurting women, or other men for that matter.

Fathers also need to take the lead in talking to boys about the importance of respecting women and having clear mutual consent for sexual activity.  If the father who initiates those conversations has been a nurturing caregiver, the values and norms he instills in his sons will go even deeper.

We’re headed in the right direction. I see more fathers actively caring for kids than I did in the past. But I still think we have a ways to go before the role caregiver is embedded in mainstream masculinity.

Obviously there are other good reasons to be a hands-on nurturing father, and a respectful partner to the mother of your children. But on December 6, I think it’s important to think about the role that caring fathers can play in keeping future generations of women safe from violence.

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Dad Central Ontario has many free resources to help men become caring dads and good partners including Involved Fathers: A Guide for Today’s Dad, and Dads! Renovate Your Relationship: 14 Tools to Help Fathers Stay Connected to Their Partners.  These and other Dad Central booklets are available for free download. Hard copies also available for purchase. Find out more >

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