Dad dressed with superman cape cuddling daughter

Dads: The Untapped Mental Health Taskforce

A tsunami of poor mental health

We live in unusual times. Even before the arrival of Covid-19 a considerable proportion of our young people were struggling with their mental health. And it is becoming clear that a life of online learning and an absence of in-person contact with friends has landed them in an even trickier spot. Within the UK this crisis has been classified as an epidemic, with 1 in 6 17-19-year-olds having difficulties and girls being 3 times more likely to suffer poor mental health as compared to boys in late adolescence. The reasons for this explosion are complex and multifaceted but what we do know is that the costs of this crisis will be levied upon all of us, individual and society alike, because problems established in childhood often endure into adulthood. In a world emerging from austerity where social and healthcare resources were struggling to cope even before the pandemic hit, mums are often perceived to be the first line of defence against mental ill health for their children but those of us who work with fathers recognise that there is one resource which we are yet to fully exploit: dad. 

No more snow ploughs

Where once we snowploughed or lawn-mowered our way through parenthood, diligently clearing our child’s path of all obstacles, we are now coming to recognise that rather than bestowing a problem – and worry-free childhood on our children, one of our key parenting roles is to give our kids the skills to deal with risk, confront challenge and survive and thrive after failure. The desire to move the obstacles life throws at our children came from a place of love, but the consequence of our actions is a cohort of children who are ill-equipped to cope in the world beyond the family, leading in some cases to issues with their mental health. But help is on the horizon because it is now clear that dads are the parents of resilience, perfectly placed to teach their children all about challenge, risk and failure and this means that dads can have a direct, positive impact upon the quality of their child’s mental health.

Dads -v- depression

In their study of 1,506 Chinese high school students, psychologist Yangu Pan and her team found that the attachment between father and child – that’s the bond or relationship – was a more powerful influence on the likelihood of depression in adolescence than that between mum and child. In her 2017 longitudinal study Mariam Hanna Ibrahim from Arizona State University explored the role for parent-adolescent engagement in shared activities as a predictor of ability to cope with stress as a young adult. She asked 213 mums and dads about the time they spent with their adolescents doing discretionary tasks such as shopping, cooking, playing sports and video games. Then when the children reached young adulthood they were tested on their stress response – indicated by cortisol level – during a stressful task. What the results showed was that it was time spent with dad, rather than mum, which had the greatest impact on their resilience, regardless of gender. And what is particularly powerful about both Yangu and Mariam’s studies is that the fathers involved in the studies were not simply biological dads but adoptive and step dads too. As regular readers of my work will know, dads come in all shapes and sizes and I am a firm believer, backed up by the evidence, that having an influence on your child is about stepping up and doing the job, not sharing genes. If you self-identify as a dad then you have a role to play.

The importance of challenge

So why does dad seem to have such an influential role in his child’s mental health?  Mariam believes “fathers may play a unique role in supporting their children’s “secure exploration” and burgeoning autonomy in adolescence, which in adulthood, may translate into children’s confident, attentive and resourceful exploration, as well as persistence in the face of challenges and tolerance of distress”.  My decade of fathering research leads me to agree. I would argue that dads seem to have a particular role in scaffolding their children’s entry into the world beyond the family.  This begins with the attachment they form with their child. While both parents’ attachments are based on nurture, dad’s seems to have an added element of challenge and that challenge is to explore – Mariam’s “secure exploration”  – the world beyond the family. This is why dads seem to have a disproportionate role in those elements of their child’s development linked to operating in our social world including their language development and prosocial skills; sharing, caring, helping. And to what extent individual fathers impact their child’s development in this area impacts their child’s mental health because a significant proportion of mental health conditions express themselves in the social sphere.  

The fun parent

If you are a dad, how can you help build these key resilience skills beyond making sure your attachment with your child is secure? By having fun! When children are young, it is about play – and in particular rough and tumble play – which can begin as soon as a baby is developmentally ready to join in.  This is a particularly extreme and boisterous form of play involving speed, risk and reciprocity – chasing, wrestling, tickling, jumping and throwing (sometimes a child!). It has a key role in forming the bond between dad and child, but it also begins to teach the child about social interaction and resilience. So the child starts to understand reciprocity and turn taking, learns to assess risk and deal with challenge as they take bigger and bigger physical risks, develops their empathy as they read what their partner may do next or whether what they are unleashing upon them is still fun. While dads can often be dismissed as the ‘fun’ parent, this fun has a crucial role in preparing their child for the world.

It’s all about time

When your child is older, play – sports, computer games – is still key but it is also all about time. Mariam Hanna Ibrahim’s study makes it clear that time is what is crucial to an adolescent when it comes to their mental health and self-esteem. She states “Fathers who engage in activities with their adolescents help [them] feel like they matter to their father, and we know that youth who feel like they matter to their fathers have more positive mental health outcomes later in life”. This does not mean doing anything particularly fancy – washing the car, walking the dog is fine – but it is about exclusive time together.

It’s time to harness dad power

We are living through a time when social media means our social selves are present 24/7. More than ever before we need to equip our children with the skills, the resilience, the mental strength to survive this, at times, highly combative and negative world. So we must muster all our resources and, now that we know the influence that dads can wield, we need to make sure they are at the very centre of the parenting team, whatever form they may come in. We must empower and support them to build healthy relationships with their children which can act as a foundation for embarking on a lifetime of adventures together, even if it is just cooking the Sunday lunch. We are in the middle of a crisis.  It is time to harness dad power.

Dr Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist, writer and broadcaster. She is the author of The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father (Simon & Schuster) and will publish her next book, Why We Love (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), in early 2022.

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