Jul. 3, 2021
Dads Can Make a Big Difference in How Kids Learn About Mental Health
- Fathers can help destigmatize mental health by talking with their kids about it.
- When men practice emotional regulation, they teach children how to do the same.
- There are a number of healthy ways to talk to children about mental health.
Parents play an important role in children’s development and mental health.
“It has been shown in multiple studies that paternal involvement in a child’s upbringing is a protective factor against future child mental illness,” Dr. Kunmi Sobowale, clinical adviser to Little Otter, a pediatric mental health company, told Healthline.
However, when men advocate for children’s mental health, Sobowale said it destigmatizes negative perceptions about mental health, as well as models that fathers have a role in their child’s development.
“This advocacy is particularly important for boys who are more likely than girls to deal with many mental conditions in early life, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder,” he said.
While it’s helpful for all adults to advocate for children’s mental health and promote healthy practices, Parker Huston, PhD, pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, points out that dads face barriers.
“There is a stereotype in some cultures that men do not discuss emotions and mental health openly, which can further the existing stigma about these conversations,” Huston told Healthline.
To initiate conversation about mental health and destigmatize certain conditions with your children, medical experts advise considering the following tips.
Practice and encourage emotional regulation
In many cultural contexts, men are taught to be stoic and not share emotions, Sobowale said. This repression of emotions is often an ineffective coping skill and does not foster the skills necessary to develop emotional regulation, a key aspect of mental wellness, he said.
Sobowale encourages men to set an example for their children by modeling emotion labeling.
“For example, a dad can say, ‘I am frustrated’ when he loses a game or ‘I am feeling happy’ when he is eating his favorite food,” he said.
If it’s too difficult to talk about your own feelings, turning to books is another way to build emotional vocabulary and curiosity about emotions.
“Fathers can ask their child how they think a book character is feeling. These simple techniques lay the foundation for more advanced skills as the child grows older,” Sobowale said.
Teach emotional intelligence
Huston said one of the most important skills for kids to learn is to be able to understand, express, and regulate their emotions.
This is the basis for emotional intelligence, defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “the ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgments and to avoid or solve problems.”
According to one 2020 research review, emotional intelligence predicts academic outcomes.
The program On Our Sleeves, for which Huston is a clinical director, reports that the following are the five steps to reach emotional empowerment:
- Identify emotions and what they mean.
- Recognize emotions as you feel them.
- Notice and understand emotions in others.
- Express emotions appropriately.
- Regulate strong emotions through individual coping strategies.
“Adults can be really helpful by modeling these behaviors for the children in their lives. Openly discussing not only positive emotions, but also difficult emotions like anger, fear, and sadness, can help open the door for children to share more of their experiences, which is important for teaching them good coping skills,” said Huston.
He recommends talking about the day during dinner, at bedtime, or another routine time that you’re together with your kids. Ask your child to list what they are grateful for, as well as what has been challenging for them.
“Adults can share during this time too,” said Huston. “Just like mothers, fathers can play a crucial role in their children’s development. When parents model and teach good mental health habits early in life, it sets the stage for long lasting benefits throughout childhood and into adulthood.”
Explain that there is a doctor for your body and for your mind
Most children have visited a doctor for their annual checkups or if they were injured or ill, so they understand the concept of being treated for physical reasons. However, explaining to your child that there are also doctors who treat the mind, feelings, and emotions can help validate and normalize mental health.
“This helps to equate mental health and physical health, which can be a helpful comparison to make, especially since we spend a lot of time thinking how to maintain our physical health, but not usually as much about our mental health,” said Huston.
Address your own mental health concerns
Becoming a father and having a child can bring about mental health challenges, including lack of sleep, postpartum depression, financial concerns, and reflections of your own difficult childhood, said Sobowale.
“For any parent, it is hard to be emotionally available for your child when you yourself are having mental health difficulties. Therefore, it is important for fathers to get support for their mental health,” he said.
If you don’t already see a mental health professional or know where to find one, reach out to your primary care doctor for references. Your child’s pediatrician may also be able to connect you or your child with a local therapist.