Dads certainly have come a long way in the last few decades. It wasn’t too long ago that fathers were called “Sir” and were feared for the most part. Children needed to behave or else they heard the dreaded sound of a belt being ripped free from Dad’s pants.
Yesterday, I spotted a dad carrying a baby in a sling while happily walking down a busy street. Dads are in the playground pushing their little ones on the swing and cruising through the grocery store. These days, fathers are more invested in their children than ever, and are taking an active role in parenting. Thank you, dads!
Fathers have shared with me that they have a great desire to connect with their children, but don’t always feel confident in how to do that. I have heard from many parents whose dads were mostly absent, either physically or emotionally (through alcohol or gambling addiction or working long hours, for example) and therefore don’t have a model of what connecting looks like.
A common pattern of interaction for dads in the past was to spend time with children during activities, enjoying each other when the going was good; but when things headed a bit south, the usual reaction was big, scary anger. Many dads now are trying to be with their children more consistently, even in times of emotional intensity, but aren’t sure what to do with that anger that can surge in an instant.
Here are five suggestions for dads to strengthen the connection with their children:
Babies are born driven by the instinct to cry, kick, and flail around to stay alive. This instinct carries on as they grow, until parents teach them how to respond in a nonviolent way. It is actually our first instinct, and perfectly normal, to want to shout, kick, throw, hit and run when intense feelings arise.
Rather than getting mad at our children when they go through this normal aggressive behaviour, we need to teach them how to respond to their big feelings without hurting themselves, someone else or property. The first step to doing this is to reel our own big feelings in—pausing to calm down. We can’t help another person be rational, and shift out of their fight-or-flight response, if we are irrational, too. My mantra to remember this is, “Calm first. Talk second.”
Please go easy on yourself; our parents and grandparents didn’t have this information when they were in our shoes (we aren’t going to blame them!) so the skill of processing emotions was generally not taught to our generation. Most of us have really been winging it in this department.
There’s a lot going on in our brains when we feel like snapping—buttons from the past get pushed, and all the times we felt helpless, unheard, unimportant and alone rise up to the surface. We aren’t just trying to handle our screaming child in these moments; we have to manage all our demons at the same time! Calming down can sometimes feel impossible when those demons shout at us just as loudly as our kids do.
Today, we know that in order to really connect with kids, we also have to connect with them when things are hard, and tempers flare. We can use calm-down plans to train our brain to do the same thing each time our big anger switch gets tripped. I explain more about how to create and use a calm-down plan in this post.
This is the same process to teach your child. In order to tame the negative core beliefs, which make us feel terrible, we need to go repetitively through the calming process so our body learns to talk us down rather than rev us up. (Honesty Alert! It can feel like learning how to not freak out will take f o r e v e r. Stick with it—positive changes DO happen over time.)
Being hard on our kids pushes them away, but learning to coach them through the challenging parts, while still being friendly, draws them in.
Dads, I imagine it can be intimidating to see your partner connecting with your child and wonder if you are doing it right. Well, there is no right way to parent. Each of us parents in a way that works with our personality and our own upbringing. As long as you are staying away from harsh treatment and, if that ever does happen, are quick to repair that rift, you can parent your children in the way that feels good for you.
Allow yourself space to try something with your kids and learn from that experience. Spend time alone with your children—filling their “attachment tanks."
If you have time to read your partner’s favourite parenting book, that’s super! Learn some new tricks of the trade that can help reduce the hard parts of parenting.
Here is a list of research-based resources/enjoyable blogs written by dads:
The book MISADVENTURES OF A PARENTING YOGI by Brian Leaf. Brian’s Facebook page is: Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. Although many dads are not practicing yogis, they will benefit from Leaf’s insight into parenting practices that have helped him be the dad he wants to be.
And my Facebook page: Andrea Nair — parenting educator. I continually post (mostly research-based) information to help with the challenges of parenting and to strengthen the connection with children. I am doing a live online workshop June 16 and 17 (same presentation offered at two different times) on the topic of Handling Blowups and Meltdowns: How to reduce yelling (yours and your children’s). Click on the dates to get to the event page information.