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Dads, your role in Father’s Day (and beyond)

Because adults spell love ‘L-O-V-E’ and children spell it ‘T-I-M-E’, fathers spending quality time with their kids is a key to creating healthy relationships

By Keyonna Summers, John Domol
Courtesy: University of Nevada, Las Vegas

From tossing baseballs to firing up the barbecue grill, many Americans associate the month of June with Father’s Day and celebrating the start of summer with their dads.

June is also Men’s Health Month, and Brandon Eddy — a professor and researcher with UNLV’s Couple and Family Therapy Program — says all that quality time doesn’t just strengthen relationships, it’s also great for mental wellness.

Studies from Pew Research Center and family therapy journals all agree that today’s fathers are more involved than they’ve ever been. And research also shows that children with affectionate dads who spend quality time with them are more likely to be engaged in school and go to college, be more social, and exhibit more self-confidence. They’re also less likely to have issues with substance abuse or encounter legal troubles.

“Dads in today’s society spend about triple the time with their kids as dads from previous generations,” said Eddy, who helps university clinic and private practice clients navigate issues including the transition to parenthood, miscarriage, children with autism, and postpartum depression — especially in dads.

Asst. Prof. Brandon Eddy, a researcher in UNLV’s Couple and Family Therapy program. As the role of fathers evolves in society, Eddy said dads’ increased involvement in their children’s lives can positively impact parent-child relationships — and lead to enhanced mental wellness for the entire family.

“Fathers want to be more than just a breadwinner or a disciplinarian,” he added. “They want to be involved in all aspects of their children’s lives and have a more rewarding, enriching experience with their children.”

According to Eddy, the kids want that, too. “Kids want dads who can provide the structure that they need, but they also want dads that can be sensitive, kind, compassionate, silly, and playful.”

Here, Eddy shares insights on the important role of fathers and his top tips for ensuring a happy, healthy relationship with kids.

Mother’s Day is cherished as a time to honor and celebrate women’s prominent roles as caregivers in their households. How do people tend to view the purpose of Father’s Day and has that view evolved over time? Societal expectations of fathers have drastically changed over the last 50 years or so. It wasn’t really common for men to be involved — or even allowed — into labor and delivery rooms until the 1960s, and in the 80s men started to be allowed to stay for the birth of their child.

And so we’ve evolved to where men are now fully involved in the process. They’re taking birthing classes with their partners. When my children were born, I actually cut the umbilical cord. Now, some fathers are even doing skin-to-skin contact with their newborns, just like moms.

For many years, most households were single-income and that’s not the case anymore. A great deal of couples now have dual-income homes. And so we’ve gone from this traditional role of breadwinner and disciplinarian to now fathers are getting their kids ready for school, dropping them off, planning meals, and grocery shopping.

Fathers are participating in more of what had traditionally been considered as motherly duties. It’s become much more of a 50/50 in households, or at least we’re moving that direction. And I think that’s a good thing that we’re encouraging — and welcoming — that type of involvement from fathers.

Father’s Day, by extension, has grown from a time to celebrate fathers solely as providers to the complete roles they play in our lives. People are celebrating their fathers for playing catch in the yard, for being there when they’re sad, and for not just financially supporting them but for emotionally, mentally, and socially supporting them as well.

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The role of dads is evolving, but not everyone has a good relationship with theirs. Is there any research that speaks to whether it’s more common to have conflict between a father and daughter or a father and son?

There aren’t necessarily higher amounts of conflict between father/daughter or father/son. However, we do have a good amount of research that shows fathers do parent their daughters differently than they parent their sons.

An example is watching your kids on a playground. My son falls and scrapes his knee, and my reaction is, “You’re all right, buddy. Rub some dirt on it. It’ll be OK.” That same thing happens with my daughter and I’m like, “My princess has fallen! Get the first aid kit, let me get a Band-Aid out and put Neosporin on it.”

Research shows that fathers are much more likely to be emotional with their daughters. With their sons, they are more likely — especially over academics or athletics — to say: “I’m proud of you. You worked hard. You tried your best.” And so it feels almost more like a business relationship to offer praise that way, whereas we are more emotionally available for our daughters.

As a father, I’ve made a point to be more emotionally available to both my daughter and my sons. And that is something that we emphasize in therapy as well. When I work with fathers, it’s, “Hey, just like you’re sensitive with your daughter, you can be sensitive with your sons too – that’s OK.”

The terms “mommy issues” or “daddy issues” are often used to describe challenges adults have as a result of a strained relationship with a parent. Any tips on how to recognize whether they may have trauma?

I’ve seen this several times where someone struggles with members of the opposite sex, which can be because of a childhood issue with a parent.

Maybe they struggle to be honest and emotionally open with women, or maybe they were really hurt by their father and struggled to open up to men. I often find it’s when someone has been traumatized or really hurt or let down by someone that they should have trusted in their life — a father or mother, an uncle or aunt, grandparent.

A lot of times the key to overcoming that trauma is taking the time to sit with that uncomfortable feeling when we realize a certain situation or setting makes us feel anxious or down. Generally when we’re uncomfortable, we try to get rid of that feeling as fast as we can.

The great thing about therapy is that you have a trained professional there processing it with you and digging into it. This provides a safe and controlled atmosphere and can offer the opportunity to find out why you react the way you do.

What’s your top advice to dads to help increase the likelihood of a happy, healthy relationship with their children?

One of the top pieces of advice for fathers – and this applies to mothers too – is to work on and take care of yourself. It’s really hard to provide aid and support to people when we are struggling ourselves. It’s critical to take the time to attend to your own mental health.

Another is to maintain strong relationships or marriages. Fathers who are working on their own relationship, who are working to better themselves, making sure that their marriage and partnership is strong, are typically going to be better parents and be more emotionally available to their children.

And this may go without saying, but spend quality time with kids. I often say that we as adults spell love as ‘L-O-V-E’. Children spell love ‘T-I-M-E’. And so we really need to be providing them with good quality time. Not necessarily time just watching TV with them — although it’s not bad to watch shows and take your kids to the movies and things like that. But it’s taking time to do other things with them: What are their hobbies? Be interested in what they’re interested in.

My daughter just started a book club at home. She’ll choose a book and we’ll read it, then talk about it. My sons have various interests as well. It’s important to prioritize what they find interesting in their lives.

I’d also recommend taking time away from technology to focus on one another and build stronger and more meaningful relationships. For my family, it’s traveling, camping, and experiencing different places together such as Sequoia National Park or the Grand Canyon. Whether it’s dedicated time at a campsite or at the dinner table at home, it’s really good to spend focused time together just talking as a family.

You work with couples who’ve experienced miscarriages. Do Father’s and Mother’s Day tend to be more emotional for them, and how can they navigate those feelings?

I’ve worked with several couples who have experienced miscarriages and the Mother’s Day or Father’s Day that precedes that can be felt with excitement, but then right afterwards it’s a day to be mourned and they don’t want to celebrate.

I think for certain parents, it’s always going to be met with mixed feelings, especially if they’ve gone on to have children. We can feel anxious and still happy. We can feel a bit of sadness and happiness at the same time.

And so with these parents, I tell them to make room for all the emotions. Be grateful that you have the child you have, and be engaged in that relationship as much as you can. But you can also keep space in your heart for the child that you lost. Those things don’t have to compete.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve encountered in all your years researching fatherhood?

The very first time I presented my research on postpartum depression in dads in 2016, I was shocked at the pushback that I got. For the first couple of years, many people — including academics — said, “This isn’t a real thing. Dads don’t suffer from this,” and there was a lot of reticence to putting more emphasis on fathers.

I was blown away by that because my thinking is that this is not a zero-sum game. If we give dads that support, it doesn’t mean we stop supporting moms as a result. To the contrary, if dads are in a better headspace and they’re well taken care of, that impacts their partner and that impacts the whole family system.

Thankfully, we’ve started to see a shift. Recently, I and several faculty and student colleagues from UNLV’s Couple and Family Therapy program attended the annual International Family Therapy Association conference in Japan. We led a workshop on treating postpartum depression in men — and it was a night and day difference to the reception I got eight years ago. It was really encouraging to see that people are being more welcome to the idea, which means we’re expecting more of dads and we can maybe provide more support to them also.

People from about eight different countries attended the workshop and we had such a great, beautiful discussion about how fatherhood is changing. It was nice to see a group of people from around the globe celebrating fatherhood and seeing the benefits that fatherhood can have — not just for our own cities or countries, but for the world.