Michael B. Moore, MD, is a board-certified psychiatrist at the Inova Behavioral Health Outpatient Center at Merrifield.
Parenting is hard work. When people talk about self-care and stress management, the discussion often focuses on moms. A mother’s mental well-being is incredibly important, of course — but we shouldn’t forget about dads.
Fathers often feel like they have too many hats to wear. They want to be supportive partners for their spouses. They want to be good dads. And often, they feel pressure to fill the traditional job of the family breadwinner.
But doing it all can be exhausting. Many fathers experience chronic stress or disorders such as depression or anxiety. Yet a lot of them ignore their symptoms rather than seek help. That’s bad for their own mental health, of course, but it doesn’t end there: A father’s mental health has a big impact on his children’s development and well-being.
Fathers Influence Child Development
Dads influence their children’s development and mental health in countless ways, both directly and indirectly. Babies form attachments with both parents in the first months and years of life, setting the foundation for a healthy life. Secure attachment is linked to emotional health, fewer behavior problems and better social success for kids.
Warm, nurturing father-child relationships and good communication are important ingredients in secure attachment. Unfortunately, mental health problems can interfere with that warm relationship.
If a father is depressed or constantly stressed, he might be more irritable and less empathetic. Some dads might deal with stress by tuning out, spending a lot of time watching TV or disappearing into the basement while the kids play upstairs. That makes it harder to connect with kids.
Parenting Stress Affects Kids
When fathers are having a hard time, it can affect their children. Researchers have found, for example, that high parenting-related stress in dads is linked to poorer cognitive and language development in their toddlers.
Kids notice just about everything. That means they also learn about mental health by watching their moms and dads. If a parent avoids getting help for a mental health problem, their children may be less likely to seek help if they need it someday.
Stress Management for Dads
Now the good news. Whether your child is a baby or a teenager, it’s never too late to model good mental health. Some good places to start:
- Practice healthy behaviors. Get enough sleep. Don’t drink too much. Make time for physical activity.
- Schedule fun. To keep stress in check, schedule regular time to do things you enjoy, whether it’s biking, hitting some golf balls with a buddy or a no-kids-allowed date night with your spouse.
- Practice mindfulness. You don’t have to take up an elaborate meditation practice. Simply make an effort to focus on the present. When you’re hanging out with your kids, try not to worry about work. If a stressful thought intrudes on your fun, note it and let it go to deal with another time.
- Ask for help. No thanks to traditional gender roles, many men were taught that needing help is something to be ashamed of. But the truth is, we all need a helping hand at times. It’s not a sign of weakness. On the contrary: By taking care of your own mental health, you’ll shore up your ability to be a great dad.
If you are dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety or chronic stress, a mental health professional can help you develop the tools to help yourself. To find a mental health professional near you, learn more about Inova Behavioral Health Services.