Today’s fathers find themselves in somewhat of a bind: they’re required to understand their children and relate to them emotionally, but many are somewhat baffled and confused by this task since they never learned how to do this in their own childhood.
It’s hard to give your children what you didn’t receive yourself.
Few people would not agree with the notion that being a father is good for men. I have seen many men grow more warm and open during the process of becoming fathers.
When I married my husband, he was what I always called a “precision driver.” This description was pretty generous on my part, since other people used less kind words. Everyone who had ridden in a car with him had experienced his precise and rapid bobbing and weaving through Boston traffic, switching lanes between cars with (seemingly) inches to spare. I witnessed a number of people make the sign of the cross in the backseat while riding with him (some were even non-religious types), in a desperate bid for survival. I had grown accustomed to his ways and hardly noticed it anymore.
Then we had a baby.
We carried our new little baby girl out of the hospital doors, tucked into her carrier car-seat for her first car ride home. My husband and I spent a considerable amount of time buckling in the car-seat, struggling with the straps, tightening them to make sure it was right. My husband got behind the wheel, but paused. I looked over to see a panicked expression on his face as the full weight of responsibility for our daughter’s safety settled upon his shoulders. “Do you think she’s buckled in right? What if we have an accident?” he said. Despite my reassurances that our tiny daughter would be fine, he pulled out of the parking lot at a snail’s pace, looking both ways multiple times before entering the street. That day, the normally 15-minute car ride took 30.
Over the intervening 20 years, I’ve thought back on that moment many times. I think it was at then that I realized I had married a good father. However, protection and safety are not all that’s expected from today’s fathers.
During the last three decades or so, psychologists have started to pay more attention to the importance of fathers in children’s development. Study after study has shown that father love is every bit as crucial as mother love. Fathers are better than mothers at keeping a babies’ attention. We now know that children who receive more love from their fathers are less likely to end up with behavioral or addiction problems.
Today’s fathers’ childrearing responsibilities fall into four categories. They are:
- Financial support
- Physical care
- Emotional support
That last item, “emotional support” is relatively new, historically speaking. In the past fathers were not expected to provide that, and were in fact thought to be almost irrelevant in the emotional arena. Not so today, when fathers are expected to be just as involved in the emotional life of the children as are mothers.
I think that for many men, this is the most difficult part of parenthood. Not because men are less capable of emotional attunement, attachment or support, but because men in our society are generally not raised with the encouragement to express or share emotion.
The notion that “big boys don’t cry” is gradually dissolving, but many, if not most, fathers of today were raised with that message. Those Big Boy messages, “Toughen up,” “Don’t be a pansy,” “Be the strong one,” “Never show emotion,” when received enough by a boy in childhood, constitute Childhood Emotional Neglect.
In my blog posts and my book, I have talked about many different ways that Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) plays out in adulthood. I think that men deserve their own, special category in the area of CEN, since what’s considered healthy parenting of a boy has long been different than that of a girl. Throughout the last sixty years, parents have had less emotional tolerance with their sons than with their daughters.
Boys experience emotions just as intensely as girls; yet their emotions are not as accepted in our society. When men get depressed, sad or anxious, they are more likely to hide it than women. Since boys and men have so much lower tolerance for feelings (other than anger, which is far more accepted from them) they have far fewer opportunities in childhood to learn how to express their emotions, how to tolerate their emotions, and how to manage them.
So today’s fathers find themselves in somewhat of a bind: expected to understand their children and relate to them emotionally, but somewhat baffled and confused by this task since they never learned how to do this in their own childhood. The good news is that it’s not too late to learn!
Five Tips For Fathers
- Your child has a basic need for you to see the real him. Strengths, weaknesses, preferences, personality traits, habits, and emotions. Watch your child closely, and make sure he knows that you know him on a personal and meaningful level.
- Strive to form an empathic connection to your child. This means feeling what she feels when she feels it. When you feel your child’s feelings, she will know it. She will feel closer to you, and she will grow up stronger and healthier. NOTE: The empathic connection is not a replacement for limits or discipline, and should be combined with them.
- Emotional Intelligence (EIQ), the ability to identify, express and manage emotion, has been shown by research to be more important to a person’s success in life than IQ. It’s your job to teach your child these skills.
- If you struggle with these skills yourself, it may be a sign that you grew up with CEN, and didn’t have an opportunity to learn them. For the sake of your children, set a goal to start increasing your own EIQ. Learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to overcome it by visiting EmotionalNeglect.com. Or see the book, Running on Empty.
- If you have children with a man who you think may have CEN, have empathy for him. Share this blog with him, and suggest he learn about it so that he can make the choice to overcome it.
***HAPPY FATHER’S DAY to all of you fathers out there who are working to give your children the emotional support and validation that you did not receive yourself as a child.