You may have heard that emotionally responsive parents are important to a child’s wellbeing. What does being a good dad look like to you?
Our culture idolizes a tough man who doesn’t crack under pressure. Anger seems to be the most acceptable emotion to show. What did you see growing up?
Some of us had fathers who told us what to do, and who didn’t tolerate complaints. Some of us never heard male relatives talk about fear, feeling vulnerable, or admitting a mistake. Maybe affection was a bit indirect, and harder to feel.
However, many men today want a much different way to live and relate to loved ones. Often, both parents work to support the family, raise children, and tend to their needs. This often puts men in parenting roles, where they may feel unprepared for the fast-changing emotions of children.
Men are perfectly able to make strong, healthy emotional connections.
Thankfully, many men dare to ditch the tough guy stereotype. One of my favorite memories is of my former boss Eric, at a shelter for troubled teens. He often seemed stern and direct.
But one day during a staff meeting, a co-worker brought in her brand new infant. As Eric cuddled that tiny being to his chest, the baby seemed to melt with comfort. Eric’s face glowed. The tenderness he felt really showed through. His warmth and openness allowed this baby to completely relax and feel safe.
If we see men as emotionally distant providers, we all miss out!
The good news is, children thrive especially when their fathers become more sensitive and can relate to more of their thoughts and feelings. Open, emotionally responsive parenting is essential to raise safe, independent kids with the confidence that helps them succeed.
How Sensitive Parent-Child Connection Builds Resilience
Fathers have their own impact — different from mothers — on their children’s mental health. Dads can uniquely shape how children learn to explore and relate to others.
Current research on fathering shows “that fathers play a particularly critical role in fostering social skills and capacity for positive relationships in their children.”
For example, a father’s support in helping children face challenging or unknown situations can foster “secure exploration.”
A father’s emotional presence also helps the child’s nervous system to form pathways and connections that help calm distress.
Areas of the brain that soothe emotion, trigger empathy and spark intuition grow stronger with secure attachment. That’s how emotional connection with parents helps children develop healthy responses they need to survive and thrive, on their own and with others.
Author and parenting expert Dr. Dan Siegel explains how secure parent-child relationships help children become more stable, clear-minded and self-aware.
Sensitive parenting enables wellbeing, says Siegel, by establishing 4 S’s of secure attachment. Children and adolescents need to feel:
- Seen – You notice your child’s emotions and see their inner world, not just their actions
- Safe – You’re tuned into your child’s need to feel protected and avoid dangers. You address fear, help your child pause, and find ways to feel safe
- Soothed – You provide comfort, show kindness and empathy for struggles and difficulties
- Secure – You help your child feel accepted, valued and supported through challenges
What Does Fostering Security Look Like At Home?
What happens when your toddler is screaming for cookies, or your six-year-old is bouncing off the walls, loud and excited? What do you do when your four-year-old is afraid of the monster under the bed?
Shouldn’t you be setting limits, be in charge? It can be hard to think of what to do when there is so much emotion going on!
Supportive parenting includes helping children find words for their emotions. Naming the feelings of frustration, excitement, or fear for instance, is part of helping your child explore his or her experience.
For example, you can help a child through a tantrum by saying, “You’ve had all your cookies for today, and you wish you could have many more” as you scoop up your toddler for a hug.
Sensitive parenting might mean jumping up and down for a minute or two with the six-year-old, or taking her outside to play.
Emotionally responsive parenting may call for a lot of imagination, such as asking about what the monster under the bed does for fun, about its favorite snack, or if it will fall asleep during the bed time story.
What’s the payoff for being such an emotionally engaged parent? We know from studying attachment as therapists, that emotionally responsive parenting gives children a sense of wellbeing and security.
Seeing your child’s excitement, shared with you in such a huge and genuine way, may surprise and delight you. It’s a birthright many parents don’t really want to squash!
Your awareness helps them explore the world with more confidence. They know they can find support if the need arises. These children typically do better in school, and tend to have healthier relationships in their adult lives.
Dads really matter in bringing about the strengths we want for our kids!
Talk as Parents about Your Relationships With Your Children
Whether you are living with your children or not, you have a powerful influence as a father.
Children need to feel safe turning to either parent for support.
Both parents need to be able to work together for the good of their children.
If you want to break away from traditional gender roles that often surround parenting, openness is essential. Talk with your partner about your hopes, dreams and personal limits. As your family grows, you and your partner will need to adapt and change your roles as parents.
Work with your partner in raising the children. Learn how each of you wants to help them feel more secure, while fostering their independence.
Fathers are no longer expected to simply provide financially for a family. And many want deeper relationships than this. A father’s fully human presence is more valuable than you might think. Not only do the children benefit from richer relationships with both parents. Men can find greater wellbeing in their relationships with more emotional support, compassion and love.
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