International Father’s Mental Health Day

To mark Father's day, and International Father's Mental Health Day on 22 June, we spoke with ACP member Andrew Briggs, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist about the importance of fathers, and the current challenges for fathers during the pandemic.

The changing role of fathers

Fathers (and father figures) make a vital contribution to their children’s development. What fathers have to offer their children is different from what mothers (and mother figures) offer, but it is just as important to the child.

The differences between men and women as parents are not laid down for us – each family discovers them in its own way.

Fathers also matter because they are important to their partners. Their parents’ relationship is the model of relating that children take on board, so the success or failure of their own future relationships will be deeply influenced by how their parents manage things. That is not to say that parents have to be perfect. But it is important for children to see their parents working together to try to sort out the difficulties that every family face from time to time and more than ever with the present lockdown challenges.

For men’s mental health week and to celebrate Father’s Day 2020, we interviewed ACP member Andrew Briggs who is a passionate advocate for including the role of fathers in improved child and adolescent mental health provision. Andrew leads the ACP study group on the role of fathers in child psychotherapy.

Andrew Briggs is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (CAPPt) with 30 years’ experience within the NHS. He now works in private practice and is writing a book looking at the impact of fathers on children’s mental health. He also provides consultancy support to the NHS. He comments:

“With increasing suicide levels in men, there is a realisation of the vulnerability in men and fathers. Solving this is about more than looking at mental health services as it reaches deeply into cultural and societal expectations about mothers, fathers and infants, Psychotherapists are in a unique position to contribute insights from their work beneath the surface of human experience to make an impact now.

“Most of the men struggling are carrying various traumas from different parts of their lives. Many of the fathers I have seen clinically, who have found being a father difficult, have done so because their emotional well-being has been so seriously compromised and they have very limited ways of putting this right themselves. The most successful work I have done to help these fathers has included working with their partner. Parental couples who really know each other, find it much easier to parent the children. My work with these couples has helped them know more about each’s vulnerability and in so doing strengthen their bond as parents.”

The role of fathers is tested under the world of COVID-19

Andrew continues: “Families have been facing added difficulties in the extraordinary confinement of COVID-19 lockdown.  When parents work well together, they bounce ideas, support and energy off each other, and they feel supported in their partnership.  In lockdown every home faces a daily underlying anxiety; real and valid concerns over the virus and how this affects livelihoods, health and survival.  Being dependent upon parents for so much, children pay meticulous attention to their moods, states of mind and actions. They may then play out whatever the anxieties are in their parents. Under lockdown this process is particularly intense, as being in such close spatial proximity amplifies everything that goes on within their emotional lives. With so much to worry about, many parents struggle to see what their children are feeling or playing out and can find their behaviour simply challenging.

  • “Children of all ages can struggle to put into words the anxiety they feel in the world they are experiencing. As child psychotherapists we are seeing children sharing their fears in words and imagery – both verbal and written/drawn. What some children convey suggests they are very frightened and some regress as they try mentally to return to a time in their life when they felt safe.

  • “I don’t think it should be understated how the lockdown has made families isolated with only themselves, and this alone leads to immense stress for them.  The confinement has several aspects including isolation from emotional and practical support from extended family and friends and school communities.”

Andrew goes on to explain how many fathers are finding it harder than ever to emotionally support themselves and their children, through this anxious time, and particular cases where the challenges for father’s are compounded:

  • For fathers with partners about to give birth they will find that they cannot be present at the whole of the birthing experience and many are unable to be present at the actual birth. This is a severe loss of that initial bonding moment when the couple becomes a family (or welcomes a new family member).

  • For families where children live mainly with their mother, many fathers are left in a difficult position. Using videoconferencing is a poor substitute for real face to face and tactile contact. Lack of continuity and unpredictability becomes an issue in their relationship as they are not sure how long it will be before they can next see their children. When separated parents are acrimonious this lack of contact with children can make some parents even more distrustful and angry with the other partner, leading to more stress for the parents and the children.

  • Lockdown is also leading to changed infant father relationships. Fathers who would otherwise be working while their partner is on maternity leave are now working from home – which is leading to more time seeing their children and infants but without the benefit of it being a separate space than work.

  • Many will have both enjoyed this time with their family but also battled stress and depression.  It is hardly surprising given the juggle of work – or stress of being out of work – reassignment of household tasks, childcare,  the added responsibility of children’s education, without the ‘escape’ and responsibility of work, and the lack of available external support.

Given that some fathers, as well as mothers, will be missing their contact with work colleagues plus a lack of support from extended family /school/nursery and local communities, it is important that both parents think about how they can enable each other to have some individual time to pursue their own interests – whether going for a run, or some quiet time to read.

There will also be many fathers who will have enjoyed the additional time they have had with their children, in the absence of commuting to work. They may have discovered a new shared interest, which can be continued in some way, when children and parents return to life outside the home.

When parents are separated, and it is not possible for fathers to have the same level of contact with their children, it is helpful for fathers to continue to build their relationship with their child – whether this is via phone or video calls. Fathers need to have a sense that they are involved in their child’s day to day life and children will find it reassuring to know that their father is thinking about them and interested in their lives. This may not be easy, as many small children can struggle to maintain attention to videocalls, so short calls or playing a game or reading to your child may help keep the contact focused. It is possible that children who are anxious about COVID -19 and the other changes they have experienced through lockdown, may seem quite rejecting during videocalls. It is important to remember that this is often a way of expressing anxiety and frustration, rather than a reflection of the contact.

When children are still young, such contact will need to be supported by the resident parent/ mother. Therefore, it is important that parents try to establish an amicable co-parenting relationship.

How Child and Adolescent Psychotherapists can help

Where possible, it is helpful to include fathers in routine meetings about child health and development. Many health professionals are conducting appointments remotely at the current time, which can make it easier to give fathers the opportunity to share their concerns or jointly think about issues that are affecting the family.

Psychotherapy can help by recognising the reality of fathers as half of the parental couple. While some fathers are physically present within their families and others are physically and/or emotionally absent, nevertheless, they are in the minds of their children and partners. We as child and adolescent psychotherapists recognise that we need to learn about how fathers respond to situations, and that how fathers do so may be an indication of their feelings as emotional beings who, as a group, have, in many cases, not had sufficient academic and clinical attention paid them, Psychotherapy offers a powerful way of looking at human behaviour to connect with what is different about fathers and mothers as parents within a parental couple and to understand and value both.

Many Child and Adolescent psychotherapists are continuing to see children and their parents clinically, within NHS services, other organisations and in independent practice.  Although most of these appointments are currently remote, meeting with a child psychotherapist offers the possibility to think through some concerns or worries about your child. For new parents, they can explore feelings around the birth and early weeks, especially if this was impacted on by the lockdown or illness.  For other parents, it may be an opportunity to think about some of the anxieties that they are facing, or that they have noticed their child displaying.

Child psychotherapists can help mothers and fathers unravel issues from their own experiences that may be impacting on their current difficulties.

If you feel yourself experiencing depression and the issues explored in this article, you can also contact your GP or local talking therapies service or explore connection with a private psychotherapist here.

You can also call Samaritans on 116 123, mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393 or the Campaign Against Living Miserably on 0800 58 58 58 or SANE (6-11pm) on 0300 304 7000.

For further details please see ACP’s leaflet for father’s on Understanding Childhood.