As we look toward Father’s Day this weekend, there seems to be no end to the credit given mothers when it comes to the influence that they have over the lives of their children. Abraham Lincoln was once quoted as saying, “All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother.” And similarly, in the field of psychology, much time and attention has been placed on understanding mothers’ influence on their children’s mental health either to explain pathology, identify prognostic indicators, or to consider possible treatment interventions.
Fortunately, over the last few decades, with the significant shifts in our culture around family structure and parenting roles, psychological literature has begun to better explore the influence that fathers have on the mental health of their children. And overwhelming evidence suggests that responsible and involved fathering starting from the prenatal period and into adolescence has positive effects on the well being of children well into adulthood.
As mental health providers, we have a unique opportunity — dare I say obligation — to provide education to families about the importance of the role of fathers in the lives of their children, by encouraging and cultivating those who are trying and providing insight and support to those who may be falling short.
A father’s influence starts well before a child is born. It begins with his relationship with the child’s mother and includes active involvement during the prenatal period. Starting from conception both parents have a responsibility to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the fetus. Stress and lack of support can trigger or exacerbate maternal mental illness that can have negative impacts on the unborn child. Fathers can assist in sustaining a stable in utero environment by providing emotional and physical support to the mother during her pregnancy.
Along these lines, securing a positive relationship with the child’s mother and building the foundation for positive co-parenting has added benefits as well. Positive relationships between parents prove to be a resilience factor for children, while negative relationships are seen as a risk.1 And, positive co-parenting relationships enhance parent-child relationships.2
Starting early with emotional involvement during pregnancy is key, as it correlates with a readiness for fatherhood and leads to more engaged fathers overall.3,4 Fathers should be educated to understand that fathering starts from the moment of conception, includes positive interactions with the child’s mother, and involves active involvement during the prenatal period.