Dads Need Support, Too: Three Ways That Fathers Raising Neurodiverse Kids Struggle, and One Thing They Can Do
There’s a dad I’ve worked with that we’ll call Adam (not his real name). I had been meeting with his wife for several months when she asked if I’d begin meeting with her husband, too. She explained that although Adam wasn’t one to reach out for support, she believed he would benefit from the conversations she and I had been having. And although she’d learned quite a bit in our months of working together, she didn’t feel like she could explain the material clearly enough for her husband to integrate, and then implement those concepts in his own parenting of their complex child.
Adam shared stories of the frustrating — even sometimes infuriating —interactions with his son. Like any parent, he wanted to help his son, but it seemed like everything he attempted only escalated his son’s challenging behaviors and elevated the tension in their home.
While Adam could acknowledge that his son had a serious brain-based condition, he found it difficult to accept just how much accommodation his son required in order to make it through the day unscathed. Adam had a difficult time letting go of the age-based expectations around personal responsibility and accountability he’d carried since his own adolescence. The shame and embarrassment he felt about his son’s seemingly unreasonable, and sometimes out-of-control, behavior in front of other parents weighed heavily, to the point that Adam began avoiding social situations with his son as much as possible.
As we continued to work together, Adam began to recognize how deeply sad he was that his relationship with his son was so different from what he saw around him (with neighbors, friends, extended family), and from how that relationship had been with his own father.
Adam felt like his world was shrinking with each passing year.
From my experience working with many dads of kids struggling with behavioral symptoms, Adam’s stories and experiences are not unique. He shared with me how difficult he’s found it to be a dad in this space of neurobehavioral challenges, because he doesn’t know anyone else facing the same daily struggles he encounters. His wife had found her community of support with other moms, but he wasn’t finding the same for dads. That only compounded his sense of isolation in an already challenging situation.
The struggles Adam described come up again and again in the conversations I have with fathers. And while many mothers describe similar “themes” running through their parenting experience, I’ve found that we (as a larger society) often forget that fathers experience these things, too, and that it needs special attention given a father’s role in their child’s life and within many families.
The Unique Aspects of the Father Experience
In nearly a decade of supporting parents of kids with challenging behavioral symptoms, I’ve worked with many fathers like Adam — fiercely invested in learning how to parent their child who struggles with relentless and frustrating behaviors. Those dads want to learn how to help their family reduce the turmoil and chaos. And like so many of the mothers I work with, they are tired, stressed, and often on the verge of hopelessness, feeling as though nothing they do actually helps their child, and frequently escalates the challenging behaviors and overall tension in the home.
These dads want to do better, but they don’t know how — because a space that speaks to their unique experience doesn’t seem to exist.
Despite the commonalities between mothers and fathers in my practice, there are some broad, distinct differences in the experience of “fathering” — differences often overlooked by the larger mom-centric parenting support spaces. When these differences are recognized, and parent support is tailored to these unique aspects, fathers tend to make great strides in their parenting, leaving them feeling more competent, confident, and hopeful for their family.
Here are three overarching differences I’ve identified in my own work with dads, as it relates to parenting a child, teen or young adult with a brain-based difference and challenging behavioral symptoms.
1. Societal Beliefs About What it Means to Be a “Good Dad”
There is a deep-seated belief in mainstream society that the role of the father is to teach his children responsibility and right-from-wrong, often reaching for power, control and authority to do so. It’s a recurring message that, in order to be a good father, you must hold strict and unwavering boundaries with your children, clearly demonstrating through words and actions “who is in charge” in the home. Establishing that authority, particularly with a child who “pushes buttons” or acts disrespectfully at times, is understood to be of utmost importance and highest priority.
Most of the dads with whom I’ve worked reference clear memories of these norms from their own childhood and the ways in which they were raised. They can recount the swift punishments imposed by their own fathers when they made a mistake or showed disrespect. Consequences were typically delivered through some use of projected power, whether it be through raised voices, harsh language, restricted privileges or prized possessions, threats of additional punishments or, in some cases, physical force. Most of the dads in my practice don’t share memories quite as vivid (or, in some cases, at all) of their own fathers responding from a place of relationship and connection to teach right from wrong, establish boundaries and instill values.
As I work alongside these fathers, always with the goal of shifting their lens to a Brain First perspective (versus a behavioral one), they describe the enormous energy required to unlearn patterns that have been reinforced through years of their own upbringing and the dominant culture. The underlying belief they’re working to dismantle is that they are only a good father when they “stand their ground” at all costs, and clearly show their child “who’s boss.” Through our conversations, they learn how to access empathy and compassion for their child who struggles, and how to connect in ways that counteract the knee-jerk reaction to reach for power as they “handle” the situation at hand. They learn to lean into the truth that they can be nurturing and compassionate in the face of their child’s challenging behavioral symptoms, and this will not undermine their authority. They begin to feel confident in the ability to shift their internal state, realizing this is the path to more peace in their home and fewer challenging behaviors from their child.
2. Isolation in Their Experience
Several years ago, an interesting study was presented at the International Society For Autism Research suggesting that over 30% of fathers of teens and young adults with autism experience symptoms of depression significant enough to warrant clinical attention. That’s a striking finding. For comparison, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 7% of American men will experience depression in a given year. While there aren’t similar research studies related to other, more specific neurobehavioral conditions like PANS/PANDAS, FASD, and ADHD, I would imagine the statistics are similar.
These are just a few of the reflections I hear from dads in my practice, all of whom have a younger child or teen with a neurobehavioral condition:
“No one would understand or believe what my family goes through each day.”
“I feel like all the other parents are judging me, wondering why I allow my kid to treat me that way, and behave that way…”
“I don’t want to be this angry all the time, but I have no idea how to change it.”
This experience of solitariness, of being the “only dad” who lives this reality, leads to a sense of isolation which grows over time, eventually leading to depression, shame, and resentment. Dads are wired for connection, just as all humans are, yet there are relatively few spaces dedicated specifically to them, speaking specifically to their experience.
Related to the sense of isolation, yet rarely talked about with dads, is the grief and loss they experience when they do not have the father-child experience that they imagined as part of fatherhood, and the way this grief ripples out, impacting the entire family unit. Rarely is this emotion or experience identified specifically as “grief” by the dads I work with, for understandable reasons. There is a lack of support, alongside a wealth of stigma, around openly expressing grief and sadness. There are real and perceived obstacles to reaching out for support, and astonishingly few resources and professionals which address their unique parenting experience.
3. Cycle of Tension with Partner (and Not Knowing What to do About it)
Quite often, the dads with whom I work are married or partnered with someone who does the active, on-line research, and sets up and attends provider appointments with the children. It’s not always, but frequently the case that the online spaces in which the dads spend their time are not ones in which people discuss what it means to parent kids who live with brain-based conditions. Those same dads might be less apt to read parenting advice books or seek out online support groups. Before working directly with me, they would often receive parenting information and advice secondhand, relayed through their partner. Then, attempting to apply that information to their own lived experience and behavior, they often felt — more often than not — like they had failed in that application. This only led to more shame and blame, increased tension with their partner, and feeling as though (or being told, directly or indirectly) they couldn’t do anything right.
These dads want to do better, but they don’t know how — because a space that speaks to their experience doesn’t seem to exist. The grief and sadness that boils up when fatherhood is not at all what they imagined is then masked by anger, resentment and sometimes…rage. These masking emotions only increase the tension in the marriage and home, but it’s a cycle that neither partner knows how to interrupt.
What often happens next is that the dad shuts down or disappears (sometimes physically, but also emotionally and relationally) because they don’t know what to do instead. It can become a vicious, devastating cycle, through no one’s fault in particular, but one that requires focused support to resolve and change.
Here’s the thing: I’ve come to believe that, just like in Adam’s case, the greatest barrier for all of these dads isn’t a willingness or motivation to learn how to parent from a Brain First lens, it’s the general lack of support and resources they encounter. That’s why I’ve created a space just for dads, so they can come together and learn how to more effectively parent their child who struggles, from a Brain First lens, in the company of other fathers sharing their lived experience. Fathers have an incredible opportunity, and also a deep capacity, to help their child be as successful as possible. I’m hopeful that the Focus on Fathers workshop will be the first step for many in beginning to thrive, rather than simply survive, this unique parenting role.
Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.