By William H. Bentley, Associate Commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau
For families across the country, including mine, Father’s Day is a time to recognize dads and other male role models, spend quality time across generations, and think about the values we share with one another.
It’s not just common sense that fathers matter. Research shows that a dependable fatherly presence can promote children’s social and emotional well-being, academic achievement, and many other positive outcomes.
But for many of the parents and children that the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s grantees serve, Father’s Day can be bittersweet.
From our runaway and homeless youth programs, we hear about some fathers who are absent, abusive, addicted to drugs or alcohol, or simply lack a support network or knowledge of what it takes to be a positive, caring dad. In many cases, their children run away because of lack of support and affection at home.
From our adolescent pregnancy prevention programs that work with young men, including teen dads, we hear about the need for some teen boys to learn relationship skills, healthy communication styles, and gender attitudes that will enable them to be good partners and fathers, if they so choose, in the future.
In all of our efforts, we believe that the work of strengthening fathers and supporting young people goes hand-in-hand.
Repairing Broken Relationships
Some research has found that youth who run away report lower levels of engagement with their fathers compared to peers. At Youth Shelters, a Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantee in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Program Director Spring LePak reports that about 80 percent of transitional living program residents have no relationship with their fathers.
“A lot are from immigrant families, and their family members may have gone back to Mexico,” she says. “For some, their fathers are in prison, absent, or the youth may not know who their fathers are.”
Many of the young men LePak works with aren’t keen to start a relationship with their fathers. When youth do want to contact their fathers, Youth Shelters’ counselors use an evidence-based practice called Motivational Interviewing to discuss the steps to repairing the relationship. The youth may send letters or begin a dialogue over the phone. Youth workers help prepare them for what it will be like to reintegrate into the family and teach them positive coping skills for when the meetings occur. They also offer chances for youth and fathers to read, talk, and watch movies together. LePak and her colleagues work to create safe opportunities for engagement between parents and children, which can help Youth Shelters’ young clients overcome lives full of trauma.
“Our goal is to help them develop natural supports and positive adult relationships where they can,” says LePak. “It is part of the healing process for them to learn to forgive and learn that their dad is human.”
Preparing the Fathers of the Future
Breaking the cycle of unhealthy paternal relationships takes more than just damage control, however. FYSB’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention grantees aim to give today’s young men a sense of personal responsibility and interpersonal connections so they can become supportive fathers one day.
Take the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition, which uses an evidence-based curriculum called the Teen Health Project to teach young people in the Tallahassee area about preventing pregnancies and staying healthy. Certain high-achieving graduates of those classes later take part in leadership councils that challenge them to educate their peers and community about health issues.
Erin Addington, the coalition’s teen health project director, says the leadership councils offer a chance for young people to see a world beyond their own families and towns, which have a disproportionate number of teen parents.
“They come from a single-parent home and basically helped raise a lot of their young siblings,” Addington says of one young man and his sister who participated in a leadership council. “Over time they blossomed into real examples of what kind of potential these young people have.”
A Gift for Every Dad
What we wish for every dad this Father’s Day is that he has a support system and the skills to relate to his children and communicate with them in healthy and positive ways, to set healthy boundaries, to have high expectations, to act lovingly and respectfully. And we stand with our federal partners, like the Office of Family Assistance and their National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, in our desire to see fathers get all the help and support they need.