Counseling Today, Features

Left to their own devices

By Lindsey Phillips August 29, 2018

Want to hear a joke about a piece of paper? Never mind, it’s tearable. They may make you chuckle (or, alternatively, roll your eyes and groan), but there’s little denying that “dad jokes” such as this one help to perpetuate the stereotype of fathers as inept, ridiculous and out of touch.

Of course, fathers have heard it all: Is dad babysitting? Does he know which end the diaper goes on? Oh, he’s like the mom. He’s Mr. Mom!

That caricature might have been humorous in 1983, when Mr. Mom hit movie theaters, with Michael Keaton portraying a laid-off engineer who suddenly finds himself contending, cluelessly, with the demands of being a stay-at-home dad. But three decades later, the idea of men being present and involved fathers is no longer novel — or something to be ridiculed.

“Men hate being called Mr. Mom,” asserts Matt Englar-Carlson, a professor of counseling and director of the Center for Boys and Men at California State University, Fullerton. “[That role] is being put upon them by someone else, and they’re saying, ‘That is not my experience. I’m not a bumbling idiot.’”

According to the 2015 Pew Research Center report “Parenting in America,” mothers (58 percent) and fathers (57 percent) are equally likely to consider parenting to be important to their overall identity. Of course, the concept of fathering is constantly changing, especially considering the rise of women as financial providers, co-parenting, the diversity of fathers (e.g., gay fathers, older fathers) and changes in technology that allow more people to work from home rather than commuting to an office every day. Although people often focus on the negative effects of these changes, Englar-Carlson, an American Counseling Association member and co-editor of the 2014 ACA book A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, points out that they have also generated some favorable circumstances. “The changing of women’s roles [in the workplace] and the rise of co-parenting has created opportunities for men,” who now have the chance to be more present fathers, he explains.

And present fathers positively affect children in three key ways, notes Mark Kiselica, the acting provost and vice president for academic affairs and a professor of psychology at Cabrini University. First, by engaging in active play, such as throwing a ball, fathers promote their children’s physical development. Second, as role models, moral guides and disciplinarians, fathers help children become dependable, autonomous and friendly. Finally, fathers help their children’s cognitive stimulation, especially because current generations of fathers are more likely to be intimately involved in their children’s academic work and in promoting their achievement.

Despite the changing expectations and roles for fathers, men often struggle to update their own expectations around parenting, Englar-Carlson points out. Often, men are facing these challenges alone because resources on good fathering are scarce.

For that reason, counselors should be careful not to overlook the mental health of men who are struggling with one aspect or another of fatherhood. Instead, counselors can serve as a key asset in helping men learn to embrace and reframe their roles as fathers and helping them realize that they are not alone, says Englar-Carlson, one of the core authors of the forthcoming psychological practice guidelines for working with boys and men from the American Psychological Association.

Making fatherhood part of the conversation

Men often avoid seeking help, and even when they do go to counseling, they may mask the real reason they are there, says Eric Davis, an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Counseling, Adult, Career and Higher Education at the University of South Florida.

Kiselica, a licensed professional counselor and former president of American Psychological Association Division 51: Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinities, agrees. Gendered thinking that men should be self-reliant, tough and not vulnerable may cause men not to pursue help, he adds.

Nathaniel Wagner, an assistant professor of counseling at Indiana State University, finds that men often seek counseling because of someone or something else such as their partner, their spouse or their employer. Counselors must help these clients understand that they have something to work on and get them motivated to want to make a change and improve their lives, he adds.

But how can counselors engage fathers who may be reluctant to seek help? First, counselors must clear their heads of the notion that all men don’t desire help, Englar-Carlson advises. Instead, counselors need to be proactive. When the client is a parent or an expectant father, counselors should start a conversation about fatherhood, mentioning resources and potential groups to see if the client is interested, Englar-Carlson says.

Counselors should also be aware of signs that fathers are struggling. Davis recommends listening for fathers or expectant fathers who mention feeling alone, isolated or disconnected. Counselors may also notice substance abuse issues or aggression, he adds.

Men often feel a strong cultural or societal expectation to provide for their families. As a result, counseling programs focused on helping fathers with jobs and their sense of duty as a provider may serve as a gateway to addressing other issues in their lives such as relationship problems or substance abuse, Kiselica says.

Assessment questions are a great way to discover what masculinity means to individual fathers, Englar-Carlson says, but he advises against asking blanket questions such as “What does it mean to be a man?” Instead, counselors might ask father-specific questions such as:

  • What does being a father and fathering mean to you?
  • How did you learn to be a father?
  • Who is the father you would like to be?
  • What do you do well as a father?
  • What special characteristics do you have that you can bring to your role as a father?

Men often think about these questions, but they don’t talk about them, Englar-Carlson observes. Asking such questions “puts fathering into the conversation. … It puts being a father as an identity in the room that we can explore,” he says.

Counselors should also be prepared to delve deeper if fathers provide stock answers. Englar-Carlson often finds that when he asks men about their parenting experiences, they respond with, “It’s great.” So, he pushes back and asks, “Is it all great?”

“Parents … [and] men are encouraged to be careful of what [they] say. Parenthood is presented as this amazing thing that’s so wonderful, but it isn’t always wonderful,” Englar-Carlson says. “And I think men have a difficult time talking about that because they don’t want to appear selfish [or] they don’t want to appear unsupportive.” By pushing back, counselors can encourage fathers to move beyond the general comments that they think they should give, providing them with a space to talk about their full range of parenting experiences, he says.

Wagner, a licensed mental health counselor in Indiana and Florida, says that he finds genograms and sociograms useful in uncovering fathers’ stories and overall family dynamics.

Using father-friendly language

When engaging fathers in these conversations, counselors need to be thoughtful and conscious of the language they are using.

Kiselica, an ACA member and editor of the Routledge book series on Counseling and Psychotherapy With Boys and Men, recommends appealing to men’s desire to work hard by using subtle phrases such as “let’s get to work on this” or even “let’s roll up our sleeves” (at which point he will literally roll up his sleeves).

He also suggests appealing to fathers’ sense of duty and responsibility by saying, “It takes a lot of guts to get help” or “You’re being brave in seeking counseling.” These statements symbolically send a message and ease fathers into a positive direction, he says.

Counselors can also use metaphors or examples from the client’s life as a way to connect with the client and find a common language, Wagner says. For example, if a client works in construction or talks about sports a lot, Wagner will use similar language in session. He also recommends using humor to engage fathers because men often find value in humor.

Because men are often goal-oriented when approaching problems, using a problem-solving mentality and step-oriented approach is helpful with some fathers, Davis says. Counselors can connect the client’s current situation to a personal example in which the client relied on his strengths to solve a problem, he suggests. For example, counselors might ask clients how building a swing set is similar to building a father’s support group, or they could ask how the client handled managing people at work and how those skills could apply to his current situation as a father.

Wagner agrees that being direct and open about the counseling process — which involves explaining what you’re doing as a counselor and why you’re doing it — is beneficial. If counselors discuss emotions, they need to explain to fathers why they are doing that and how it connects to a larger goal, he says. “Fathers and [men] typically focus more on fixing things, and they want to know that what we’re doing has a purpose and that we’re trying to find ways to fix and help them through this process. Having a goal and a plan and sharing that [information] can often be very helpful,” Wagner explains.

At the same time, emotional language can be difficult for some fathers. “When [counselors] do start talking to men about emotions, a self-disclosure can be really helpful,” Wagner suggests. For example, if the client had a negative experience with his father, then the counselor could say, “When I was a child, my dad was stoic and distant, so it was hard to know if I was loved by him.”

Using emotion words in a way that connects with clients may help them express their own emotions, Wagner explains. “You’re not asking them to talk about their emotions. You’re sharing it and showing that it’s OK to talk about [these emotions], and … that can be really helpful.”

Reconceptualizing fatherhood and masculinity

Englar-Carlson acknowledges that parents are typically defined in binary terms — mother or father. This causes people not only to compare the roles but also to overlook the unique and diverse experiences of fathers. “As counselors, we just have to constantly stretch how we think about this notion of parent and father,” he argues.

Reconceptualizing fatherhood raises some important questions: How can counselors help clients reframe their view of fatherhood in a positive light? What does healthy or positive masculinity look like? Englar-Carlson doesn’t think that people in the helping professions often sit around and contemplate questions such as these, but he believes that they should.

Wagner says counselors need to reflect on their own beliefs and biases about fatherhood to work effectively with clients. Counseling is more often geared toward women, so counselors have to reconceptualize how they think about fathers’ experiences and their roles, Wagner advises.

“If we go into a session and we try to focus immediately on emotions and feelings and these things that men often find very scary, then we’re likely to get very early termination and fathers and men shutting down and leaving,” Wagner explains. “So, it’s us really being very patient, being very slow [and] building that relationship where fathers and men experience safety.”

Counselors can also use strength-based approaches, which will help counselors to develop empathy, establish rapport and use fathers’ strengths more effectively. There are great strengths that men bring to the way they approach things, and if we search and build upon those strengths, we’re likely to be successful,” explains Kiselica, who served as a consulting scholar for the federal fatherhood initiatives of the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

“I focus on the aspects of positive masculinity that I see in the man, which helps me build rapport with [him],” Kiselica says. For example, he will notice and affirm positive aspects of traits such as perseverance, hard word and caring for one’s family. By taking this approach, counselors will often gain fathers’ trust with other issues such as violence and aggression, he adds.

Kiselica also stresses the importance of using culturally salient language and promoting the more desirable form of masculinity. For example, counselors working with Latino fathers might emphasize the cultural term caballerismo (a positive image of a nurturing and caring man) rather than the term machismo (a strong sense of masculine pride) to help clients focus on the positive strengths of being a man who cares and respects his family.

Englar-Carlson agrees with using a strength-based approach. “A lot of the research that exists on the psychology of men is really looking at the places where men go wrong, or what I might call the dark side of masculinity,” he explains. Masculinity has been defined “in terms of conflicts or contradictions or things that men are not supposed to do — don’t feel, don’t ask for help, don’t do this — and we have a harder time looking at what men are supposed to do.”

Fathers come in to counseling already fully aware of what is not going right, Englar-Carlson argues. In fact, because men frequently internalize their experiences, their core emotion is often shame, he says. Because of this, male clients will typically feel shame for not being good enough or even for being in counseling. As a result, Englar-Carlson advises counselors not to start sessions by asking fathers about all the things that have gone wrong in their lives. He says this will result only in sad or resistant clients.

“Men are more interested in initially talking about where they would like to be. This is a term often known as possible masculinity,” Englar-Carlson explains. Counselors working with these clients might consider asking questions such as “Who is the father you’d like to be, and what does that look like?” Then, counselors can help fathers figure out how to achieve that goal.

Working with stay-at-home dads

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of fathers who stayed at home with their children nearly doubled from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012. In addition, 21 percent reported caring for their home or family as the reason for staying home, a fourfold increase from 1989 when only 5 percent cited this as the reason.

Although the number of stay-at-home dads has risen, the negative stereotypes and bias surrounding the choice have not gone away. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 51 percent of respondents thought children were better off with mothers who stayed at home and didn’t hold a job, whereas only 8 percent felt the same way about fathers.

Davis, who has presented on stay-at-home dads at the ACA Conference, finds the pervasive bias against these fathers to be problematic. He conducted a research study with 14 stay-at-home dads, and almost everyone mentioned having a negative experience, such as being the recipient of a nasty look or comment in public. One participant in the study mentioned that his father-in-law had expressed disappointment in his decision to stay at home because he was letting his wife provide for the family.

In addition, people often assume that stay-at-home dads are unemployable or lazy or that they have a disability, Davis continues. Such negative experiences can lead these men toward isolation, depression or even substance abuse, he warns.

Despite these challenges, many stay-at-home dads are happy being the primary caregiver. In Davis’ study, participants described the positive aspects of being at home, such as building a stronger relationship with their children and watching their children’s cognitive, physical and emotional growth. 

Having a father at home is also beneficial and positive for the children, Davis asserts. “It’s almost unanimous that dads [and children] are having wonderful experiences. … We’re seeing stronger academics for these kids with [stay-at-home dads]. We’re seeing stronger social development. We’re seeing stronger personal development. We’re seeing stronger family bonds,” he says.

Davis argues that it is not poor quality of life, but rather negative stereotypes, the lack of communication between fathers and other outlets, and the relative lack of support that these fathers receive that cause problems for stay-at-home dads. 

Davis suggests that counselors connect these clients with resources such as the National At-Home Dad Network to help them build support and community. In particular, he thinks school counselors are well-positioned to help identify and provide community resources for stay-at-home dads.

Counselors should also ask why men became stay-at-home dads. Making the decision consciously is more empowering than making the choice out of necessity because of unemployment, the cost of day care or other similar reasons that are more shame based, Englar-Carlson points out. The good news, he argues, is that there is no reason why men can’t move toward a more empowering mindset and embrace their position as stay-at-home dads.

Counselors can use a strength-based perspective to help clients find the positives of being a stay-at-home dad and restructure their thinking about it, Davis says. If a stay-at-home dad experiences a snarky comment at the park or a sense of isolation because other parents at school won’t talk to him, counselors need to ask what his desired outcome would be, Davis suggests. How does the client want to address or change this negative experience? Does he want to ignore it and walk away or challenge people’s biases? To help clients discover this answer, counselors can engage in conflict-resolution or role-playing exercises with these fathers, which will assist them in adjusting their perceptions and reactions to these situations, he says.

When fathers are resistant to staying at home and are doing it only out of necessity, counselors may see these clients struggling with anger, aggression and animosity toward their children and partners, Davis says. In such cases, counselors should be on the lookout for any potential issues of abuse. Counselors can also help these fathers identify and process their emotions of guilt, remorse or anger and adjust their perspective to see staying at home with their children not as a negative experience but as a growth-fostering opportunity, he says.

“Counselors can also look at [working with these clients] through a lens of grief counseling,” Davis suggests, “because you’re talking about a loss for some of these dads. This is a loss of a breadwinning role. This is a loss of a socially accepted role. … How do [counselors] help them process that loss and move on?”

Grieving miscarriage

People sometimes think that men don’t grieve over miscarriage because they are physically removed from the experience of pregnancy. This bias may result in men not receiving the help or support they need to process a miscarriage.

“Men experience emotions at the same level as women, in general, but often have difficulty expressing it,” points out Wagner, an ACA member who presented on men grieving miscarriage at both the 2017 and 2018 ACA conferences. With miscarriage, men may hold in their grief or try to find other outlets, he continues. For example, they may stay busy with work to hide or avoid their feelings, or they may lash out at others.

After counselors learn that a male client has experienced a miscarriage, they can normalize the client’s feelings by introducing the topic, Wagner suggests. Counselors can mention how many men who have experienced miscarriage question their masculinity because it is connected to the idea of being a father and then ask if this feeling resonates with the client, he says.

Once again, counselors can use clients’ strengths, such as a desire to be strong for their partners, as a means of getting them to express emotion. In a 2010 article for Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Kiselica and Martha Rinehart, a staff therapist for Council for Relationships in Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania, described the successful use of positive psychology with a Latino client who experienced a miscarriage during the 16th week of his girlfriend’s pregnancy while he was incarcerated in a state prison. Because the client held traditional beliefs about masculinity and was in an environment that further reinforced those beliefs, he hid all emotions expect for anger and grieved alone in his cell at night. As with other men grieving a miscarriage, his focus was not on himself but on staying strong and supporting his partner. Initially, Kiselica praised the client for sparing his girlfriend from worrying about his pain, but, eventually, Kiselica used this strength of wanting to support his girlfriend to convince the client to share his own grief and experience with her. This also allowed him to process and manage his feelings about the miscarriage.

Englar-Carlson, who has personally experienced the grief of miscarriage, realized that if he didn’t start talking about it, no one would ever know, so he reached out to his male friends who were supportive. From counseling strategies with women grieving miscarriage, counselors know the importance of talking about it, he says. “If not, it becomes an unacknowledged loss. And for men, it’s a similar kind of thing. There can be this unacknowledged loss that happens. Men are taught to pack that in, just stuff it inside, and just move on.”

With miscarriage, men “are grieving loss potential rather than a person,” Wagner observes. “It’s what this person could have been.” He recommends helping male clients find ways to connect and express what they wanted — this potential self — to what they do and how they express their grief. For example, if a man dreamed of throwing a ball around with his child, then the counselor might encourage him to coach a T-ball team, Wagner says.

Clients may also benefit from memorializing the child in some way, Wagner adds. He recounts a father who bought a cuff link and tie clip to use on the day of the birth. Instead, the father chose to wear them on the day the miscarriage happened. Afterward, he wore them on a monthly basis in remembrance.

Building supportive relationships

Regardless of whether men are stay-at-home dads, grieving a miscarriage or simply dealing with the everyday challenges of parenting, they often want to know that they are not alone. So, building relationships and finding support are key.

Kiselica argues that counseling services need to have an approach that is consistent with the way men form friendships. “One of the big mistakes counselors [make] is that they expect a guy … [to] come into [their] office at a set time, sit down face-to-face and spill [his] guts,” he says.

Men often form friendships by doing things together, such as playing sports, working on projects or playing video games, Kiselica says. Through the process of being active, they talk and discover what is happening in each other’s lives, he explains.

For that reason, Kiselica advises counselors to consider engaging in activities with clients who are fathers. This could involve shooting basketball, going for a walk, grabbing a bite to eat or helping a client work on his car. For example, counselors working with young fathers might start off with a quick meeting, do some type of recreational activity with the client, get something to eat and then sit down to talk more formally. Through this process, counselors stand a better chance of creating a relaxed, nurturing atmosphere that encourages fathers to open up and talk, Kiselica says.

“It is remarkable how … [struggling fathers are] bolstered by the support of other good men,” Kiselica says. Counselors can help connect these clients with other fathers, or at times they can even fulfill this supportive role themselves. Kiselica had a client who had a negative relationship with his own father, and when Kiselica made affirming messages about the client being a good father, he saw the man’s eyes turn red. The client was trying to keep from crying because he had never had another man compliment him in that way before.

It’s not surprising then that group work is one of the most effective treatment options for men, Englar-Carlson says. In groups, fathers are able to share their experiences and learn from the experiences of other fathers, he explains.

Davis has found that fathers often request some type of group work, whether it is a support group or participation in group activities. In groups, fathers can commonly share problems, gain insights, identify personal strengths and arrive at the realization that they aren’t alone, he says. School counselors could also consider providing after-school groups or other groups that allow fathers to connect with each other, he suggests. 

Although many fathers find group work useful, others are hesitant to get involved because it feels like a place where they might be required to share their feelings, Wagner warns. For these men, group activities (such as a fishing trip) with others who have had similar experiences are often helpful because there is no built-in talking component, he notes.

Englar-Carlson also thinks that finding ways to build relationships with other men is critical. “Part of the antidote [to the ‘dark side’ of masculinity] is relational connection in some capacity, so it’s about helping men … develop a relationship with each other,” he says.

Fathering matters

For Englar-Carlson, the take-home message is simple: Fathering matters. People are not taught a lot about what it means to be a father, yet being a father is a wonderful experience that dramatically changes a man’s life, he notes.

The National At-Home Dad Network advocates to ensure that the message that fathers matter is heard. In 2013, the organization declared, “Mr. Mom is Dead,” and campaigned to banish the term. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Mom made Lake Superior State University’s list of banished words for 2014. So, change is coming slowly.

“If fathers are viewed on the periphery around the birth experience … their own wonderment and experience also remain on the periphery, and yet it’s often a time … in which they’re undergoing rapid psychological changes in terms of how they view themselves, how they view their role, [and] how they view the person they want to be [and] the father they want to become. Yet, sadly for so many men, this happens in isolation,” Englar-Carlson says. “As society changes and expectations change, then counseling and support services should also change to match those needs.”

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at consulting@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

2 Comments

  1. brad

    How surprising yet timely! This article strengthens my hope for growth in the field of counseling. I saw a very large need that was being overlooked–mainly issues facing men and male teens–and I started my private practice to be a solution. I have been open for less than a year, and business is booming. I work exclusively with males in a relaxed environment, tackling issues that they face, with respect and honor.

    I have been in this field for about seven years, and I was never offered a course in how to work with the unique issues that males present with or how they best respond to treatment. I had to seek out that training, and it is sparse and antiquated, full of cliches. No, I don’t have to ask about baseball…or make small talk about the weather. I can just hold space for allowing men to be human and acknowledge that we are just as capable of emotions as women , but with much fewer resources and training on how to handle them when they overwhelm us. Just look at how many men can’t control their anger…or escape into fantasy worlds because of rejection or anxiety…or self medicate with substances. Or ultimately complete suicide. There needs to be more emphasis on issues facing modern men and how to effectively work with them, given the biases of our field and the overwhelming bent toward women and women’s issues (also that most clinicians are women and may not be comfortable working with some men).

    Reply
  2. John A. Baptiste III

    There has undoubtedly been a chasmic shift in how society has impacted the role of fatherhood and what it truly means to be a man in the in the family. I think the article detailed very accurately the role and relationships of the man in the family. I wholeheartedly agreed there is a tremendous need for men to be able to discuss in groups to express themselves, their struggles (real or imagined), and discussion on what does it looks like and what it means to raise a healthy family and be a healthy balanced. Such fundamental principles are not always achievable based on existing realities and conditions, however, this article was very helpful in describing the potential joys in changing the challenges of a man’s role in the family.
    I am in practicum right now (MFT) and a counselor in a residential facility informed me that the men are struggling right now. There is indeed a need for men in many places to be able to speak to role models and about what it means to be a man today and better understanding their role as a husband and father in the family.
    Wonderful article and very helpful. Your techniques and guidance in leading the discussion with men were hugely appreciated.

    John Baptiste (conducting filed work in practicum – grad student)

    Reply

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