Catherine McCall MS, LMFT

Overcoming Child Abuse

How New Dads Can Become Great Parents

Practical guidance for developing a strong bond with your child.

Posted Jun 30, 2011

 As the month of June comes to a close, I realize that ever since Father's Day, I've had fathers on my mind: good fathers, abusive fathers, absent fathers, clueless fathers. I've certainly met all of the above over the years, both in my personal life and in my office. Therapy sessions during which men who've been abused by their own fathers struggle to access the most tender parts of themselves so that they can be good dads to their children, have been among the most inspiring in my career.

Now, thanks to the work of John Gottman, Ph.D., we know that there are concrete things men can do to be good dads, and they begin with the transition to parenthood, a stage of the family life cycle for which, after decades of research, Dr. Gottman and his wife, Julie Schwarz Gottman, Ph. D. developed Bringing Baby Home workshops for new parents (www.bbhonline.org ). Most of the material in this blog is from Bringing Baby Home, a workshop that I wish all new parents could attend.

Have you noticed that often, when a baby is born, experienced women flock to the aid of the new mother? This well-intentioned community of support can unwittingly push a new dad aside, which is unfortunate, because the more involved he is with his wife and newborn, the more likely it is that he will undergo the same kind of philosophical transformations his wife goes through: transformations in values, life goals, priorities, etc., and this will create a deep bond between them. So, Dads, don't let the women push you aside! It's important for you to begin being proactively involved with your child from the start. And there are many ways you can do that.

If your wife is breast feeding, you can bring her the baby and help them get comfortable. Change diapers, give baths, rock the baby, cuddle the baby, read to the baby, and sing the baby to sleep. Hold your baby next to your naked chest so that s/he can smell you, feel you, hear your heart beat. Know that your presence, touch, face and voice are very important to your baby. And stay aware of your feelings. Being in touch with your feelings will help you and your baby to develop a healthy emotional bond. Being just physically present isn't enough to become a great father. It's critical for you to also be warm and emotionally available to your child. You'll have the greatest positive impact on her or his emotional and social development, if you become an emotion coach for your child so that s/he can develop what is called emotional intelligence. Because this is so important, Dr. Gottman's research team put together this guide for parenting throughout a child's development:

HELPFUL DADS :  EMOTION
1. Notice lower intensity emotions in children
2. See these emotions as an opportunity for intimacy or teaching
3. Validate and empathize with emotions, even if there is misbehavior
4. Help your child verbally label all the emotions he or she is feeling
5. Set limits on misbehavior or problem solve if there is no misbehavior

HARMFUL DADS:                                                                                                                                                   1. Unaware of kids' emotions until they escalate
2. See these negative emotions as toxic and a failure of parenting
3. Try to change the emotion to a positive one, or dismiss the emotion
4. See introspection as a waste of time or dangerous
5. Disapproval of your child having negative emotions

TEACHING : HELPFUL DADS
1. Give only enough information for your child to get started
2. Wait for your child to do something
3. Give specific praise for success
4. Then give more information
5. Do not get involved in the mistakes

HARMFUL DADS:                                                                                                                                                    1. Giving a lot of information in an excited manner
2. Watching and waiting for mistakes
3. Giving "constructive" criticism when your child fails
4. Being very involved in your child's mistakes

For those of you who want to understand more about being a good father, here are some books I frequently recommend: "The Expectant Father" by Armin Brott& Jennifer Ash, "And Baby Makes Three" by John Gottman, Ph.D. and Julie Schwarz Gottman, Ph. D., "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting" by John Gottman, Ph.D., "Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive," by Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., "Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, " by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

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