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Three Self-Care Musts for Every Dedicated Dad

Fatherly life lessons from the school of hard knocks.

Krista, then 14, came in to see me for counseling a few years ago. She was very articulate about how stressed out she was feeling from all the "mean girls" treating her poorly at her new high school. As part of the counseling process, her parents, Rhonda and Pete, came in to provide emotional support and encouragement. It was heartwarming to see the infusion of strength that Krista emerged with from that session. She branched out to form a different, more supportive friend group and we agreed that she was emotionally in a better place. At that point my brief counseling with her ended.

One striking impression I had about this family was admiration for how Pete as a father was able to provide a calm, soothing voice to help Krista gather her thoughts. In that session described above, he shared new information with Krista about how he had been bullied as a teen. He presented as a very devoted dad who was clearly wanting to be there for his daughter at a difficult time. Pete openly shared in the session that he would value seeing me for a session at some time in the future, and both Rhonda and Krista encouraged him to do so.

A few years later, Pete contacted me to come in to discuss job stress he was experiencing. The source of his stress was a demanding boss, as well as his feeling very vulnerable at the company he worked for, which was about to be bought out.

Pete had been supportive and compassionate with his daughter, but he was not able to apply the same kindness and acceptance toward himself at this difficult time. He lacked self-compassion, which led him to beat himself for "being a failure," gain 30 pounds, feel helpless, and let his mind fill with other self-deprecating thoughts. Fortunately, Pete worked through his anxieties and negative self-beliefs, became more hopeful, and applied for a different job with another company, which he accepted at a considerably higher salary. Adding further to the positive outcome, the new job allowed Pete to work more often from home.

As a psychologist and parenting coach, I have had the honor of working with many dads like Pete. Many share with me about feeling pulled into our fast-moving, highly competitive culture. They talk about high pressure to give all to their jobs their jobs tenuously balanced with meeting the needs of their intimate partners, children, and families of origin as best they can. These guys strive to become “successful “as measured by having financial security. This means climbing the corporate ladder or pushing themselves in their own businesses to help provide (along with their spouses) to their families.

The dads who really have it together, from what I see, have learned that it is crucial to take care of themselves emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Just as flight attendants say on a plane, they know the importance of first putting the "oxygen mask" on themselves before putting it on those around them. Dads who live their lives in this balanced, healthier way do the following three things:

1. Embrace Self-Care. Dads who value and care for their emotional and physical health know that it is one of the best gifts they can give their families. I have seen too many stressed out, physically unhealthy fathers who, in the name of giving all to their jobs and families, neglect themselves. On this front, eating well, exercising, maintaining healthy body weight, and getting proper sleep are important for taking care of yourself.

As far as emotional health goes, men still have huge issues with expressing vulnerability. Well over 100 years ago, physician William Osler wrote, "The organs weep the tears the eyes refuse to shed." Did you know that 75-90 percent of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints? This statistic is likely even higher for men because we tend to internalize (hold in) our struggles and feelings.

2. Be loving, loyal, and understanding with your intimate partner. Taking care of your intimate relationship is a huge part of practicing self-care. John Gottman, the renowned relationship expert, discovered four markers of relationship failure highly predictive of divorce, also known as the four horsemen:

  • Criticism refers to attacking one’s character or personality; for example, “You are so lazy.” Instead, using I statements such as, “It frustrates me when you don’t help out around the house,” targets your partner’s problem behavior without the use of criticism.
  • The second horseman is defensiveness. The problem with defensiveness is that once you engage in it, you naturally tune out what your partner is trying to say to you and begin making excuses, blaming your partner, and not taking responsibility for your part in the conflict.
  • The third horseman is contempt. You know you are contemptuous when you show blatant disrespect for your partner by doing things like sneering, rolling your eyes, or using “humor” to put down your partner.
  • The last horseman is stonewalling. Simply put, stonewalling is when you become non-responsive. Research shows that this is the most damaging of the behaviors.

3. Know the power of listening and understanding your kids. Healthy relationships with your children are one of the best gifts you can give yourself. No adult ever complains to me that their own parents had listened to them too much or that they were too supportive and understanding! Yet never before have fathers, or mothers for that matter, faced more competing demands for attention than today. I am just as guilty as getting sucked into multitasking because of the ever present allure of screens as everyone else. But giving the gift of your undivided attention, and truly listening to your children, is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Note: The names above were all changed to protect client confidentiality.

For more, visit my website.

References

The Effects of Stress on Your Body (2017), Web MD, https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/effects-of-stress-on-yo…

Werrbach, M. (2018) Predicting Divorce: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse https://psychcentral.com/blog/predicting-divorce-the-four-horsemen-of-t…

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