Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Three tips for the fatherless on Father’s Day.

Technically speaking, everyone has a father. None of us would be here if we didn’t. The biological fact that everyone has a father, however, does not guarantee that everyone has a relationship with their dad. Many report having a wonderful father, while others are not close with, or don’t know their dad at all. Although 69 percent of people report they have a close relationship with their father, 90 percent report having a close relationship with their mother. In other words, for about thirty percent of the population, Father’s Day is probably a complicated holiday. While some are buying their dad a gift, gushing over how lucky they are to have a loving father, or changing their Facebook profile photo to a picture of their father holding them as a child, you might instead be feeling a pang—a pang that communicates loss, hurt, or even betrayal.

If this describes you, then I hope to offer you some comfort this Father’s Day. But in order to get to the part about how to cope with a tough Father’s day, I first want to talk about the concept of “father,” and address the myths out there telling us that those who grew up without fathers are destined for mental health problems throughout their lives. While this does have some merit and supportive evidence, it isn’t completely true. Emotional pain is usually easier to cope with when it is well understood – so let’s look at what psychology has taught us about fathers, and then get to the good part – where Father’s Day can become a less painful holiday.

What Does the Research Teach Us About Fathers?

Various studies show how fathers influence their children. These studies have shown us that active fathers produce children who are more emotionally stable, more confident in their surroundings, and have stronger social connections.

These particular studies examined children of heterosexual parents.  The bottom line: kids raised by both an active mother and father who are emotionally available to their child usually raise children who are well-adjusted. But what about children who don’t grow up in this environment? That is, what about children who grow up in “nontraditional” settings? The research I cited above has been used in certain contexts to promote the idea that children must have both a mother and a father in order to lead well-adjusted lives. Simply put, this is a myth. Another myth tells us that children who are raised by a single parent suffer more from substance abuse and emotional instability than those raised by two heterosexual parents.

In one study that analyzed various children of nontraditional parenting settings (single mothers, same-sex parents, etc.), they found one commonality that primarily predicted a child’s success: “The family type that is best for children is one that has responsible, committed, stable parenting. Two parents are, on average, better than one, but one really good parent is better than two not-so-good ones.”

Here’s the bottom line: fathers matter. So do mothers. And so does any other person who takes the time to care for a child by being emotionally available, consistent, and loving.  So, yes, fathers are important. And I’m thankful I had one that was involved in my life. But, the hype about how most social problems can be solved if we had more active fathers in the lives of children is not exactly accurate. It’s a good idea, but it’s not the only solution to the problem of maladjusted children and adults. Or in the words of my old southern high school guidance counselor, Reba Wood, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

 No matter your parental situation as a child, a lack of nurturance from parents can often be a key factor in causing emotional instability and woundedness in adults. That lack of paternal nurturance might be from a single mother who was unavailable due to working long hours. Or perhaps from a father who was present in your life but just didn’t know how to connect with you or inadvertently communicated harmful messages to you. The truth is, it isn’t the constitution of the family that causes a child to become a maladjusted versus a stable adult. What makes a difference is the level of nurturance and discipline that a child received from the available parents, guardians, and adult figures in his or her life.

If you are struggling this Father’s Day because you have experienced a lack of paternal nurturance in your life, first, let me extend my deepest empathy to you. I know it’s a hard day and can represent a reminder of something painful. And for that, I’m truly sorry.

However, let me direct your attention to something a bit more hopeful: we can overcome past paternal wounds and move toward flourishing. Psychology has proven it time and again, and it’s never too late for healing. Our brains and spirits are resilient and want to thrive. This Father’s Day, if you find yourself struggling, let me offer you three things to help yourself move through the pain:

1.     Identify what you feel you are lacking by not having a father in your life. It’s easy to be bummed out because you may not have the father that you want. However, are you clear on what exactly you’re bummed out about? What are the specific losses you’ve incurred by being fatherless? Maybe it’s never having paternal validation, so now you seek it relentlessly from others. Or perhaps you are incredibly self-critical because your father criticized you excessively during childhood. Whatever it is, look for the specific things you are missing and searching for by not having the dad you desired. Identify those losses clearly and then mourn them. Mourning is not self-pity. The difference between the two is that self-pity perpetuates rumination and stagnation. Mourning allows emotions to be fully processed so that one can move forward toward resiliency.

2.     Look for mentors. As the above research indicates, paternal love can be found in other places besides two heterosexual parents. It’s often ideal for it to be found in mothers or fathers, but this does not always happen. Are their people in your life that you admire? If so, why? Is there an opportunity to spend time with them? Can you have them over for dinner? Can you spend time with their families to observe and be present with them? Be open to the various kinds of people that can fill this role. And, even if you have daddy-specific wounds, keep in mind that your mentors don’t necessarily need to be male. I can personally say that I have learned so much about true masculinity, identity, and my maleness from women who have served mentor roles in my life. Be open and move toward the people that are presenting themselves in your path. Spend time with them and ask them to speak into areas of your life. Perhaps they can provide the nurturing that you craved from your own parents and never received.

3.     Parent yourself. This probably sounds a bit weird, so let me explain. Think about the two primary functions that parents fulfill: nurturance and discipline. These two things can be administered to yourself. An exercise I often encourage many of my clients to do is to acknowledge the parts of themselves that they don’t like. For example, that part of you that is self-critical. Or that part of you that makes reckless mistakes that aren’t in your best interest. We all have those parts. And usually our first reaction to these “parts” is to beat them down, self-deprecate, and try to gain control over them through willpower and force. Usually this doesn’t lead to behavior change. When parents do these types of things to their children over unpleasant behavior, it usually leads to long-lasting wounds and the undesired behaviors become exacerbated. Rather, a good parent accepts their child, empathizes with the reasons the child is acting the way he or she is, provides compassion, and reflects self-awareness so the child can gain insight into their actions. The driving idea here is radical acceptance and empathy with your faults in order to fuel behavior change. Acknowledge the parts of you that are acting out due to paternal wounds and foster self-awareness and empathy to encourage behavior change instead of self-criticism.

Father’s Day is tough for a lot of folks for a lot of different reasons. But it turns out my old guidance counselor was a lot wiser than I thought when I was a teenager. You can receive paternal nurturance and healing in several different ways. Look for those opportunities and be kind to yourself.

Happy Father’s Day.