Becoming a father at a young age can be both exciting and terrifying. While some young fathers talk of the birth of their child as “the best day of my life,” others recall feelings of shock and confusion when they first heard they were about to become a father.
As we celebrate Father’s Day this month, I reflect on the challenges that many young fathers face. Young men who become fathers in their teens or early 20s are more likely than older fathers to be without a high school diploma, face employment challenges and be economically disadvantaged. Although many are involved in caring relationships with the mother during and after pregnancy, they often are not married or living together and may feel excluded from the father role by the mother, her parents or health and social services programs. They may experience depression and anxiety regarding the health of the mother and child, the impact on their personal freedom and leisure time and their ability to complete school or find employment.
Despite stereotypes of young fathers trying to escape the responsibilities of fatherhood, national demonstration projects such as the Teen Father Collaboration in the 1980s and the Young Unwed Fathers Pilot Project in the 1990s have shown that young fathers are more involved in the lives of their families than often assumed, particularly during the first few years of their child’s life. However, maintaining this involvement and meeting all the demands of fatherhood while still completing your own developmental growth from adolescence to adulthood is far from an easy task.
Supporting young mothers and fathers during pregnancy and their children’s early years can help young families navigate these challenging times and enhance future outcomes for their children. Young parents often need help with education, employment, parenting and relationships. Helping them understand the impact of early parent-child bonding, explaining the benefits of paternity establishment (for themselves and their children) and encouraging respectful co-parenting relationships can be particularly important in terms of their child’s well-being.
They may also need assistance understanding and navigating child support or dealing with housing, substance abuse and legal issues. Organizations that have access to young parents, such as schools, youth corps, maternity centers, mentoring programs and job centers are uniquely positioned to either provide this assistance or develop partnerships with other community organizations to help young parents overcome the challenges they face.
Programs that adopt a two-generation approach by providing direct services to parents and their children could be particularly effective in working with young fathers. For instance, Early Head Start programs working directly with young children can go beyond parent engagement to create educational and workforce opportunities for fathers and mothers.
Similarly, home visiting programs such as Nurse-Family Partnership are well-positioned to involve fathers as they work directly with parents to assess the well-being of their children, teach best parenting practices and promote healthy child development. The Dads Make a Difference program of Healthy Families San Angelo is one example of a program that has successfully engaged young fathers through home visits and other supportive services to help them gain the skills they need to provide emotional and financial support for their children.
Although outreach efforts can take time, young fathers will participate in programs — if they feel they will get something tangible out of it. A key factor is active community outreach by understanding, caring staff. Barry McIntosh of Young Fathers of Santa Fe shares the importance of listening to young dads, “At first, you want to spend 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking. Remember that you won’t solve everything in a day or a week. [When I meet] a new father, one of my first tasks, after being sure to listen closely to what he has to say, is to ask him if he wants to be involved in his child's life. Most say yes.”
In a recent National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse webinar, staff from the L.A. Fathers Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles explained how their work with fathers ages 15 to 25 is moving away from a traditional health care approach of “What’s wrong with you?” to a process that builds empathy and understanding in an environment of safety, trust and collaboration.
Supportive adults can encourage young fathers to complete high school or get a GED, get post-secondary education and training and pursue apprenticeships or other methods of getting skills needed to earn a living wage. One good strategy is to form partnerships with community colleges and other agencies that can help young men work toward educational or vocational goals. ICF International has developed, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Family Assistance, a conceptual model (Within Reach: Strategies for Improving Family Economic Stability) that details steps fatherhood and other community programs can take to help participants achieve economic stability.
The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse provides various resources for practitioners and fathers, including the Responsible Fatherhood Toolkit: Resources From the Field. An upcoming addition to this toolkit provides the following specific tips for programs working with young fathers:
- Connect with young fathers as early as possible, preferably before the child’s birth. Prenatal education classes that fathers attend with their partners or other expectant fathers can provide information and skills to prepare young dads to support the mother and child. In particular, encourage young fathers to be present and actively support the mother during the birth.
- Provide family support to work with other family members. Without the support of family on both sides, young fathers may have trouble getting and staying involved. Help fathers understand and improve their relationships with extended family members.
- Go where young fathers are — both physically and virtually. Beyond community outreach, stay connected by using social media and other electronic communication.
- Help young men and couples gain the motivation and capacity to plan and space any additional pregnancies. Reach out to local reproductive health centers and use online resources to design and deliver appropriate information for young men and couples.
Something I hear a lot in my work with fatherhood programs is the way in which peer support groups enable men to share their story, reflect on lessons learned from their own father and commit to being the best father they can be for their own children.
We all have a father story. Some of us have been fortunate to benefit from the ongoing support of an involved and caring father. Others have not been so fortunate, but whatever our experiences we can learn from them as we seek to parent our own children or support others in their parenting journey.
Let’s all take time this Father’s Day to think about how we can help young men and their families at the beginning of their parenting journeys and support them in the development of their co-parenting, educational and employment skills.
Nigel Vann, M.A., has worked with fatherhood programs since 1988 and is a senior technical specialist at ICF International where he works with the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse and provides technical assistance to federal Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grantees.