Did you know that the importance of adult males showing up in a positive way for adolescent males is not at all unique to our species? There’s something special about the father-son relationship.
This might seem obvious because, when sons are little, they look up to and admire their dads. Whether they’re human or elephant, they mimic their father’s mannerisms, take interest in their father’s interests, and prefer his presence during playtime.
But when kids hit puberty, they begin to differentiate from their parents and form their own identities. Having a healthy, connected relationship with your child as they grow means giving up your position as the influencer and accepting the role as the one being influenced. This transition can be difficult for some dads to adjust to, particularly for men who struggle with their own father-son issues, complexes, or trauma.
Developing a Strong Father-Son Relationship Requires Commitment
So how does a father support and stay connected to his son as he transforms into a young man? Starting with a strong relational foundation is key – these 10 steps for being an involved and responsible father during the son’s developmental years can help fortify the father-son connection.
Adapted from the National Fatherhood Initiative, these expert tips are applicable for fathers of sons and daughters. Need a little help adjusting to potentially new behaviors? Try incorporating and committing to these practices with deep intentionality and self-awareness.
- Respect Your Children’s Mother. If you’re married, the best gift you can give your children is a strong relationship between you and your spouse. If you’re no longer married, you’re still responsible for providing a secure environment for your kiddos. When they see you and mom respecting one another, they are more likely to feel that they are also accepted and respected. If communication between you and your children’s mother is strained, consider couples or family counseling to develop stronger listening and collaboration skills.
- Spend Time With Your Children. They are paying attention to what you value. If you spend time with your children, they will feel valued by you. If you’re unavailable and try to make up for it with gifts or words they will still feel neglected. For further reading or listening, dive into Gary Chapman’s research on Love Languages, or even Chali 2na’s lyrics: “The most that you can spend on any child is time.”
- Earn the Right to be Heard. Many dads provide attention to their children when they’re misbehaving. Negativity Bias is the tendency to focus only on the things that are going wrong or need to be fixed. Catch them being good so that you don’t succumb to the bias. Start talking to your kids about difficult subjects while they are still young so that the conversations will be easier when they get older.
- Discipline with Love. Fathers who discipline their children in a calm and fair manner show love for their children. Limits and boundaries equal love. But like anything else, limits can pathologize and become too rigid or unreasonable, so strike a balance. Kids need your guidance and discipline so that they learn their way in a world full of consequences and rewards.
- Be a Role Model. You are a role model for your sons and your daughters. Embody the values your children need to thrive throughout their lives. A daughter who grows up with a loving father knows that she deserves to be treated with respect, how to set appropriate boundaries, and what to look for in her adult relationships. A strong, loving father-son relationship allows a son to know the importance of proper treatment of others, respect, honesty, humility, and responsibility.
- Be a Teacher. Involved fathers use everyday examples to help their children learn basic lessons of life. Teaching your children about right and wrong, and encouraging them to do their best will help shape your kids to make good choices. Teach your kids how to take risks, help them realize their potential, and be playful! Parent-child physical play is massively important in the child’s socialization process, and rough-and-tumble play can help teach kids how to self-regulate aggression.
- Eat Together as a Family. Family meals provide structure to a busy day and can allow your kids to connect with you and other family members in meaningful ways (provided technology isn’t getting in the way). Families need connection and communication to thrive. Spending time together every day at family meals can be an opportunity for fathers to listen, check-in, and give advice.
- Read to Your Children. In a world where screens reign supreme, dads have to make an extra effort to read to their kids. Read to your kids, it’s never too early to begin! If you don’t love to read, find a topic that interests both you and your children. Instilling a love of reading in your kids will help strengthen their competencies in the world.
- Show Affection. Children need to know they are wanted, accepted, and loved by their family. Parents, especially fathers, need to feel comfortable and be willing to hug their children. My dad’s father didn’t get much physical touch from his father, and thus he wasn’t quite sure how to be affectionate with my dad as a child. But somehow, my dad cracked the code and even though it wasn’t modeled naturally for him, he was able to be warm and affectionate with my brother and me. A true gift, indeed.
- Realize that a Father’s Job is Never Done. Even after your kiddo grows up and leaves the nest, if you’ve done your job well, they will still look to you for wisdom and advice. Fathers still play an essential role in the lives of their adult children as they build their own families. Dads create a legacy for future generations.
To recap, the foundational steps of being a loving, involved father are: show love, spend time together, keep commitments, and take responsibility.
Staying Connected Means Staying Curious
While relatively simple on paper, there will inevitably be periods in your son’s life of transition, major life changes, and stress where he needs your presence more than ever. Helping your son navigate these difficulties with care, patience, and the guidance of an experienced family counselor can preserve the safety and sanctity of your relationship.
Staying connected with your son means staying curious about his experiences as an individual. Especially during life transitions, making an effort to engage with your son’s independent life is crucial. Allow the roles to be reversed: ask questions, be curious, and let your son teach you a thing or two about GarageBand while you’re at it.
Your son wants your approval, but he also wants to define himself on his own terms – he must shed you as an ideal, and forge his path as an individual. That doesn’t mean you can’t be present and supportive in this process, just that the relationship may change. And, although the dynamics may change, the father-son relationship can remain strong throughout all stages of life.
When Relationships are Strained
Often, when a father-son relationship is strained, there is a component of the dad’s unresolved hurt feelings from his own childhood. Fathers with lingering emotional issues tend to take things very personally. They perceive their son’s behavior as if it is a direct reflection of themselves as a man and as a father.
The antidote to this problematic way of relating is to allow the son to come into their own identity. Focusing on your personal development and tending to childhood wounds through individual counseling can remove the burden of cycle-breaking and healing from the shoulders of your child.
Because, really, it’s not your son’s job to take care of your emotional needs. Instead, take responsibility, improve your relationship with yourself, and show your humanity through this process of self-growth. Show your son that men don’t have it all figured out, and how to ask for help.
Men Often Have a Difficult Time Asking for Help
Hang in there. Dads out there, just like you, are having a challenging go of it – you are not alone. It’s important to stay compassionate towards your son and towards yourself.
When things feel too daunting for far too long, it may be time to reach out for some assistance. While the pressure to be logical, put-together, and unfettered by life’s ups and downs is the hallmark of rigid masculinity, working with a licensed family therapist can be the first step toward personal and communal liberation of these antiquated ideals.
Further, it’s an investment in the long-term health of your family, yourself, and each individual member in your household. What could be more loving than that?
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.