Becoming a parent is perhaps the most radical and important transformation a human can undergo.
Becoming a parent is perhaps the most radical and important transformation a human can undergo.

Why dads need to care for themselves, too

There's a glaring gap in the support offered to new dads when they're experiencing the most significant stage of their life. Here's what is being done about it.

"Fatherhood isn't something that can be encompassed in a few words," says Cameron Daddo,  actor and Movember ambassador.

"It's something that whirls in your soul. It's something that warms you and freezes you. We think we're men, then we become fathers. We realise the depth in our pursuit wrapped in overwhelming duty for our child. It changes everything. Well it did for me, anyway."

Some 300,000 first-time dads face this change of identity in Australia each year.

Becoming a parent is perhaps the most radical and important transformation a human can undergo.

"Fathering is a privilege, but it comes with no rule book," the dad-of-three says.Research by Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) shows one in 10 first-time dads develop postnatal depression and one in seven experience a high level of psychological distress as they adjust to this significant lifestyle change.

Unlike the support available for new mothers, there aren't many services designed to check in on dads who aren't travelling so well.

Dads Group is one of 13 projects backed by the Movember Foundation as part of the Social Innovators Challenge aiming to plug this gap."Dads Group Inc is about getting dads together to connect," says Craig Martin, global director, mental health and suicide prevention for the Movember Foundation.

"In Australia at least, when a couple has a child delivered in the hospital, there's a really good system in place to put the mother in contact with groups. I've got two children myself, and both times my wife was connected with mother's groups. But there was nothing - zero, zilch - for me. So it's really to fill that need."

Dads Group connects new dads and families in local communities so they can share their experiences, make new friends and share their lives as parents.

The idea is every dad, no matter where they are, should be given the support they need to become the best parents they can be.

Just like mothers, dads play a crucial role in child development; children's well-being goes hand in hand with their dads' mental health.

"If you're a new dad, we can give you a whole heap of information you need to know. We can give you the resources you should be aware of, such as  a dads group in your area that you can catch up with," Mr Martin says.

"When you look at how successful that program is for women, it's about how we do the same sort of thing for fathers."

Traditionally, women have been expected to give up their career and dedicate a good part of their life raising their children.

Men, on the other hand, historically presented themselves as the tough-as-nails breadwinner, notoriously tight-lipped when it came to speaking about their feelings.

For far too long, men have considered seeking help a weak act. Stunt rider and Movember ambassador 'Lukey Luke' Follacchio is rejecting those archaic stereotypes."Men traditionally don't talk about their problems.

It's all tough and 'Nah, she'll be right, mate' and all of that sort of stuff. But that's a sad attitude to have," he says.

"Having my son changed my whole world. I didn't know what to expect and how it would change my life. And I did have a bit of an identity challenge I guess.

"It also made me realise about the world we live in and the world I would like for him when he's my age. I want him to know that it's OK to talk about your emotions and it's OK to have feelings."

A couple of years ago Mr Follacchio suffered an anxiety attack that seemingly "came out of nowhere".

"I didn't know what was happening. I thought I had to go to the hospital. And I never go to the hospital, unless I have a bone sticking out the side of me!" he says.

"I'm a stunt rider, I take risks my whole life. When I was told I was having anxiety, I said, 'No, mate, I'm not an anxious person.'"

He opened up publicly about his battle with anxiety in the hope of drawing attention to the mental health issue that plagues so many men, yet is still a taboo topic for many.

Since speaking about his anxiety, he has received "only a positive response" from his fans and friends.

"The only way society is going to be different is if we change it. And the only way it's going to be broken down is if we break it."

Like Father Like Son is another innovative program funded by the Movember Foundation designed to help dads raise children who have behavioural issues.

Led by Professor Mark Dadds at the University of Sydney, in partnership with a team of international researchers, the three-year project aims to improve the rates of father participation in parenting programs.

"Behavior problems usually first present in kids at about the toddler period. You know, that's when they first start running around, screaming and hitting and all of that sort of stuff," Prof Dadds says.

"Most kids will grow out of that. But with some kids, they don't."

Prof Dadds says when these children, typically boys, transition to school things get even worse.

"They are completely out of control, emotionally dysregulated, aggressive, noncompliant and so on. And often, the parents are very loving, skilled parents. They might even have other children who are well-behaved, but then they get one kid who comes along who's very difficult to parent. And so it takes many super parenting skills."

If those boys aren't treated early, Prof Dadds says there's evidence they might later be in problematic, abusive-type relationships in adulthood.

It's crucial children with these behaviour issues are referred to child psychology clinics, like the clinic he works at in Canterbury, at the University of Sydney.

"We work with parents to give them a very, very strict, but loving routine in the home, and their behaviour corrects quite quickly and effectively," Prof Dadds says.

"We offer this treatment for free, and we have many families that go through it and are very pleased and grateful with the results. About 60 per cent of kids that go through our program no longer have the behavioural problem at the end of 10 weeks."

Before Like Father, Like Son launched, the rate of dads attending the University of Sydney's parenting programs was about 40 per cent, compared to 100 per cent for mothers.

And the programs were typically delivered by female psychologists and intended to connect with mothers.

Like Father Like Son is designed to get more dads more involved at this critical time of their son's life.

"We designed a program that was father-friendly and spoke fathers' language," Prof Dadds says.

"Most fathers we spoke to said to us, 'We didn't even know if we were wanted in these programs. We didn't know what they're about. We think they're just designed for mums. We feel out-of-place'."

Like Father Like Son speaks to dads in an inclusive way.

Prof Dadds says men typically a more persuaded by evidence and research.

"They wanted to know whether these things work. What do they involve? Am I welcome to come along? And who is the person that runs the program? Are they trained? Are they an expert?"

The program also includes online resources because research indicates men prefer to look for information and advice about raising their children online rather than consulting professionals.

"Being a father is not any more important than the mother relationship. It's just that if you have both parents co-operating and working as a team, then we get better results," Prof Dadds says.

"So we run this kind of father-friendly program, and we explicitly invite fathers to come in and be a part of it.  We're getting fathers attending 75 per cent of sessions, which is really fabulous."

Parenthood is a tough job and there is no one way to do it. Prof Dadds says while there are different ways to raise a child, parents should not "let boys be boys" when they are out of control.

"It really is one of the most effective mental health interventions that has been developed on earth so far," he says.

"Running these parenting programs early for children is a really effective way to prevent domestic violence and other problems like that in our society."


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