How to Maximize Fathers' Involvement with Their Children Who Have Disabilities

Mothers are typically viewed as overseeing their children's education and development, while fathers are thought to be less involved. There are good reasons for this often true perception. However, better reasons exist to change it and to use the commonly untapped resource of fathers when working with a family that has a child with a disability.

Unfortunately, there isn't much research on fathers and even less on fathers who have children with disabilities to guide the way.

What is known is that fathers of children with disabilities think of themselves pretty much the same as fathers of children without disabilities. They both spend about the same time caring for their children and generally take on the role of playmate rather than care giver.

Strong influences on the child and family unit, fathers affect their children's cognitive, personal-social, and sex-role identification development.

Children who have positive relationships with their fathers tend to have higher achievement, motivation, cognitive competence, and better social skills.

Fathers who view their children with disabilities positively also encourage mothers in their child care activities.

Factors that influence a father's relationship with his child include the parents' employment, their personal and cultural characteristics, and the child's traits (including temperament and gender).

Service providers should value the participation of fathers and other male family members. They should also recognize that every male in a child's life has strengths and these strengths play a major role in family functioning.

Therefore, personally invite fathers and male family members to take part in all aspects of service provision.

Focus first on providing information to fathers, then work on relationship building.

The following research knowledge can be used to encourage father-child relationships and increase inclusion of fathers and other male family member in programs.

  1. While fathers of children without disabilities spend more time out of the home such as going to church, cleaning the garage, or grocery shopping together, fathers with children who have disabilities tend to interact with their children in the home. Often, this is because a father finds routine activities less disruptive to the child and family. And the child's disability might make leaving the home difficult. The father also may be uncomfortable with public scrutiny of his highly-visible child. Therefore, some fathers may be more comfortable with activities that they can do at home within the home routine.
  2. Fathers tend not to follow activities suggested by educators. When recommending activities, find out the father's particular present activities and preferences. Build on these.
  3. Television watching, fathers report, is how they spend a great deal of time with their children. Collaborate with fathers to identify strategies to increase child interaction during television watching (e.g., lap sitting, questions about program content).
  4. Fathers like problem solving. Focus on activities for fathers that incorporate problem solving with their children.
  5. Fathers' play differs from mothers' play, which typically is more educational in nature. Fathers' play (often in shorter sessions) tends to be more physical, spontaneous, and unpredictable. If planning father-oriented games and activities, take note of the play difference.
  6. Fathers tend to engage in fewer verbal activities with their children than do mothers. This can be exacerbated if their child has a disability because the father is rarely taught how to communicate with his child who has a disability. Not surprisingly, fathers report that they view the development of communication skills with their children as a high priority. This may be particularly true for fathers who have children with disabilities. Fathers suggest that they need information on interpreting non-verbal cues of their infants and toddlers.

Service providers should make sure that fathers have the opportunity to be included in the family-centered services provided to children with disabilities and their families. As with all family-centered practices, the mother and father know best how to make the decision as to how the father will be included.

If you would like to know more about the research on fathers who have a child with a disability, contact the Beach Center on Families and Disability at 3111 Haworth, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045 (913-864-7600).