When fathers are tough, inflexible and unloving.

Over time I have been asked many times by mums about what they can do with the men they love who make choices in their family that seem harsh and uncaring.

Many of these mums have said they know their husbands and partners are good, loving men but they just seem to react in many situations from a place that is certainly not their heart. These women genuinely want to help their men become the fathers they know these dads want to be.

In particular here, I am addressing the father-son dynamic in this article as I need to limit the word length and as father-daughter relationships can be very different. I am also specifically writing here for those mamas in a relationship with a father figure whom they live with.

To begin this blog I need to tell a story that is based on one I heard many years ago in rural Australia.

Once upon a time there were three 14-year-old mates who had been friends for a number of years. Sometime in the previous year they had come to like playing golf. On most Saturday mornings they would meet at the golf club, get their fathers’ golf sticks from the buggy room and play at least nine holes of golf before the main competition started late in the morning. This pattern of behaviour had been happening for almost a year before something went horribly wrong.

On this particular Saturday after the boys got back to the club room when they were putting the golf buggy and sticks back into the buggy room they started a harmless shoving and pushing game – for want of a better word. One of the boys grabbed one of the golf sticks and pretty soon they were pretending they were fencing. This game then led into a random game of trying to hit each other with the golf sticks. They damaged a few of the walls where the golf stick cracked the plaster. Then somehow or other the light fittings were smashed and some of the lockers were also hit and damaged in the senseless, mindless ‘boys being boys’ game-gone-wrong 15 minutes of insanity.

When one of the club members who had arrived early for the competition walked into the room the boys stopped suddenly. The boys’ fathers were called and the boys were made to sit on a bench outside the buggy room facing the car park where many other members were now arriving. The members were obviously very unhappy with the vandalism and damage.

Soon the first father arrived and as he got out of his car he slammed the car door. As he came up the path towards where his son was sitting he began shouting abusively calling his son ‘a bloody idiot’ and asked ‘how could he be so stupid?’. When he reached his son he physically took him by the shoulders and shook him vigorously while continuing to shout in his face. He then shoved his son in the direction of the car and again slammed his car door as he drove off in a furious haste.

The second father arrived and as he got out of his car he also slammed the door. As he came up the pathway towards his son his face was black with a silent fury. When he got near his son he swung and hit him really hard over the head and then he began shouting the same shaming abuse as the first father. As his son began to walk towards the car his father shoved him so hard from behind the boy sprawled onto the path. He then dragged him to the car. He also slammed his car door and took off in a furious haste.

The third father then arrived and unlike the previous two fathers he did not slam his car door. He walked up the pathway towards his son and held his arms out to his son and gave him a hug. He whispered something to him and then with his arm around his shoulders he guided him carefully back to the car and they drove off quietly.

An hour later the third father and his son returned to the golf club. They had been to Bunnings and purchased all that was needed to repair the damage that had been done. The father and son worked all afternoon patching the holes and repainting. They repaired the lights and then when they were finished they quietly left.

When I was told this story it affected me deeply because in my counselling rooms I so often had to hold a boy who had had a similar experience with their father or father figure after they’d made some seriously poor choices.

They had been so shamed and wounded by their dad’s behaviour and they never forgot that sense of being a huge disappointment to their father. Many still carried that wound far into adulthood.

Were the first two fathers bad men? No. The first two fathers had done what they thought was the right thing so that their sons could learn they had made a mistake. They thought that would teach their sons not to vandalise other people’s property. And it is highly likely that their own father would have managed one of their less-than-perfect moments with a similar response. Sadly rather than feeling they made a bad choice – their sons were left feeling they were wrong, bad or flawed. This is shaming and it has a way of making individuals feel worthless and incapable of being loved.

The father that chose to support and love his son and to teach him that when you make a mistake you need to make it right most likely had a loving warm father when he was a boy the same age. Maybe not.

Chip off the old block

So how do we help the dads in parent land who have had the tough father who was often critical, sarcastic, blaming, shaming and possibly physically punitive?

The experience of having such a father has created some really strong memories in the part of our brain where we store procedural memories – the memories of how things were when we were a kid. I have written a lot about how boys and men are often single focus and that they are in one place in their brain while women can be in many places in their brain. So for a dad to respond from his procedural memory is quite understandable. In in a way it’s like he has a box in his brain that holds the information about how to be a father, particularly around his son. For a light hearted exploration of the perceived differences in men and women’s thinking, please watch this video.

Not all men who had a tough father react this way and for some they have included in their parent memory box some of the ways that their mother parented that was more loving and supportive or they have learned others ways to be a better dad.

So back to the original dilemma for the mums out there who struggle to know how to help their man change the reactive and negative way that the dad in the house is being a father.

Let’s start with one obvious fact – no one likes being criticised or told what they’re doing wrong! For many men who have experienced harsh parenting and punishment as boys their natural defence is to protect themselves by getting angry and defensive or by withdrawing and ignoring.

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Giving constructive helpful suggestions needs to be carefully navigated so as not to trigger that boy-wound that was marinated in shame and self-disgust.

Go gently with love and compassion.

Some suggestions:

  • Never question a father figure in the heat of the moment especially if the children are still present.
  • Choose a good time and suggest ‘we have a chat soon about how to manage some of the tricky things that come up in our home because I think we could do a bit better’. Emphasise the ‘we’. The metaphor of being a parent team is really helpful.
  • Start by reminding dad about all the things he does that are wonderful and helpful before you begin the conversation.
  • Make sure you use ‘I’ words not ‘you’ words. “I noticed yesterday when you were trying to get the kids in the bath that you kind of lost it a bit – I heard you call them stupid idiots…..” Then pause. Wait. Let him think.
  • Then you could say something along the lines – “name calling, exclusion and putdowns all hurt no matter what age we are”.
  • Reassure the dad that you have done it too and that you are just checking how they are feeling because you have found when you speak like that you’re often exhausted or stressed. So ask him with great love “are you okay babe, hon?” or whatever your term of endearment is. Wait.
  • If he says he’s okay and he just lost it – you don’t need to say anything else because he will already be disappointed in himself.
  • If it feels right just check whether he has apologised to the kids yet?
  • Reassure him that he is not his dad and that he can be the dad he wanted when he was a boy or a teen. Giving him hope is really important!
  • Then chat about some other hot points that you’ve noticed in family life of late and write them down and then suggest you have a family meeting soon to see if you can work out some solutions with everyone’s input.
  • At another family meeting both parents can ask their kids for 3 ways they can be a better mum or a better dad. Give them some time … and accept these suggestions with grace!
  • I would give him a gentle tickle in the tickle spot high up on the back as you finish a conversation or a hug or a huge pash. Reassuring your man that your relationship is good despite this issue matters.
  • The conversation is then finished. It does not need to be brought up again. It is done!!
  • Trust me your man will think about that conversation for the next couple of days.

Often in my dad-only seminars I have dads who come along each year to the same seminar because each year they need to be reminded of positive choices they could make because even with their best intentions they often forget a great idea that they took away from last year’s seminar.

Sometimes it can be helpful to remind them gently that they may have forgotten to connect deeply with one of the children – it is not deliberate and more often than not they are grateful for the gentle reminder that is given with love. The ways to build micro-moments of connection have helped lots of dads become closer and more loving to their kids.

I’ve had a number of dads also tell me that they can get angry and upset when the children are behaving badly because in some way they feel like they’re failing their family. Often they can it take a quite personally and then sadly react in a very defensive way because they think it’s their fault.

How else can we help the defensive dad who’s had a tough father become more loving, respectful and connected to his children?

There are some fabulous articles written by men in the Manhood Project, Fatherly.com, the Fathering Project and the Good Men Project website.  Sometimes finding an article or podcast or the like that could be helpful and copying the link and sending it to dad can be helpful.

Perhaps some light hearted YouTube clips, FB posts from people like the Kiwi How to Dad.

Other great books to explore are Steve Biddulph’s Raising Boys, The Making of Men by Dr Arne Rubinstein and Michael Gurian’s wonderful work. The Man Up series is another excellent documentary to watch.

My ‘Maggie Moment’ YouTube clips have also become a favourite with many dads because their only short and usually tackle just one thing at a time and that’s important. I know that there are good dads who, after being to my Boys, Boys, Boys seminar said they found it so helpful they brought their brother and mates to the next one.

I have written a small book called Some Secrets for the Modern Day Mammoth Hunter. This was written for mainly rural men as that is where our suicide prevention work was mainly focused and it does contain some swear words however some men have said it has been a helpful reminder of how to be a good man, husband, partner and father.

Some films and TV series that have main characters who practise warm fathering are also excellent. I have really enjoyed watching the US series Madame Secretary partly because of the family life that is portrayed – a great parent team in action. Films include The Lion King, About a Boy, Life is a House, A Field of Dreams, Paper Planes, Forest Gump, Finding Mr Forrester, I Am Sam, Good Will Hunting, Avatar, Back to the Future, Parenthood… so many more.

This is a great time to be a dad as the social norms are changing however some dads can be resistant to changing because of negative childhood experiences.

That reactive place can be such a powerful influence on how we parent and it happens quickly and spontaneously. In a way a dad can’t be what he hasn’t seen.

These ‘tough’ dads can also be reluctant to seek professional help because it can feel like a threat to their masculinity. It would be great if we could reframe that perception to one that suggests that owning vulnerability can be the most courageous act around. Many relationships break down because couples struggle to become the healthy parent team and negative parenting choices from either parent can create so much conflict that one parent may choose to end the relationship in order to protect their kids! When we suggest our man seeks professional help please make sure you avoid making him feel like a failure – instead help him feel he could be even better and maybe happier and that you have his back.

Lastly make sure you notice and acknowledge the good moments your man does in the parenting journey – don’t over praise or he will be suspicious. We all want to be a ‘good enough’ parent and we want to raise our kids to be caring decent human beings and that goes for mums and dads – whether they live in the same house or not. Changing unhelpful habits is never easy however it can happen when managed in a caring, supportive way.