More than 40 years of research has shown that parenting interventions, which focus on improving the quality and consistency of parenting, are effective for improving child mental health and wellbeing (Campbell et al., 2014; Nores & Barnett, 2010). However, the majority of parenting interventions have been developed for and tested with mothers, and rates of father engagement are very low (Panter-Brick et al., 2015). For example, one review found only 20 per cent of parents enrolling in parenting interventions were fathers (Fletcher, Freeman & Matthey, 2011). Fathers are not only under-represented in parenting interventions, but they are missing from both research and clinical practice across a wide spectrum of services for child wellbeing, including child welfare services (Zanoni, Warburton, Bussey & McMaugh, 2013), paediatrics (Phares, Lopez, Fields, Kamboukos & Duhig, 2005), as well as interventions targeting childhood anxiety (Bögels & Phares, 2008), autism (Flippin & Crais, 2011), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Fabiano, 2007) and externalising behaviours such as oppositional behaviour, tantrums and aggression (Tiano & McNeil, 2005). The low level of father involvement is concerning, as there is significant evidence that parenting interventions are more effective in improving parenting and child mental health outcomes when fathers participate along with mothers (Lundahl, Tollefson, Risser & Lovejoy, 2008). Clearly, there is a need for greater recognition of low rates of father engagement along with coordinated efforts to enhance the engagement of fathers in order to optimise outcomes across a range of services and interventions for child mental health.
“Engaging the core parenting team is more effective than engaging one parent only, as it provides an opportunity to address the risk and protective factors of both parents, enhance inter-parental consistency in implementation of strategies, reduce inter-parental conflict and enhance relationship satisfaction.”
A team of psychologists and researchers at The University of Sydney, funded by the Movember Foundation, have taken on the challenge of increasing father involvement via the Like Father Like Son project. Led by Professor Mark Dadds, the project involves a range of innovative strategies to explore barriers to father engagement and enhance the engagement of fathers in evidence-based parenting interventions around Australia. The project conducted a survey of 1000 fathers (Tully, Piotrowska et al., 2017), several focus groups with fathers, and a survey of 200 practitioners (of whom 39% were psychologists) who work with families (Tully, Collins et al., 2017). The findings from these and other research studies have led to four key recommendations for psychologists and other practitioners regarding strategies for increasing the engagement of fathers in services or interventions for child mental health.
1. Invite fathers to participate as part of the core parenting team
In all services and interventions for child wellbeing, fathers should be regarded as ‘core business’ and should be routinely invited to participate, unless their participation is contraindicated (for example, due to domestic violence). Research suggests that engaging both members of the parenting team results in better outcomes for children compared to engaging mothers only (Lundahl et al., 2008). It is not surprising that engaging the core parenting team is more effective than engaging one parent only, as it provides an opportunity to address the risk and protective factors of both parents, enhance inter-parental consistency in implementation of strategies, reduce inter-parental conflict and enhance relationship satisfaction (Tully, Piotrowska et al., 2017). It is important that practitioners take time to identify who forms part of the core parenting team, especially in families with more complex structures, before inviting them to participate.
In terms of strategies to engage fathers, the survey of practitioners found that they were more likely to engage fathers via talking to mothers rather than directly inviting fathers to participate. While engaging fathers through mothers can be effective, there are some instances where it would be more effective for practitioners to have a direct conversation with fathers, in order to invite their participation, provide information about the service or program and emphasise the importance of their involvement. However, where fathers simply cannot attend a service or intervention, it is important to note that indirect participation of fathers (or a co-parent) can also be effective. Indirect participation involves practitioners encouraging mothers (or the participating co-parent) to share information with fathers (or the non-participating co-parent), complete homework tasks as well as keeping track of fathers’ progress via phone calls and emails. Directly inviting fathers to participate is also important for research since one study about fathers’ participation in paediatric research found the main reason fathers gave for their low rates of representation was simply that they were not invited to participate (Davison, Charles, Khandpur & Nelson, 2017).
2. Enhance promotion of services and interventions to fathers
The survey of 1000 fathers found that key barriers to participation in parenting interventions were the cost of the service, work commitments and low levels of awareness about parenting interventions. Evidently, more public-health messaging is needed about the availability of parenting interventions, the cost (especially if services are free of charge), and the critical importance of father participation. The latter point is especially salient as findings from focus groups suggest fathers had a strong perception that parenting programs are aimed at mothers only and are not suitable for them. In addition, based on the factors that fathers said were important to their decision to participate in parenting programs, promotional materials for services should include information about what is involved in the program, the facilitator’s level of training and the evidence base for the program’s effectiveness.
3. Enhance practitioners’ competencies in engaging fathers
The survey of 200 practitioners found that while the majority held very positive attitudes towards father engagement, only one in four felt highly competent, suggesting the need for training to enhance skills in engaging fathers. In addition, only 25 per cent of practitioners had previously participated in training in father engagement, yet participation in training was significantly associated with high levels of practitioner competence, whereas years of experience was not. This finding suggests that training in skills to engage fathers needs to be made more widely available, which has also been highlighted by other researchers (Fletcher, Freeman, Ross & St George, 2013). Previous research has found that training of practitioners can enhance parental engagement and reduce dropout rates from services for child mental health (Watt, Dadds, Best & Daviess, 2012), although this research did not specifically target fathers. On the basis of research findings to date, the Like Father Like Son project team developed Engaging Fathers in Parenting Programs: A National Training Program for Practitioners. This training, provided in both online and face-to-face formats, focused on practical strategies to enhance the engagement of fathers. To date, more than 500 practitioners have participated, and the effectiveness of the training is currently being evaluated in a research study.
4. Enhance father-inclusive practice at the organisational level
Organisational support for father-inclusive practice has consistently been highlighted as important for achieving high rates of father engagement in programs and services (Glynn & Dale, 2015). The survey of practitioners found that those who perceived their organisation to be highly supportive of father inclusion were six times more likely to report that fathers often attended their service (relative to rarely attended). Around 40 per cent of practitioners rated their organisation as only somewhat supportive or not very supportive, so there is clearly room for improvement in service-level support and commitment to engaging fathers. In addition, only 40 per cent of practitioners indicated that their organisation frequently provided sessions outside of usual working hours. To address difficulties for fathers in accessing services during work hours, organisations may need to explore flexible working hours and offer a broader range of services. Ideally this should include low intensity and online interventions, since the survey of fathers indicated a clear preference for these formats over intensive face-to-face interventions. Finally, given the existing low rates of father engagement, organisations should collect routine data on rates of father involvement, as this is critical to evaluate the implementation of strategies to enhance father engagement.
The way forward
Fathers are consistently under-represented in services and interventions targeting child mental health and wellbeing, yet research suggests interventions are more effective when both members of the core parenting team are engaged. Thus, practitioners should aim to encourage father engagement in interventions as part of a broader focus on empowering the parenting team. There is also a need for greater awareness and support for engaging fathers at the organisational level. Despite increasing research on fathers, a great deal more research is needed, especially to identify effective skills and strategies for enhancing father-inclusive practice.
Based on the findings of the survey and focus groups with fathers, researchers from the Like Father Like Son project developed Australia’s first freely available, online, father-inclusive parenting intervention called ParentWorks. While the focus is on ensuring high rates of father engagement and participation of the core parenting team, this program is open to all Australian parents and caregivers of children aged 2-16. To promote the availability of ParentWorks, and encourage the participation of fathers, there was an Australia-wide media campaign The Father Effect. ParentWorks is currently being evaluated in a large-scale intervention, and is still seeking families to participate.
For more information see: www.parentworks.org.au
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