The role of moms and dads in their child’s development has stayed quite consistent for years. Moms often take the role of Family CEO, dealing with their children’s day to day activities, therapies and appointments.

Dads, on the other hand, may provide more of the fun in a child’s life.

However, what happens when a child needs more?

What happens when a child is not neurotypical and requires more support, academically, socially and/or emotionally? What happens when your child receives a diagnosis they have to live with forever? What happens to the role of each parent?

In most cases, mom continues to take the lead, leaving dad behind feeling unsure, uncertain, overwhelmed, lost and alone. I have not only witnessed this in my practice as a speech language pathologist, but also in my own home.

We, as parents, often ‘feel’ when our child is not following the typical path. We see some of the challenges that they are facing and we feel the need to help. It is when we take the big leap to get our child assessed that we begin to understand our child on a deeper level. However, instead of sitting with a diagnosis for a little and really feeling it out, moms put on their business hats and methodically work at extremely fast speeds to organize appointments, find the best therapists for their team and research all they need to know about the diagnosis.

Dads in the dark

Dads are often left in the dark, with their thoughts and emotions. They take a back seat to the action. In all of my years, I have only met dads that are committed to helping their children. They are often more emotional about their kids’ diagnoses and challenges because seeing their child struggle pains them. I will never forget being in a team meeting and hearing a dad whisper, “But will my
boy be ok?” with tears in his eyes. For a dad who is just receiving a child’s diagnosis of any kind, whether that is Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Learning Disability (LD), anxiety, depression or more, a dad’s thoughts go directly to his initial expectations of fatherhood, to the relationship with the child, to the challenges he hopes he can
help support and to the future of that child.

Dads often ask themselves questions like:

  • Will I be able to connect with my child the way I had pictured?
  • Will my child be ok?”
  • Will I be able to give my kid what they need?
  • Will I be able to show my kid my love for him/her?

Even before becoming a father, dads create an expectation of what fatherhood really is. They envision what they will do with their kids and it often resembles the relationship they see in movies. Maybe that looks like taking your child to a basketball game or throwing a ball around.

What happens when a child cannot do those things because of their diagnosis?

What if walking into a loud stadium sets off your child with too much sensory input that leads to a breakdown or a tantrum?

Many dads have guiltily admitted that their child’s diagnosis initially “broke their heart.” They felt denial at first because life could not be what they initially anticipated. Many of the experiences and expectations they had set would not be actualized and it hurt. This seemed like something to mourn about, until life took its course and the relationship they built with the child blossomed into something incredible and deep.

So what can dads do to build a strong, trusting relationship with their child?

  • Take the necessary time to grieve your expectations. Be grateful for the now, and remind yourself that even though the future doesn’t look exactly as you expected, your child will probably give you a new beautiful lens on life.
  • Know you are not alone. It’s important to build a community of fathers with the same experience.
  • Remember that all kids, with or without a diagnosis are all different and sometimes how we envision parenthood to be doesn’t play out as expected.
  • Adjust and shift your expectations and mindset so you can enjoy your children wholeheartedly.
  • Don’t be afraid to get involved. Your input about your child’s life, treatment plan and future is unbiased, full of love and needs to be heard and considered.
  • Revel in the idea that a dad’s relationship with their child will always be different from moms. It is beautiful, pure, warm and fun-loving and this is exactly what your child needs.

Does the research support this?

The research has shown time and time again, that when dads are involved in supporting their children’s development, progress is stronger and quicker. Dads have the unique touch to bring life into a child’s eyes and are the key to building a happy home. Dads are willing to do anything for their children, even trying to wipe away every ounce of pain or struggle they endure.

We, as a society, need to push boundaries and break barriers to allow dads, not only moms, to support their children’s lives. Let’s provide dads with the same opportunity to learn strategies and tools to support their children’s daily functioning. Let’s give dad the role they deserve to be part of the solution. Together, as a family unit, progress can be made and learning will be done.

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Written by Melissa Oziel, M.Sc.SLP

Melissa Oziel is a registered Speech-Language Pathologist and director of The Speech and Language Associates of Toronto, Inc. (SLAT). She graduated from Columbia University and has over 15 years of experience working with children and their families to build a love of communication. She specialized in receptive and expressive language, executive functioning skills and behavioural modification. Melissa’s research-based practice has given rise to years of experience working with children with various Learning Disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD/ADHD, Executive Functioning challenges, and other developmental disabilities. She is a bilingually certified SLP.Melissa is not only a clinical SLP, she is also a mom of four. She believes in a strong collaborative partnership with parents, which expects ownership, open communication and a little tough love, in order to empower all children to reach their goal of communication. Together, Melissa and her parents strive to build strong, fearless children, who see their differences as gifts.

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