For many people, Father's Day evokes images of family BBQs, new ties, and loving cards from kids. And the occasion also gives us an opportunity to recognize all the hard work fathers do. But there are millions of fathers we may not think about on Father's Day and who are often invisible to us all year round – fathers who don't live with their children.
Nonresidential fathers – dads who are divorced, separated, incarcerated, or otherwise not living with their children – make up more than 12 percent of American fathers. That means there are more than 7 million nonresidential fathers in the United States – many of them changing diapers, providing emotional support, helping with homework, and paying child support every year.
Unfortunately, when these dads receive public acknowledgment, it often comes in the form of negative images – deadbeat dads who refuse to pay child support or have little interest in or contact with their children.
In my job as a psychologist I've worked with many dads over the years who struggle with both that stereotype and with mood disorders that are often related to (or made worse by) a lack of consistent contact with their kids. Nonresidential fathers actually have some of the highest rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems among all parents.
Nonresidential fathers deserve support
All parents struggle to adjust to the role, but nonresidential fathers face additional stressors, such as feeling disconnected from their children. The good news is that across many studies it's clear that nonresidential fathers are better able to engage with and find meaningful connections – both in their identity as fathers and with their children – when they receive mental health support through individual and group treatments. Not surprisingly, they also exhibit significantly lower symptoms of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
Nonresidential fathers have a big impact on their children's life
Decades of research and clinical practice with nonresidential fathers shows that they have a powerful effect on their children. Although a lot of attention has focused on the negative impacts that negligent or abusive fathers have on their children, a growing body of work highlights the substantial benefits children gain from spending quality time with a father who is warm, engaged, and consistently present.
These kinds of relationships can improve kids' school performance and reduce their risk of depression or other mental health problems as well as enhance their cognitive abilities and emotional regulation.
Supporting fathers who don't live with their kids
How do we support these dads, who may be largely invisible to society? Research shows that the answer begins with evidenced-based mental health support and quality time spent with their children – and my clinical experience bears this out. Both of these interventions can enhance the other.
For many men, being a father is a powerfully important developmental milestone and critical factor to a man's identity. Addressing nonresidential dads' mental health needs, and helping them build supportive relationships with their children should be a key part of the conversation about strengthening families.
This Father's Day, let's keep in mind all the nonresidential fathers that deserve our recognition, encouragement, and support, so they can thrive and grow as parents and people.