Most fatherhood programs engage participants in conversations and introspective activities designed to help them acknowledge their need to change certain behaviors and enhance key life skills. Once fathers are open and motivated to change, programs need to be ready with tools and resources to help them meet their goals. To enhance relationship skills, fatherhood programs can work with participants in group sessions and one-to-one case management. Unlike marriage and relationship enhancement programs that target individuals and couples, fatherhood programs tend to work mainly with fathers on their own. Although experienced practitioners recognize the advantages of including partners, it can be hard to do, especially when participants have to struggle to establish or re-establish good relations with the mothers of their children.
Many fatherhood programs offer educational and/or peer support groups that include sessions on communication, conflict resolution, and other relationship skills that are useful in many kinds of relationships. These skills can help fathers strengthen ongoing relationships and forge successful co-parenting relationships. Fathers might need help to figure out how to put their children first, see their children’s mother through their children’s eyes, and recognize that they must communicate effectively and coordinate parenting activities for the sake of their children. In some cases, mediation and/or co-parenting classes may be ordered by a family court judge as part of a divorce agreement or by a child welfare worker in connection with a child protection case.
Since the early 2000s, the federal government and a few state governments have provided funding for marriage and relationship enhancement programs to help individuals and couples, especially unmarried parents, gain the knowledge, attitudes, and skills needed to have healthy marriages and overcome relationship difficulties. Various curricula are available to help structure group or home visiting sessions. These curricula typically include skill-building lessons on conflict resolution, communication, financial literacy, family safety, and parenting. The National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families offers information on relationship curricula plus tips for assessing and selecting materials appropriate for different program settings. The National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse also has information on relationship curricula used by some fatherhood programs.
Fatherhood programs also have approached relationship skills-building by:
- Scheduling couples sessions for married, engaged, or cohabiting couples.
- Holding group sessions with expectant fathers.
- Conducting home visits with new mothers and fathers.
- Ensuring that case managers focus on relationship issues in individual meetings.
- Using curricula that include activities to address relationship skills or combining such activities with other program activities. In some cases, mothers and/or children are invited for a specific session or included in social activities such as picnics, outings, and other program events or celebrations.
- Activities with children give fathers opportunities to practice parenting and relationship skills and receive feedback later from instructors and peers.
- When mothers are present, program staff can engage both members of a couple in skill-enhancement activities.
- Stressing the value of developing nurturing relationships with your children and your partner or spouse.
"Learning to forgive is key to building a strong, healthy family. Without the ability to forgive, we create an emotional vacuum that can never be filled." 23
Although many fatherhood programs and curricula focus on improving communication skills, other relationship skills are equally important. Healthy relationships also require trust, support, commitment, friendship, and shared goals and expectations. Partners should respect and admire each other and share mutual appreciation regularly. Taking steps to build a strong, stable friendship and nurture loving feelings helps couples weather the storms that are bound to arise.24
However, many couples fall into negative and toxic interaction styles, by giving harsh criticism, for example, or showing contempt with eye-rolling, put downs, sarcasm, name-calling, and other disrespectful behavior that can be particularly detrimental when conducted in front of children. Such behavior is the opposite of empathy—the ability to understand your partner’s feelings and imagine what it is like to walk in their shoes—which is an important quality in healthy relationships.
- Communication skills that are useful in many different types of relationships include:
- Active listening.
- Using I-messages (speaking for yourself, not others).
- Making complaints in a positive way without criticizing.
- Being supportive.
- Showing appreciation.
- Being honest and admitting when you are wrong.
- Behaviors that are damaging in any kind of relationship include:
- Controlling actions.
- Abuse of any type.
- Toxic communication (such as, showing contempt for your partner, putting him or her down with harsh criticism).
- Not listening to or talking over the other person.
- Hiding things from your partner or having secret relationships.
Father-child relationships require these basic relationship skills and many more because fathers must help nurture and guide their children from infancy to adulthood. Fathers also must understand how children learn from the behavior and actions of their parents.
"She’s a child. She knows normal from us. She needs to understand that yelling and screaming when you have a problem is not the best way to handle things." 25
One path to positive child outcomes is effective co-parenting that includes support and coordination among all the adults responsible for a child’s care and upbringing.26 Effective co-parenting relationships also require cooperation, communication, compromise, and consistency among the adults.27 However, developing and maintaining such relationships among former spouses, new partners, and extended family members is not an easy task. Coordination can be even more complicated for unmarried men with children from multiple partners where the “co-parenting team” might include several former partners, a current partner, and family members and friends related to current and former relationships.
Fatherhood program practitioners should consider these factors, help fathers put aside old grievances, and encourage the development of co-parenting teams with all involved adults communicating, cooperating, and supporting each other as co-parents for the sake of the children.28 Ideally, the fatherhood program can involve the mother directly. When not possible, the program might work with a partner agency, such as Head Start, if it has a relationship with the mother. Practitioners also can refer clients to a trained mediator or call the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse helpline (1-877-4DAD-411 or 1-877-432-3411) to facilitate mediation between the couple.