Jason, a friend of mine, recently became a dad and he was worried that he wouldn’t do a good job of it. He confided to me that his father hadn’t been all that great. His dad had been an alcoholic and was also emotionally abusive, constantly belittling, criticizing and quarreling Jason and his siblings. Things got so bad that my friend developed depression and anxiety in his teens. This didn’t sit well with his dad who saw his mental health issues as more proof of Jason’s “wimpiness”, as he put it.
Fast forward some years later and Jason is now a dad himself. Though he was excited about it, he was also filled with doubts about being a good dad, due to his childhood experiences. He was worried that he didn’t have any good examples to draw from and was anxious that he would end up being just like his old man.
Lots of fathers are faced with the same challenge- wondering how to be good dads when they had an absent, abusive or otherwise bad father. How do you become an emotionally engaged dad and raise well-adjusted kids who feel loved?
It may not be easy but it can certainly be done. Here are some tips I shared with Jason that offer insight into how to be a good dad even when you’ve had a bad one yourself.
Deal with the ghosts.
It’s hard to think of your father’s shortcomings and the abuse or neglect you endured but it’s essential that you accept and acknowledge it if you’re to heal and get past it. The wounds inflicted by your dad might be invisible but it’s imperative to deal with them, especially if you’re struggling emotionally. Failure to face what happened can undermine your life and you might even find yourself taking it out on your kids.
Talking about it openly (with a therapist, spouse or support group) can help you put the difficult relationship you had with your father behind you, allowing you to focus on your family.
Choose your own adventure.
Another crucial thing to accept is that you’re not your father. Although you can’t change your childhood, you shouldn’t allow those experiences to negatively color your life. You are not doomed to walk in your father’s footsteps, making the same mistakes he did.
You are the captain of your ship and you have the power to choose to be a better man and dad than he was. Take control of your life and choose to forge a different path –one that leads to happiness and fulfillment.
Define for yourself who a good father is.
Your experience with your dad might make you doubt your ability to be a good father but you need to realize that your kids need you. There are lots of ways to be a great dad and what works for you might not be suitable for someone else, and that’s okay. You get to decide for yourself who a good father is and what kind of dad you want to be. Thanks to your dad, you already know what not to do, so you’re already halfway there.
Learn to express emotions.
Growing up with an emotionally distant or detached father means that you most likely find it hard to express emotion. Suppressing your feelings will only cripple your relationships, especially with your loved ones. To counter this, you need to accept that it’s OK to have and show emotions. Drop the stoic façade you picked from your father and embrace your affectionate and emotional side to build a lasting connection with your family.
Invest in quality time with your family.
Part of being a good dad means spending time bonding with your kids. Make time for movies, games and one-on-one time with each child. As you spend time with them, be fully present in the moment, putting aside your work and devices. To get to know your kids even better, learn to listen and chat with them, validate their feelings and support them.
Having a bad dad does not condemn you to become a terrible father yourself. Learn from his flaws and mistakes and devote yourself to becoming a better father than he was.
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