by John Hoffman
In my final three blogs I’m going to focus on what I think I’ve learned about what it takes to make a good father.
Some people might start with words like commitment or love or parenting skills, but I’m going to start with another word: stress. Why stress? Commitment, love and skills are important, but, bottom line, show me a “bad” father and I’ll show you a guy who is overstressed. Show me a good father and I’ll show you a man whose stress is mostly manageable.
Of course, that’s an oversimplification. Nothing in human development and experience is black and white. But the point is, and I think most people can grasp this intuitively, when stress levels are tolerable—when there’s just the right amount of stress to help us feel engaged and alert—we usually do our best. But when there’s too much stress, we become tense and reactive. And so much of our mental, emotional and physical energies are diverted to coping with the stress, that it becomes much harder to do our best at just about anything, including being a dad.
Sure, there are times when people do well in spite of high levels of stress, like in athletics, soldiering, emergency work, and, sometimes, even parenting. But over the long haul, trying to be our best selves under high levels of stress is a poor percentage play.
This was certainly true for me. I have the ability to grit my teeth, be cool under pressure and rise above stress when I really have to. But when I look back at situations when my parenting was subpar (by my own standards), it was almost always when I was stressed out. When I was unstressed I had so much more patience, so much better judgment. And I was funnier. (Funniness is a good virtue for dads, LOL.) I could say the same about my wife and all the other fathers and mothers I know.
So if you are a father who finds parenting a struggle, or if you feel unable to be the father you want to be (or if you’re a practitioner working with such a father), before you try to learn (or teach) parenting skills, think about stress first. If a father is overstressed most of the time, he’s less able to learn or use even the best parenting strategies we can imagine. It’s harder to be patient, sensitive, responsive, warm and fun—all the things we’d like good fathers to be.
The thing is, parenting is an inherently stressful pursuit. I could say the same for just about anything else in life that’s worth doing. We’ll never be able to make parenting stress-free. What we can do is learn to be more aware of what’s stressing us, and how it’s affecting us in our role as fathers. And if stress is having a negative impact on your fathering, pay attention to that and deal with it. That is more likely to help you be a good dad than trying harder to do your best when stress is getting in the way. Don’t try harder! Make it easier for yourself! You can do that by finding ways to reduce your stress and helping yourself recover from the stress you can’t reduce.
One of the first steps in this is learning to recognize when you are operating under the influence of too much stress and what you can do about it. That can be a big learning curve for some people. I can suggest two resources that can help.
One is Stress Strategies, an online tool, developed by the Psychology Foundation of Canada. This free, mobile-friendly, resource takes a problem-solving approach to stress problems. The tool walks you through the process of identifying simple and actionable strategies to manage stressors that are having a negative impact on the quality of your life, including your parenting.
The other is Self-Reg, Dr. Stuart Shanker’s unique method for understanding and addressing excess stress, including hidden stressors that you might not realize are affecting you. One thing that’s interesting about Self-Reg is that, while it was developed as a way of helping children, the adults who are learning about Self-Reg are amazed to find out how much they learn about understanding and addressing their own stress.
Though there are many resources out there, these are two that I have found particularly helping in managing stress in a way that helps us be the father we’d like to be.
John Hoffman has done paid work for both The Psychology Foundation of Canada and Dr. Shanker’s organization The MEHRIT Centre.