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Building the Bond between Fathers and Kids With Learning Difficulties

Here are tips for dads to help them be more actively engaged in the life of their child with learning disabilities.

By Melinda Sacks

Ever since our son, Alex, was little and I was taking him from tutoring to speech therapy to therapeutic swimming, the overwhelming prevalence of women in those settings was impossible to ignore. In waiting rooms, on the sidelines of swim and horseback riding lessons, and in parent support groups, moms were everywhere. Articles, brochures, and even books offered advice on everything from potty training to classroom accommodations. But, always, the target audience was the mother.

It is no wonder, then, that fathers often feel excluded. And in families where kids have learning disabilities (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), the related emotional and academic problems can leave fathers feeling even more excluded from the family dynamics.

"All the literature is very mother-focused. There is a real shortage of information and support for fathers," observes James May, program director for the Washington State Fathers Network. "I'm amazed at the number of calls I get from men saying, 'I can't find any resources designed for me.' So often there is a feeling of, 'I guess I'm not important.' It doesn't help that you walk into agencies and there are no pictures of men and their kids on the walls. It's easy to see why fathers feel isolated."

Traditionally, it has been the mother who has carted children from school to lessons to play dates. And while more dads are involved in their children's lives today than ever before, the gap is still great, particularly for those fathers whose children struggle in school.

Why Dads Aren't More Involved

"I tried early on to be really involved in my son's life at school and at home," says one San Francisco Bay Area father of a 12-year-old son who has attention and motor problems. "It just seemed to backfire. Every time I made a suggestion or tried to get involved, my wife would give me 'the look.' It was like I couldn't do anything right, and since she was home with our son the most, I finally just backed off."

This is a common scenario, say family therapists. And the longer it goes on, the harder it is to change the way fathers interact with their children with learning difficulties.

One factor that complicates the picture, says Stanford Children's Health Council Executive Director, Christopher Harris, is the fact that the father is often the parent whose genetic history causes dyslexia (one type of learning disability), which may be passed on to his child. "From the dad's perspective," Harris explains, "if he had a miserable time in school, living through it again through his child is a painful déjà vu."

What often happens, Harris says, is that the father withdraws from the pain of looking back, or feels unsure how to intercede, because in many cases, the mom has already taken charge. Add to that the historic stereotype of the strong, invulnerable man, and things only become more difficult.

In the case of the stay-at-home mother and the father who works outside the home, it is even easier for the mother to become the "do-er," and the parent who is most knowledgeable about the child's struggles.

"My wife was the expert," says Robert, who has three children, one of them severely dyslexic. "Whenever there was a school problem, or a problem with making friends, she would have read the latest articles or talked with our counselor, so she would just handle it. The more she did it, the less I was involved." Another complicating factor can be when men try to suppress or deny their feelings about their child's struggles, Harris says. "They'll say to their child with learning difficulties, 'I overcame this thing, why can't you?' and that can put even more distance between them."

Why Kids Need Their Dads

The U.S. Department of Education is working to get fathers more involved because it is known that children enjoy school more, and do better, when their fathers participate. Research also shows that children whose fathers are not very involved in their daily lives are more likely to drop out of school and to have problems developing relationships of their own. Especially in the life of a child who has learning and emotional issues, the alliance with dad is crucial, say child development experts.