Dads-of-Toddlers: Father-involvement in Programmes for Special Needs Children is Important

ages & stages treeWhen fathers first learn that their child will have lifelong special needs, their reactions often range from shock and acceptance to greater love (Brotherson & Dollahite, 1997).

Regardless of the nature of the special needs, children with attentive, encouraging fathers are more likely to make successful adjustments, cope constructively, and develop healthier self-esteem than children who lack paternal support (Biller, 1993). Furthermore, productive fathering has a profound impact on the development and happiness of the father, as well as the special needs child (Brotherson and Dollahite, 1997).

As such, it is beneficial for fathers to be involved in early intervention programmes for their child, whether it is in a childcare, healthcare or special education setting.

Strains Specific to Fathers

Nevertheless, it is recognised that supporting a special child can be costly to the family, both emotionally and financially. And, fathers experience specific strains that might affect their ability to be involved in the special needs programmes.

Mr Chia Lee Hwe, Director of Education and Operations at the Cognitive Development Learning Centre in Singapore, says that a key challenge that fathers encounter is finances. This is because of the need for specialist help, and possibly a loss of income resulting from mothers staying home to look after the child.

Amin Brott, who runs an online fathering resource called Mr. Dad, points out that dads tend to immerse themselves more in work in order to ease their financial trouble. Unfortunately, the increased time spent at work makes them less available to their children and reduces their involvement in treatment plans and meetings with medical staff. A major negative consequence is that dads feel that they do not receive the important information first-hand and are not kept in the loop (Brott, 2008).

Tips on How to Promote Well-being for Both Father and Child

Fortunately, dads can actively seek to reduce their strain and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

1. Participate in review sessions or find out what was discussed. As far as possible, be present when care providers, therapists or teachers ask to meet up. If not, let them know how they can keep in contact by phone, email or even Skype.

2. Join a group for parents of special needs children. Research suggests that these groups facilitate relational experiences:  men who interact with other fathers facing the same issues feel less sadness, fatigue, pessimism, guilt, and stress, and have more feelings of satisfaction and success, fewer problems, and better decision-making abilities than dads who do not join groups.

3. Play and communicate. Mr Chia emphasises the value of “quality bonding activities [such as] playing with the child, doing outdoor sports, board games or just [sitting] down with the child to talk for 30 minutes.”

Researchers at the University of Florida conducted a study where they taught dads to use everyday activities like building blocks, puppets, cars and trucks, and bubbles to connect with their autistic children. The fathers were instructed to follow the child’s lead and wait for the child’s response before continuing rather than directing the play.

Results indicated that children became more vocal and were more than twice as likely to initiate play with their fathers. The study’s lead researcher suggests that proper training at an early age enables autistic children be more socially interactive and pick up language more easily.

4. Bond with spouse. Mr Chia encourages parents to “take breaks from their children which can be as short as one hour.” He explains, “Parents are the pillars of the family and are fundamentally an effective support of a special child. Such retreats provide the couple an opportunity to re-energise.”

5. Appreciate what has been accomplished. It is all too easy to for become discouraged with a list of things that have not been done. Rather, take a step back, and count the things that have checked off the To-do List, and celebrate small successes.

Snowball Benefits of Father-involvement

What is perhaps most significant about father-involvement is its long-reaching effects. Researchers from University of Florida found that fathers in the study shared their newly equipped skills with other family members by training the mothers and siblings to do the same thing.

Likewise, Brotherson and Dollahite (1997) found the father’s attitude and commitment toward the special needs child strongly influence how the rest of the family, particularly the mother, adapts to the challenges of raising special needs children.

Mr Chia emphasises that on a fundamental level, “a child with special needs is just like any other ordinary child” who looks to his parents for guidance. Fathers should work together with their spouses to help their children to develop skills and confidence, provide opportunities for accomplishment, give encouragement and support, and reward them for effort and accomplishment (Hawkins & Dollahite).

For information on early intervention programmes for special needs children:

Resources for caregivers of special needs children:


  1. Biller, H. B. (1993). Fathers and Families. Westport, CT: Auburn House.
  2. Brotherson, S. E., & Dollahite, D. C. (1997). Generative ingenuity in fatherwork with young children with special needs. In A. J. Hawkins & D. C. Dollahite (Eds.), Generative fathering: Beyond deficit perspectives (pp. 89-104). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  3. Hawkins, A. J., & Dollahite, D. C. Fatherwork retrieved 13 January 2012.
  4. Brott, Amin. (2008) Mr Dad retrieved 13 January 2012.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 29-02-2012.


Categories: 2 Dads of Newborns and Toddlers, Ages and Stages, Dads of Children with Special Needs

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