Providing Support for Teen Fathers
By Jill Conway, Capacity Building Manager
June 15, 2017
When we think of teen parents, we typically think of teen mothers. Frequently, fathers are left out of the conversation and aren’t provided with positive guidance and support to become an effective parent. Part of this dynamic comes from research showing that many teen mothers have children fathered by adult men. Still, 30 to 50% of children born to teen mothers have a teenage father. With Father's Day coming up in just a few days, now is the perfect opportunity to think about how we can better serve teen fathers. As youth service providers implementing sexual health education in the classroom, it’s important to recognize the role that young fathers can play in raising children, and understand the unique circumstances young fathers face.
An Unfair Stereotype
There seems to be a broad stereotype of teen fathers as promiscuous young men who just wanted a one night stand and balk at the thought of parenthood, leaving the mother to fend for herself. The reality is more complicated. Most teen fathers dated their partner for over a year before the pregnancy, and while teen fathers are frequently seen as uninvolved and disengaged with their children, this is often not the case. Dr. Michael Lamb dispels this common myth and says, “Our research really bashes the stereotype of the low-income father. These fathers care about their kids, but may not show their love in conventional ways and sometimes a lack of a job, poor communication with the mom, or even their own childhood experiences can prevent them from getting involved.”
Teen fathers also have complex backgrounds. Boys who become teen fathers are more likely to be described as delinquent and suffer from mental health problems. Unsurprisingly, they are more likely to have been raised in poverty by a single parent; also, unsurprisingly, their parents were often teen parents themselves. So, while the stereotype of teen fathers as uncaring jerks may satisfy reality television shows like "16 and Pregnant," the truth is that a) many teen fathers do care about their partner and their child, and b) many teen fathers are well accustomed to having the system ignore their needs. It's true that in many cases the burden of an unplanned pregnancy falls on teen mothers, but that doesn't mean teen fathers don't also need our support and services. Like teen mothers, teen fathers must grapple with the regular trials of adolescence while also attempting to navigate parenthood. So how can we support them?
Focus Areas of Support
The Healthy Teen Network has a helpful guide on teen fathers that outlines critical areas where teen fathers need support, both as parents and as young men growing up. For one, teen fathers need support in creating financial stability and in employment skills. Education on basic financial literacy, interviewing skills, resume building, and so on can give teen fathers crucial access to stable income.
Trusted adults and youth serving professionals can also give young fathers the tools to prevent a second unplanned pregnancy. This could include conversations surrounding values, with questions such as, "Is it important to you to avoid a second unplanned pregnancy? If yes, what do you think are some attainable goals to keep in mind?" Along with discussing values, trusted adults can also provide education on condom use and birth control and learning how to access community resources for support in pregnancy prevention.
Teen fathers will likely be undergoing a variety of deep emotions regarding their child, their relationship, and their future. It's important that they receive emotional support. Specifically for young men, this could potentially mean deconstructing traditional narratives of masculinity. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on young men to stifle their emotions, but in the case of teen fathers this tendency can harm not only them but also their partner and their child. It's important to provide support in helping teen fathers process emotions and stress in healthy, productive ways.
Learning to Be a Father
Along with supporting teen fathers in their own individual goals, they also need support in becoming good parents. By understanding effective fathering, youth serving professionals can assist young fathers in the positive development of their children. Research suggests that there are seven dimensions of effective fathering: 1) Fostering a positive relationship with the children’s mother, 2) spending quality time with children, 3) nurturing children, 4) disciplining children appropriately, 5) serving as a guide to the outside world, 6) protecting and providing, and 7) service as a positive role model. Focusing on these dimensions of effective fathering will give children a healthy view of masculinity and will strengthen a father's bond with his children.
There are a variety of different programs and resources that can assist young fathers in becoming an effective parent. Two national organizations that focus on teaching effective parenting techniques are Parents Anonymous and Prevent Child Abuse America. Young parents can also take advantage of apps, such as the free textbaby app, that provide texts to keep their baby healthy through the first year of life with personalized health information.
For organizations and schools looking to be more inclusive of teen fathers' needs, the Office of Adolescent Health provides several tips for recruiting young fathers into their programming. Some tips include letting young fathers lead the way, being flexible, staying positive, providing consistency and support, connecting young fathers with mentors, and responding to young fathers’ changing needs in a timely manner. Youth serving professionals can also utilize the Healthy Teen Network’s facilitator’s guide to the Generate My Healthy Future Plan. The guide helps facilitators conduct a needs assessment with young men to point them in the right direction for additional resources that are of greatest interest to them.
When providing sexual health education and services with young people, especially young parents, it is important to not only focus on teen mothers. Fathers play a significant role in the development of young people, and they can become effective parents if given the right knowledge and tools to be successful.