In this blog we talk to Michael Charles, who runs a Dads Group in Gwent for parents of children with additional needs. He works for NHS Wales Children with Additional Needs Service and is a father of four.
What motivates you to work with the dads in your community?
My local children’s centre was built to support children with disabilities and developmental difficulties, and they recognised that there weren’t a lot of dads accessing the centre. When dads did attend support groups, we were often drawn to each other because we could have conversations that were different from those that were happening in the wider group. There was a feeling that there wasn’t a space for us. I attended focus groups exploring ways they could encourage more dads to come in, but initially it was unclear if this offer of support to dads would be welcomed or needed.
I initially attended the group as a dad because I wanted to share my experiences and understanding of what I’d learned through trying to find ways to support my child. I’ve got four children, and at the time only one had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. It felt very, very difficult to access any support at all, other than when we were at a crisis point, and I was heavily motivated to try and help other parents start their journey in a much better place than I did. It wasn’t my plan to become a voice for the dads in my group, but it felt necessary because there aren’t many people out there speaking about this.
What information and support was available for you when your child was diagnosed with autism?
My only understanding of autism at the time was based on what I’d seen in films and on the news. The picture we had in our heads was very different from our reality, and the information that we were given early on was very generic. Every child is different, and at first I didn’t understand what autism meant for my child, and I didn’t feel like I had the skills to support them with regulating their emotions.
We knew that our child would want to go to university, but to begin with we had no real hope that they’d be able to do this on their own. I really believed that they would be living with us for their whole life. However, meeting with other parents who were further ahead in their journey was really insightful for us, and we also heard from autistic adults who had found ways to address some of their childhood struggles.
Learning from other people’s stories encouraged us to have hope, because there was a time when we didn’t. We were then able to start thinking about what we could do to help our child to be more independent. To me, meeting people who understand and can share their own journeys is more important than any training course.
What are some of the challenges dads might face when learning about supporting their child’s needs?
Without generalising in any way, some of the dads who come to the group are looking for a solution. I see it as our role to support them through a journey of acceptance for who their child is. The biggest challenge for me is trying to give hope to every dad, whilst recognising that success is different for every child. For my child, this was going to university, but for another child it might be working in a shop, cooking their own meals, or something completely different.
There’s still a feeling sometimes that the most important parental relationship is with mum, and that they’re the ones who provide the caring responsibilities. I try to challenge that whenever I can because I think there’s lots of dads who want to be equal partners and to be fully involved in their child’s care. I think many of the dads that come to our group want to challenge these stereotypes.
It’s important that professionals working with families think about how they engage with dads to provide a more equitable service. Some dads feel they simply don’t have the skills to help, and that the best thing they can do is to just step away. I’ve heard stories of dads driving home after work and sitting in the car for an hour outside the house because they don’t know what they’re going to walk into, and they don’t know whether they’re going to make the situation worse.
When a professional meets with only one parent things can get lost in translation, and the more information and support that we can offer, the better placed dads will be to support their children and partners. This can have a massive impact on the quality of life of the whole family. The goal for me is to help all dads understand what they can do to support their families, and the importance of communication in strengthening relationships.
Why do you think it’s important for dads to prioritise their own mental health?
There’s still societal pressures for men to shoulder their burdens in silence; that girls are allowed to be emotional and nurturing, and boys aren’t. This can mean there are dads left without any outlet or opportunity to discuss their feelings, and you see significant numbers of men with mental health issues and higher suicide rates. If there aren’t opportunities to talk to somebody and be vulnerable, I think that presents a significant risk.
A lot of the dads I meet have also had their concerns downplayed by friends and family; they might have been told to ‘man up’, or found that people aren’t willing to have those conversations in the first place. These messages are socialised into us from a young age, and can be really isolating when you’re struggling and feeling like you’re not able to cope.
Sometimes dads come to the group because their partners have pushed them to, but once they’re there it gives them permission to be vulnerable, and to talk about their feelings supporting a child with additional needs. Dads who have very traditional male roles have broken down crying in the first session because somebody has allowed them to talk without judgement. If they keep coming back they will eventually be able to offer that support in return to other dads, and I feel quite paternal about some of the dads in the group because I’ve seen that growth.
What would you say to any dads reading this who are struggling?
The same thing I say to my children; reach out to anybody you can have these conversations with, whether that’s another dad, a therapist, a friend, or a family member. Support groups can be really amazing, but a group setting isn’t right for everybody. The most important thing is having somebody to talk to, and to fight against any internal voices that make us afraid to be open and vulnerable.
Societally and generationally, we need to change the narrative around what being a man is and what being a dad is. Research suggests that younger dads especially want to play a much more active role in their child’s care, and I think younger generations have a much better understanding of their emotions and are much more willing to talk about them. I love the fact that my kids challenge me and talk so openly about their feelings. If we can nurture this way of thinking, then we can change the narrative now.