Fatherhood Programs Can Support Fathers’ Healthy Relationships With Children and Coparents

BlogFamiliesJun 16 2022

Fathers’ role within families has gradually evolved from traditional family breadwinner to that of more full and equal coparent involved in all aspects of caregiving. Research has shown that positive father-child involvement leads to better outcomes for children and families, and a critical component of improving fathers’ involvement with their children is supporting their coparenting and romantic or intimate relationships. In addition to providing parenting and economic stability services, fatherhood programs that receive federal funding[1] are required by the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) to provide relationship education, which positions them ideally to help fathers establish and maintain healthy relationships.

In the past three years, Child Trends’ Coparenting and Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education for Dads (CHaRMED) project[2] has aimed to better understand how fatherhood programs support fathers’ coparenting and intimate relationships. Here, we’d like to highlight some important lessons learned from CHaRMED that can inform how fatherhood program practitioners support fathers’ relationships and improve their—and their families’—well-being.

1. Tailoring curricula to participants can make relationship education more relevant for fathers.

Some fatherhood programs that participated in the CHaRMED study adapted existing curricula or designed their own to ensure that relationship content better resonated with their participating fathers. For example, one fatherhood program that works with American Indian and Alaska Native fathers has incorporated culturally relevant case examples into existing program curricula to more meaningfully connect with fathers in Tribal settings.

2. Fathers feel more connected to healthy relationship programming when they build personal connections with program staff and other participating fathers, often via group discussions that cultivate a safe space.

While many fathers were not initially interested in healthy relationship content, they become more engaged in relationship services upon finding a sense of trust, safety, and camaraderie. Program facilitators play a key role in creating and maintaining this safe space for fathers to share their experiences.

3. Many fathers are eager to build their coparenting skills.

Although fatherhood programs usually address both coparenting and intimate relationships, many fathers in the CHaRMED study spoke specifically about their needs and interests around coparenting. Many fathers were enthusiastic about learning different communication skills, such as active listening, and often applied those lessons to their coparenting relationships.

4. Legal and social system involvement often represents a barrier to fathers’ ability to see their children and can strain coparenting relationships.

While fathers often want to be more involved with their children, legal and social systems play an important role in determining their ability to do so. Meeting legal requirements and conditions—such as the need to have stable housing and income prior to establishing visitation—are barriers for some fathers, especially those who may have histories of incarceration, substance abuse, or mental health issues. Fathers and program staff in our study described how coparenting relationships can add a layer of complexity, both within and outside of the legal context, due to difficult custody battles or parental gatekeeping.

5. Virtual programming may increase fathers’ access to relationship programming.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many fatherhood programs shifted from in-person to virtual programming. Despite their initial concerns with delivering healthy relationship content online, staff and fathers in the CHaRMED study created a safe environment that allowed for important conversations around coparenting and intimate relationships. Many participating program staff were enthusiastic about remote programming and planned to continue offering it even after the pandemic ends to expand their reach. Our brief on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic offers other strategies for practitioners to support fathers’ healthy relationships.

Later this year, we will release more research to help fatherhood programs better serve fathers and their families. Please visit the project page for updates and forthcoming publications.