(May 22, 2013)

Shooting sprees such as the most recent Newtown, Conn., tragedy are linked to mental health issues. Consequently, our efforts to affix a spotlight to wellness are paramount. With Father’s Day approaching, it’s enlightening to illuminate the fact that fathers need their children as much as children — particularly sons — need their fathers for enhanced psychological well-being.

In a recent “USA TODAY” piece, Warren Farrell, author of “Why Men Are the Way They Are,” insisted, “Guns don’t kill people — our sons do.”  Did you know that of 62 mass killings over the past 30 years, 61 were committed by males? Mass murders often end in suicide. Did you know that at age 9, boys and girls are equally likely to commit suicide, but at age 14, boys are twice as likely. By 19, boys are four times as likely, and by 24, they’re more than five times as likely. What’s happening to boys to so increase their odds of psychological cliffhanging? Whether the issue is suicide, video games, family values or guns — do girls seem less vulnerable to the dark side than boys? 

Becoming a man has no manual

Farrell believes too many young boys grow up without male role model. Having no access to adult men causes boys to miss out on the intangible directions for the road to manhood. Why? Two reasons emerge: Single-parent homes are mostly headed by moms, and schools’ teachers are almost all female. Studies suggest that children of divorce who lack regular contact with their fathers tend to struggle with the five D’s: depression, drugs, drinking, discipline and delinquency. Add that they are also prone to suicide, less able to concentrate, more inclined to aggressive behavior and less empathetic. What’s brewing here is the recipe for a self-destructive and dangerous young man.

As if this weren’t bad enough, puberty brings on the challenge and desire for girls. Boys with no men to nurture them have no one to explain girls and, more important, to commiserate about broken hearts or egos. Young adolescents are terrified of rejection. Often having poor social skills and without emotional support, they resort to anger and self-loathing at not being able to compete with their rivals. Tweenagers and older adolescents turn to nonthreatening online pornography or video games for distraction, getting fantasy rewards that also stymie real-world motivation. All these experiences lead to alienation and isolation. 

Fathers benefit from sons as much as sons benefit from fathers

Clearly, there is research proving how children are affected negatively and positively by the relationship with their fathers. What has not been so well-known until now is how fathers are influenced by having children.

Carrying a child and giving birth unleashes changing hormones in females. That’s old news. New technologies have given scientists the tools to explore how hormones affect men when they become new dads. Anthropologist Peter Gray of the University of Las Vegas penned a chapter “Babies on the Brain” from his book “Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior,” detailing how being able to analyze saliva had led to watching testosterone levels and other hormones before and after men become fathers.

A University of Zurich Swiss study found new dads had lower testosterone levels and low scores for sensation-seeking. Men who seek high-risk activities are less inclined to do so after a child enters their life. Parenthood seems to alter their adventurous nature as if nudging them to be more careful because they now have a new responsibility to an infant. It’s time to sell that motorcycle or cancel that trip to scale a mountain. Becoming a dad changes a man, and these alterations impact a man’s psychological well-being and physical health as he nurtures a growing child.

David DeGamo, a research scientist at the Oregon Social Learning Center, led an 18-month study of 230 divorced fathers of kids ages 4 to 11. Fathers who stayed involved with their children had better health, drank less and had lower substance use. Other findings suggest that fatherhood makes a man less self-centered, more giving and more outward-focused. Every time you read about better mental health, scores are always tied to positive attachments and strong relationships. Usually such relationships are attributed to romantic relationships or friendships. Now we know that fatherhood is another source of valuable emotional rapport.

A matched set with perks

All these bits and pieces of research point to the truth that fathers need their children, boys and girls included, as much as children need their fathers if all are to thrive emotionally, physically, socially and psychologically. Girls need their dads to show them what makes a good male-female relationship. After all, dad is the first man in a daughter’s life, so he sets the tone and the standard for relationships, what they should look like and what the expectations should be. Girls who are close to dad feel good about themselves as women and know how to find healthy, happy romances.

Boys apparently in view of dire headlines desperately need fathers in their lives to skirt becoming statistics aiming them toward the five D’s of failure or toxic overtones. Single mothers who can’t or won’t promote visitation and contact between children and an ex need to find a way to bring male role models into the lives of their sons. A coach, a pastor, a tutor, a Scout leader, an uncle — the possibilities are out there. Boys need men to show them how to become one. And any man who becomes a father or a father figure stands to benefit from a relationship that will have lasting positive implications for his health and well-being.   

Margaret Sagarese is a keynote speaker and co-author of “The Roller-Coaster Years” and “Parenting 911.” She can be reached at msagarese@aol.com.