“I know there’s something wrong, but my husband won’t listen”
“My son is suffering. His dad says he’s just lazy--that I should stop coddling him.”
“I’m the one getting stuck with all the problems, so of course her dad doesn't think it’s a big deal.”
“He doesn't worry because he’s not home until she's in bed. He doesn't see homework time!”
As the director of a private psychology clinic, I spend a lot of time on the phone with parents. One of the most common things I hear is that the spouse that does most of the ‘in the trenches’ parenting is having trouble convincing the other parent that there’s a problem. In heterosexual couples, it is typically the Dad who digs in about getting any help from a psychologist. (I've observed that the LGBT parents I work with tend to have a much easier time deciding together about mental health care, so this is framed in terms of husband-wife dynamics). And before you write me an angry comment, there are many fathers who make that call and who overcome obstacles to getting their children care. I'm talking about that particular dynamic where a mother wants to seek care but can't convince her husband to take her concerns seriously. Its very common and deserves attention!
So why do so many dads have such a negative reaction? Most of the time it is mothers, both those employed outside the home and mothers who work as full time parents, who are doing most of the everyday parenting tasks. Mothers are still the ones helping with homework, signing the permission slips, doing the projects, driving to endless practices/lessons/clubs, and communicating with school staff. In every couple, one person tends to take on this role, and it is that person who is the one who comes face-to-face with learning or behavioral challenges. It’s no wonder that the ‘in the trenches’ parent is the one losing sleep over a child’s difficulties. That parent is the one who should be respected as the expert in the family as to whether or not there’s a valid concern.
In the DC Metro area, there’s usually one parent who works long hours or travels a lot (as I write this, my husband has been at a conference for a week!). The parent who spends more time at work typically leaves before the kids are on the bus or dropped off at school. That parent is often not home until after all the homework is done, lessons are finished, and practice is over. It is easy to assume the problems at home are not that big a deal when you hear about them second hand (especially after you’ve just arrived home exhausted after a ten hour day). Dads may come home after the problems are already solved for the day. They may not see the meltdowns, tantrums, or tears at homework time. They have little idea what their wife had to go through to get through the day. They may never attend the meeting where the School Principal 'dropped the bomb' that your child is being suspended. It is important to trust the parent who is spending the most time ‘ in the trenches.’ Again, dads need to trust their spouse’s expertise as to whether or not the child’s problem warrants getting help from a psychologist.
Now I’m going to address what I see from a lot of dads. Many men are active problem solvers. They like a problem with a straightforward solution, and they go after it full tilt till its solved. When dads were boys, they heard different messages than girls about having to be strong, independent, and to hide weaknesses. Moms grew up hearing that it’s a good thing to ask for help—that seeking support is part of solving any problem. The legacy of our childhoods is that we have dads who are very uncomfortable with the idea that their child might need to see a psychologist. Dads often have a hard time trusting their spouse’s instincts. Of course, these are the same dads who would not hesitate to call a roofer if their ceiling leaks, hire a CPA to do the taxes, or head to Home Depot for advice on chainsaws. But go to a psychologist? It can be easier taking a cat to the vet.
Many dads see needing psychological care as a sign of weakness or something to be ashamed of. Some can not tolerate the idea that "there's something wrong with my kid." There’s nothing more shameful in seeing a psychologist than there is in getting a throat culture if you think your kid has strep. But time and again, I see dads “dig in” and resist getting their children the help they need. I’m not sure why some dads are more comfortable with the idea that their kid is lazy or spoiled than they are with the idea that he needs some help from a psychologist. Psychologists are there to solve problems, same as any other professional. And contrary to what the guys on MadMen think, psychologists and other mental health professionals offer effective treatments that are well supported by empirical research. Advances in brain imaging and genetic research are providing hard evidence that mental health disorders are biologically based—not imagined.
So how do you advocate for your child? Here’s a couple of ideas:
1. Look up the problems on trusted web sites (mindwell.us is one that has lots of information, medhelp.org
of course, as well as National Institute of Mental Health, American Academy of Pediatrics, or Mayo Clinic), and do your homework. Find out what the experts recommend as treatments.
2. Ask for referrals to psychologists from people he respects—like your colleagues, Rabbi, Coach, School Principal, friends, or relatives (e.g. “Tony and Gail said this psychologist really helped. Lets just go meet her.”)
3. Keep a data log (just like Captain Kirk) or a video diary. Record things like how long it takes to get through homework or video a meltdown. If problems are happening at school, get your teacher to document the problems.
4. Remind your kid's Dad that he/she trusted you enough to have children with you and to care for the children day in day out. If you can be trusted with that awesome responsibility, than your opinion matters!