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Most fathers with a traumatic childhood want to be better fathers than their own fathers were

Photo: Dana. Creative Commons.

Fathers who have had difficult childhood experiences can be good fathers, successfully trying to be a better parent than their own parents were.

Fathers who have had difficult family experiences during their own childhood can be good fathers, successfully trying to be a better parent than their own parents were. But not all of these fathers succeed, with the risk of being abusive or not present in the life of their children.

In a current ongoing study of fathers with difficult life situations we are interviewing men who have been placed in out-of-home care during their own childhood. We find that more than half of them are living together with their children or have regular contact including weekend stay-overs. The other half are not seeing their children and many regret this.

We find that fathers with childhood traumas like abuse and neglect are more likely to have difficulties – lower levels of education and income, and higher symptoms of psychological distress, including alcohol and substance abuse. “More likely to” does not mean all fathers – indeed, other studies show that abusive behavior by parents only appears in about a third of the cases where parents had traumatic childhood experiences themselves (e.g. Sperry & Widom, 2013).

Similar results can also be found in another study I led where young adults being brought up in group-home settings in their childhood also show more insecure concepts of attachment relationship, together with higher levels of psychological stress (Nowacki & Schoelmerich, 2010). The German child care system is a bit different than, for example, the English system, with different out-of home care settings including group homes for children and young people (Simpson & Nowacki, 2014).

When asked about their understanding of fatherhood, the fathers we interviewed mostly emphazise how much they want to be a better parent in comparison to their own. Next to a traditional idea of fathers being the bread-earner of the family, they also report more modern ideas of sharing caring duties with the mother and being a good partner and husband. They think that their children like it most when they are actively playing together, including rough-and tumble play, but also teaching situations like learning how to ride a bike, explaining various topics and enjoying sports.

Fathers who are regularly seeing their children feel much closer to them then those living separately and are having litte contact with them.