10 Ways for How Dads Contribute to Their Child’s Development - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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I’m very excited that Alexa Brett agreed to write a guest post this week. She is an Occupational Therapy Practitioner and I’ve been reading her blog, www.LoveThinkThrive.com, for a while now. In this post she talks about two senses that we don’t always think about when it comes to child rearing—and how naturally many fathers take to helping their children develop these. Enjoy and please check out her site!

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My husband and I are both very affectionate with our children. Where we differ is in the way we play with them.

I prefer calmer forms of play, while he grabs, tickles, and wrestles. The commotion and noise this type play creates can easily overwhelm my nervous system. It makes me want to put a stop to all the activity. I do not do so, however, because I recognize that my husband’s approach to play is good for my children.

Men and women are wired differently. We all have strengths and natural tendencies that affect the way we parent our children. Studies show that fathers tend to be more physical in their play and less concrete in how they use toys. Mothers are often gentler in their play and have a tendency to use to toys the way they were intended. The more we learn about the role of fathers, the more it becomes clear why children benefit greatly from having an involved dad. This article focuses on how dads contribute to their child’s development especially with regard to their sensory and nervous systems.

Our Sensory System:

Most people think we have five senses:how fathers contribute to their child's development

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Touch

But there are at least two others:

  • Proprioception registers pressure and tells the brain where your body is in space and how much strength is being applied.
  • Vestibular registers information necessary for balance and spatial orientation.

Kids need to develop a smooth sensory processing system in order to correctly register and interpret the input from their world (people, environment and things) and their bodies. Children who do not process their senses well often have developmental delays, behavioral difficulties, and other challenges involving social and emotional self-regulation.

The proprioceptive system is made up of receptors in your joints. Every time you feel a pull or a push, these receptors send the information to your brain for processing. This data tells your brain where your body is in space and how much force needs to be used to perform a task or is being applied to it.

The vestibular system is made up of small crystals in your ears that move with motion, and this information is then sent to your brain for processing. It is also a way for you to know where your body is in space, how gravity and motion are affecting it, and how to maintain balance. Your vestibular processing system is responsible for making you dizzy when you spin. It’s closely tied to your proprioceptive system and your visual processing system as well. If one sensory processing system does not work smoothly a child will over-compensate with his other sensory systems. So for example, children who do not process motion well can be observed clinching or using too much force during activities such as swinging.

10 Ways How Dads Contribute to Their Child’s Development:
  1. Rough and tumble play (wresting, grabbing, rolling) provides strong input to the nervous and sensory system.
  2. Rich vestibular experiences (involving motion, upside-down play, swinging) help make the vestibular processing system more flexible and often calm children. It has also been shown to help achieve more organized thinking and focused attention.
  3. Rich sensory experiences involving gross motor movement help the brain create an accurate body map and better body awareness.
  4. Rambunctious and active play helps calm and can prepare a child for quiet activities.
  5. Play that is rich in proprioceptive and vestibular input is grounding for a child because it involves many facets of the sensory processing system.
  6. Kids benefit from the repetition and the unpredictability of rough and tumble play with someone they can trust. It helps to increase the limits of what the child can tolerate. It also promotes new brain pathways,  promotes healthy risk taking, as well as resilience.
  7. Children bond through play.
  8. Fathers bond with their children through rough and tumble play. Studies shows that dads who play in this way with their children produce more oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and are more satisfied with their parenting.
  9. Children who have fathers who play with them in  their early years have less behavioral issues later on.
  10. Children learn boundaries and rules through playing, especially during collaborative activities such as rough and tumble play, tag, and ball games.

We should encourage fathers to play with their children in a way that is natural to them.

Mothers, who may find the experience overwhelming, can always remove themselves from the situation, but should not prevent it. Couples can discuss how and when to incorporate this type of play into their family life. Keep in mind that children who show emotional breakdown, or fear, during activities rich in tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular inputs should be evaluated by a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration therapy. If a child has developmental issues, fathers should participate in therapy in order to learn how to work within the boundaries of their child’s unique development. Parents who communicate well together, and respect each other’s unique contributions, provide their children with exactly what they need in order to thrive.

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This article was written by Alexa Brett, an Occupational Therapy Practitioner, and author of the blog Love Think Thrive—a resource for parents, professionals and anyone interested in lifespan development, family dynamics, health, nutrition, stress management, and the socio-emotional connections we all need in order to thrive.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.