How to Navigate Big Feelings This Father’s DayIf June is a crappy month for you, listen up.
As a ’90s sitcom fan, Father’s Day always brings up memories of that one The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode where Will Smith’s character sobs, “How come he don’t want me, man?” and folds into the arms of a comforting Uncle Phil. For anyone decades behind in pop culture: In the moments leading up to this, Will talks about how he’s had to deal with his father’s absence for 14 years and how he just expects it, seemingly shrugging it off before he shares how neglected and rejected he feels.
And Uncle Phil, being wise as ever, doesn’t tell Will to stop crying or make him feel better by cracking a joke or downplaying Will’s reality. He simply validates his emotions, embraces him, and lets him vent without judgment. This episode resonates with so many people to this day (especially in June) because it vocalizes the issues that many of us have with our own fathers and shows the unconditional support that we might long for or aspire to give to our own families.
If you have a complicated relationship with fathers or fatherhood, Father’s Day might not be your favorite time of year. After all, amid the usual Father’s Day messages about shopping for ties and mugs for your “#1 Dad,” there’s rarely room for real conversations about how weird and heartbreaking this holiday can be. But in my work as a licensed clinical psychologist, I see tough emotions tied to my clients’ connections to fatherhood welling up every June, and every year I’m reminded how important it is to work through these feelings.
Even if you don’t relate to Will’s experience with abandonment and neglect, Father’s Day can be a challenging time for anyone grieving a father, missing a child, or struggling to become a dad or be a good parent. Trust me, there’s no shortage of complicated issues that can come up, so it’s OK if you’re not feeling your best right now.
While navigating the difficult emotions of Father’s Day can be challenging for many of us, we can work through them if we all take a page from the book of Uncle Phil by validating the difficulty of this time; giving ourselves and others permission to be angry, disappointed, sad, or any other feelings around this holiday; and by being fully present for ourselves and each other.
If you’ve been looking for some guidance on how to deal with difficult emotions tied to fatherhood on this day or any other day, you’ve come to the right place. Here are a few tips that I share with my clients who are working to heal from wounds around fatherhood.
If you have an absent or estranged father:
I’ve noticed that many of my clients—whether they have no relationship with their dad, an on-off type of connection, or are estranged from their fathers—usually respond to Father’s Day or questions about their dad like Will initially did in that episode. They act unbothered because they’ve managed to make it this far without their parent. While it’s possible for you to thrive despite not having a reliable father figure, the absence usually does affect how people think, act, and feel about themselves and others.
If you’re struggling with emotions related to an absent father on Father’s Day, it can be helpful to turn to the trusty Feelings Wheel to get to the bottom of what you’re feeling. Even if you just have 10 minutes to spare, spend some time with it this weekend and remember it’s OK to have emotions that seem to be at odds with each other, like nostalgia for the good times and sadness if your relationship is nonexistent now.
Then, give yourself the support you wish you had from your father when you were younger so you can start the healing process. This is known as “reparenting your inner child” and can involve doing things that make you feel loved, affirmed, and accepted, which can fight off common feelings like neglect and rejection. This can look like spending time with loved ones who are there for you or doing something you enjoyed as a kid, like riding a bike, watching cartoons, coloring, or drawing.
If you lost your dad:
Grief is an emotional rollercoaster. One minute you’re fine, the next you’re crying uncontrollably, and the next you’re laughing and reminiscing about old times. Whether you had a good or complicated relationship with your dad, losing a parent can come with a lot of strong emotions that can be triggered around Father’s Day, so you have full permission to feel whatever comes up.
One thing my clients tend to find helpful when coping with loss is remembering that death is not the end of a relationship—it’s a transition. Your relationship with someone who passed away continues in the memories you shared, the lessons that you learned, and the ways the individual made your life better. So take some time to reflect on what your father taught you, funny moments you shared, and how you can continue to honor your dad’s memory. This could mean watching their favorite TV show, eating their favorite meal, or going to a place that was meaningful to them. You could even write a letter to your dad and think about what you would say if you had the opportunity to speak to them again.
If you’re longing to be a father:
The path to becoming a dad isn’t easy for everyone. You may struggle with fertility issues, have trouble with the adoption process, or you may be unlucky when it comes to finding a partner who wants to have kids too. If you can relate, you know that Father’s Day can be especially hard. But one of the ways to cope with this is to remember that wanting to be a dad is often rooted in having so much love to share, and you can find creative ways to spread all that goodness around.
In fact, whether you realize it or not, you may already be a father figure in someone else’s life. You could be a role model to so many people, whether they’re in your extended family, your community, or your social circles. There are so many ways you may already be sharing fatherly love, even if you don’t have children of your own—don’t discount that.
We all need fatherly love, whether it comes from a biological father, adopted father, or father figure. So if you’re longing to be a father, identify ways you can share your love now. This could be as simple as pitching in at a local organization like the Boys and Girls Club, being a mentor or supporter to a child in your neighborhood, or even just spending quality time with someone who doesn’t have an active father in their lives.
If you’re a father who feels distant:
Father’s Day can also be a struggle for dads who were socialized to be financial providers but never got the hang of the emotional stuff. If it feels weird to be celebrated by kids you don’t really know or if your kids aren’t really celebrating you and that makes you feel some type of way, you might be feeling a little lonely and like you want to step it up but are confused about how to actually do that.
Sound like you? If so, ask yourself what it looks like to be an emotional provider. Do you know what your children’s emotional needs are and what meeting those needs looks like? This may require you to have open, honest, and potentially uncomfortable conversations with your family about how you can support them and be part of their world a little bit more. You can kickstart this dialogue by saying, “Hey, I’m trying to be a more present father for you and would like to know what things I can do to support you. What things do I do that make you feel loved? How can we improve our relationship?” If you have young kids, they might respond better to a question like, “What sorts of things would you like for us to do more of together?"
Now, if and when they give it to you straight, try not to get defensive. Just remember that by recognizing this as an area for improvement, you’re taking steps to creating a happier, more connected family.
If you’re a father who’s feeling the pressure:
Unfortunately, there are no step-by-step instructions for fatherhood, and you have to learn as you inevitably make mistakes along the way. Even though it’s completely normal, dads don’t often talk about how much they struggle with fatherhood, and society doesn’t really give them the space to talk about it either. This time of year, the pressures of being a “#1 Dad” can reach an all-time high and make you question your effectiveness, which is obviously a crappy way to spend the day.
To help curb those feelings, it can be useful to think about what your values are, how your values guide your approach to fatherhood, and any pivots you might want to make. Try a quick values clarification task, like running through a list of values and ranking your top ones, which can help you prioritize whatever makes you feel more confident and intentional about how you interact with your family. For example, if you’re the kind of father who ranks wealth and power pretty high but also has family and fun in your top 10, you may currently spend more time advancing your career. Maybe you can adjust your schedule so you can attend more band recitals for your kid.
Once you start to change your behaviors so they align more closely with what you actually value in life, then you can start to feel like you’re doing much better at this dad thing and enjoy the festivities next year.
If you’re a father who lost a child:
We often expect to bury our parents, but we rarely expect to bury our children. That can make this kind of grief especially tough to get through. If you’re struggling with the loss of a child for any reason, it can help to think about what you need and how you would like to spend Father’s Day before the day arrives.
Many of my clients have lost children, and some dads prefer to be alone and stay offline while others like being surrounded by loved ones and welcome some virtual highlights from other people celebrating the day with their families. You may also want to consider doing something to honor the memory of your child, like setting a plate for them at the dinner table, lighting a candle for them, releasing balloons in their memory, or even just wearing their favorite color. However you choose to honor your kid and grieve is valid.
If you’re a single father:
Father’s Day can be bittersweet for single fathers, especially if becoming single involved something traumatic like the death of a partner or divorce, or if you’re currently struggling with co-parenting.
In my practice, one of the most helpful things for single fathers is to be honest with themselves and be vulnerable with others about what they need. Though a lot of the fathers I work with struggle with asking for help and fear being seen as weak or incapable, support from your community is so important. So if you’re a single dad, give yourself the gift of support this month.
Is it alone time? A spa day? A day with friends? Help with chores? Whatever support looks like to you, think about it and identify who in your village would be willing to show up for you in that way. Then, ask them! Asking for support can be a struggle, but you’ll be so grateful that you did when you get to take that little break to recharge.
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