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Fathers as parents

Positive engagement, play, setting limits, social work approach, resources

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References/Resources

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Although mothers are still disproportionately responsible for childcare, Australian fathers are now spending more time with their children compared to previous generations. This means there is a growing opportunity for fathers to support the mental health of their children through adopting or building on positive parenting behaviours, i.e. through their ‘parenting style’.   Warm and responsive parenting by fathers and mothers is important for child mental health.  It can have a positive influence on children’s prosocial behaviours, i.e. the child doing something to benefit or help someone else, such as sharing with others or comforting someone who is upset.  Fathers’ warmth and responsiveness is an important positive influence on their child’s wellbeing and development (Willoughby, Strawa, Mancini, & Miller, 2024).

Fathers can display warmth and responsiveness through a variety of activities, such as:

  • being affectionate towards their child (e.g. hugging, kissing)

  • telling their child that they’re loved

  • speaking to their child in a warm and friendly voice

  • telling their child that they, and their ideas and actions, are appreciated

  • noticing and saying positive things about their child

  • listening to their child’s feelings and trying to understand them

  • recognising and responding to their child’s needs and signals

  • laughing with their child; and

  • asking their child about important matters (Willoughby, Strawa, Mancini, & Miller, 2024).

How can fathers engage positively with their children?

Positive engagement between fathers and children (e.g. play, reading to the child, taking the child on an outing) is associated with positive outcomes for children’s mental health and wellbeing. Evidence suggests that fathers’ positive engagement decreases behavioural difficulties, internalising challenges (e.g. anxiety) and externalising challenges (e.g. aggressive behaviour) (Willoughby, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

Fathers can be directly involved with their children through activities such as reading, caregiving, doing arts and crafts, taking children on outings, talking, with the child, helping with homework and playing. Fathers can also influence children’s health and wellbeing indirectly through behaviours and interactions that can transform the environment around the child, such as supporting mothers, completing household duties, booking appointments for their children, and purchasing goods and services that can help meet a child’s needs.  Other positive benefits from indirect involvement with children include improvements in maternal health and the marital relationship (Willoughby, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

Both direct and indirect involvement are critical to children’s development and wellbeing, and there is no single way that fathers should support their children’s health and wellbeing (Willoughby, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

How can fathers influence child mental health through play?

Rough and tumble play (i.e. a type of physical activity play that includes behaviours such as wrestling, grappling, kicking and tumbling in a playful context) has been associated with improved child social and emotional skills, and fewer child behavioural and emotional difficulties. This is likely because rough and tumble play can teach children how to play physically with others within safe limits and learn to respect people’s boundaries. This can help children learn to navigate social relationships with their peers and with their surrounding environment, such as at school.

There is evidence that other types of play also support child mental health as shown below:

  • creative play (increased emotion regulation, increased prosocial behaviour, decreased behavioural difficulties, decreased aggression)

  • toy play (increased emotion regulation, increased prosocial behaviour)

  • structuring or guiding play (increased infant cognitive development, increased infant language development)

  • active play (increased prosocial behaviour, increased social competence) (Willoughby, Truong, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

Fathers have a role in setting limits and managing children’s behaviour

Children’s mental health is improved when fathers employ certain approaches around managing behaviour. These are:

  • balancing setting limits with granting child autonomy

  • using nonphysical discipline; and

  • consistently setting clear expectations and limits with their children.

If fathers are overly restrictive or cautious, or if they use harsh or physical discipline, their children are more likely to have poorer mental health (Willoughby & Strawa, 2024).

Setting appropriate limits and restricting autonomy        Setting balanced and developmentally appropriate limits can benefit child mental health. Fathers can be involved in this form of caregiving by, for example, restricting the amount of time the child spends watching TV and what programs their child can watch. When fathers apply an age-appropriate level of caution about a child’s health and safety (e.g. allowing some independence and avoiding unnecessarily interfering or micromanaging) and some restrictions on a child’s autonomy, children demonstrate fewer externalising behaviours (e.g. refusing to follow rules, aggression, bullying) and experience less anxiety. Conversely, fathers being overprotective and overly cautious is associated with poorer child mental health, such as increased anxiety and both internalising (e.g. depression, anxiety) and externalising behaviours. Similar impacts on child mental health have been found when mothers are overprotective (Willoughby & Strawa, 2024).

Consequences for child behaviour             There is strong evidence that physical punishment delivered by any parent or caregiver (including fathers) can have negative impacts on a child’s health and wellbeing and on the child–parent relationship. The research suggests that when fathers are harsh or yell at their children for their behaviour, their children are more likely to experience externalising and internalising behaviours than children whose fathers use less or no harsh punishment. On the other hand, less use of physical punishment can benefit child mental health and lead to children displaying more prosocial behaviours (Willoughby & Strawa, 2024).

Consistency         It’s important for mothers and fathers to be as consistent as possible in their approaches to setting limits and managing child behaviour, that is, making sure that they respond to their child’s behaviour in the same or similar way each time. This helps children learn what to expect when they behave in particular ways. When fathers or mothers are inconsistent in setting and enforcing clear expectations and limits, their children are more likely to experience emotional-behavioural difficulties and display less prosocial behaviours (Willoughby & Strawa, 2024).

Practice Approach

Have conversations with fathers about their relationship and interactions with their child

  • Be curious with fathers about how they interact with their child. Explore whether and how warmth and responsiveness is demonstrated in the child–father relationship.  Ask about whether and how fathers engage in play with their children.

  • Take a strengths-based approach:  Brainstorm with fathers what they are already doing well and how they might incorporate more warmth and responsiveness in their parenting.

  • Have collaborative conversations with parents about their children (see the PERCS conversation guide at (Willoughby, Strawa, Mancini, & Miller, 2024; Willoughby, Strawa & Mancini, 2024; Willoughby, Truong, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

Support fathers and families to be warm and responsive towards their children

  • Describe warm and responsive behaviours to fathers and their families and discuss the benefits of these behaviours for their children’s mental health. For example:

    • Encourage both parents to tell their child that they love them by showing physical affection, such as hugging and kissing their child; speaking to their child in a warm and friendly voice; listening to their child; laughing with their child; and being supportive and understanding towards their child.

    • Emphasise that warm and responsive parenting by fathers and mothers is beneficial for children’s mental health and wellbeing.

    • Share evidence-based resources with fathers and refer fathers to relevant support programs when needed (Willoughby, Strawa, Mancini, & Miller, 2024; Willoughby, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

  • Empower fathers to play with their children by highlighting the positive impact they can have on their child’s social competence, emotional skills and self-regulation. Provide examples of activities that are both fun and enjoyable but can also be low cost and accessible for families from all backgrounds (Willoughby, Truong, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

  • Share evidence-based resources and programs on play and parenting with fathers (Willoughby, Truong, Strawa & Mancini, 2024).

Encourage fathers to set limits and manage behaviour in appropriate ways

  • Be curious with fathers about their approach to how they set limits and manage their child’s behaviour. Explore what approaches they take and whether they’re consistent in their approach.

  • Speak with fathers about which approaches to setting limits and managing behaviour can support child mental health and steer them away from approaches associated with mental health challenges, such as physical punishment. For example, discuss with fathers how:

    • consistently setting clear expectations and limits, having a balanced approach (that sets limits on some behaviour but also supports the child to have age-appropriate independence) and using non-physical consequences for non-preferred behaviour can lead to fewer mental health challenges for their child; and

    • using harsh consequences, such as yelling or being overprotective and overly cautious could lead to more mental health challenges for children, specifically externalising and internalising behaviours.

  • Take a family-centred approach by asking fathers and their family if they need support to manage their child’s behaviour. Discuss which approaches to setting limits and managing behaviour may work best for the child and family.

  • Become familiar with effective behaviour management strategies for children and be aware of the impact that physical punishment has on child health and wellbeing. Links to evidence-based resources on these topics are provided below in the ‘further reading and related resources’ section (Willoughby & Strawa, 2024).

Supplementary Material / Resources / References


Willoughby, M., & Strawa, C. (2024). How fathers can support child mental health through setting limits and managing behaviour.  Emerging Minds.

Willoughby, M., Strawa, C., & Mancini, V. (2024). How fathers’ positive engagement and caregiving can support child mental health.  Emerging Minds.

Willoughby, M., Strawa, C., Mancini, V., & Miller H. (2024).  How fathers’ warm and responsive parenting can support child mental health.  Emerging Minds.

Willoughby, M., Truong, M., Strawa, C., & Mancini, V. (2024). How fathers can positively influence children’s mental health through play.  Emerging Minds.


If links are broken, try locating them from the original articles listed in the references section above, by searching the Emerging Minds or Raising Children Network sites, or by an internet search using the resource name


The impact of paternal positivity on child mental health summarises the findings of a meta-analysis on paternal positivity and child mental health.

Engaging fathers in early childhood services discusses how practitioners can engage fathers in early childhood services.

In focus: Parent-child relationships explores child-aware and parent-sensitive practice; and

The PERCS Conversation Guide provides a guide for having conversations with parents about their children.

The Raising Children Network has plain language resources for fathers on getting involved with their children and fathers’ health and wellbeing.

SMS4dads is a free text messaging service to support new or expectant fathers in their role as fathers and increase awareness of their influence on their child’s brain development.

Behaviour management strategies for children:

Resources about domestic and family violence:
  • Fathers who use violence explores options for safe practice where there is ongoing contact between children and women, and fathers who use violence.

  • The paper Fathering programs in the context of domestic and family violence examines how men’s behaviour change programs, domestic and family violence specific fathering programs, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s healing programs, address fathering issues for men who use violence.

Resources about play:

Learn more about the use of play to strengthen child-parent relationships and promote children’s mental health by reading Parent-child play: A mental health promotion strategy for all children.

Playgroup Australia is an organisation that can help link fathers and parents with local playgroups that provide opportunities for play-based learning and social support for parents and carers.

The Raising Children Network has plain language resources for fathers on getting involved with their childrentoy play and child-led play.


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