Often, fathers are hesitant to engage in the process of seeking help or building parenting knowledge and skills through counseling. At times, they might even feel marginalized despite the rising trend in father involvement. As research continues to elucidate the benefits of active fathering on child development, one aspect not as clearly examined is a father’s own developmental lens.

Fathers enter parenthood at different ages and stages. Regarding fatherhood, an aspect of relationships and responsibility that receives little attention is the influence of development on perception, communication, and motivation.

If you read the literature or listen to professionals talk about fatherhood, just below the level of consciousness is the assumption that many fathers construct the role in the same manner. If you were to poll fathers at random regarding what was important about the role, very likely, there would be similar ideas and themes for we are social beings.

But, how fathers construct the meaning of the role and, therefore, perceive it, would depend on his stage of development.

Often in the psychological and helping profession literature, we find the suggestion to “meet them where they are.” This concept implies some gap or ground that needs to be traversed to find a foothold to do the work—whatever the case may be. Any gap is subjective, and based on each individual’s way of knowing. Perhaps, if we address these perspectives we can better understand how to help and, in the process, provide the structure for moving forward.

Ways of Knowing

Research in adult development reveals qualitatively distinct stages in what individuals can hold in awareness and therefore be responsible for, influence, and integrate. Underlying this is a psychological structure that perceives and constructs, a subjective experience between the person’s internal and external environment that is below the level of awareness.

An important way that practitioners can discern the different stages is by considering how fathers identify with the role. This approach adds value to the process of helping in that we truly meet fathers where they are by understanding how they construct and organize meaning.

Constructive Developmental Theory (CDT) delineates five evolutionary balances in development, four of which can be applicable to adults.

Each stage includes and transcends prior stages, and is distinct in what individuals can be aware of, and in their capacity to meet the demands of the environment.

CDT describes the path of human potential for vertical growth towards higher levels of awareness, understanding, complexity, and functioning in the world. For the purpose of this article, we will simply refer to the four adult stages as stages two, three, four and five, with the latter being that of the most complex meaning-making stage.

Stage Two

In working with fathers, listening to how they make meaning and identify with the role is vital to assessment and establishing rapport. Stage two fathers developmentally are centered on their own needs. While they may engage in the role, subjectively they are unable to hold both their needs and the needs of their child in mind at the same time.

Thus, in this developmental stage, fathers are ego-centric and identify with how the child reflects on his sense of the role. The father perceives the child as an extension of himself and the child’s behaviors are interpreted through his interests. For example, a father in this stage may play violent video games or watch “Ironman” with his young child and perceive this experience as relationship building or quality time.

Findings on Parental Awareness support these conceptualizations, and work must be done with an eye on how interventions or information will meet the father’s needs in the role. Also, a gentle nudge towards broadening his understanding of his child’s needs and emotional world is crucial to expanding capacity. This can be framed through the father’s intrinsic need to feel competent.

Stage Three

In stage three, fathers are influenced by society’s construction of the role. In addition, they are greatly influenced by how they were fathered. For example, if their fathers were primarily breadwinners and not involved in the everyday process of parenting, fathers in this stage do not have the capacity to question the assumptions of this type of fathering.

Also, these fathers are unable to disengage their identity from the parent-child relationship, because they are the relationship. Clinicians witness this as resistance when subjects are broached that may be perceived as unfavorable about the child.

A father in this stage may explain his son’s clinical lack of self-regulation as “He’s just an energetic boy” or “I was just like that as a kid and I turned out fine.” Framing the parenting work through the lens of the relationship is vital with fathers in this stage. Expanding awareness by helping fathers examine the assumptions of their present identity can help them to expand their capacities as well as their sense of the father role.

Stage Four

A father developing to stage four has learned to hold his relationships objectively, and self-define the father role. He is able to hold what he has learned about parenting and fatherhood as relative and not absolute. What stands out here is these fathers author their identity and are responsible for their inner lives. They have the feelings experienced at earlier stages—but importantly are not defined by these feelings.

These fathers have the capacity to hold these feelings objectively while considering the relationship and the needs of the child. In building capacity, working with fathers in this stage also involves looking at how principles and values influence choices and actions in the parenting role.

Stage Five

Fathers in stage five are rare and at least middle-aged. Adult development research estimates that while approximately 58 percent of adults have not reached stage four, about six to seven percent are in transition to stage five, with less than one percent having fully developed to stage five.

Further, those persons who reach this stage are typically aged 40 or older. Fathers in this stage are able to transform their self-definition as needed, when certain ideas or beliefs no longer make sense. In this stage of development, fathers can view themselves and their children as complex and changing psychological beings within the larger systems of family, community, culture, and beyond.

These larger systems interact and influence each other and stage five fathers have the capacity to view themselves and their child as growing and changing within the parenting process.

As practitioners, we meet clients at the edges of their capacity and their ability to handle the demands of the increasing complexity of their lives. This is beyond coping. And, considering a developmental perspective when working with fathers can help meet them where they are and frame how they construct meaning and identify with the role.

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About the Author

John C. Panepinto, Psy.D, LPCS, NCC, has worked in educational, clinical, and, private settings for more than two decades. Presently, he balances roles as a consultant in early intervention for the largest school system in North Carolina, and as clinical psychologist for Carolina Developmental Pediatrics. He also maintains a private practice. Dr. Panepinto has written on parenting, development, emotional intelligence, resiliency, and performance psychology. He was the keynote speaker for the 2017 National Stay-At-Home Dad’s convention, and blogs on fatherhood. He helped to develop the processes and content for a National Character Education Award winning program in 2003. More at Drjohnpanepinto.com.