Why we need more fathers to take part in research

Mikeda Jess from The Cerebra Family Research Group at the University of Warwick explains why they need more fathers to take part in research.

“Research with families of children with disabilities contributes to a greater understanding of their experiences and the factors that have an impact upon their lives. Traditionally, when researchers make a call for families to take part in research it is often mothers that respond, completing surveys and answering questions about their child and family life.

Even in modern times, it is mothers who often assume the primary care-giving role and so they are well placed to speak on behalf of their family. Mothers are usually a fountain of knowledge regarding their child’s strengths, difficulties, and daily challenges and can talk about their family as a whole too. Mothers have made a major contribution to research and to our understanding of families of children with disabilities. Thank you!

Although sometimes they are, mothers are not usually the only members of a family living with a child with disability. There are often other children (siblings), another parent (perhaps a father), and extended family members (such as grandparents, step-parents, or aunts and uncles). In this article, our focus is on fathers.

Fathers often play a significant and distinct role in the lives of their children, but theirs is a significant voice often missing from family research. What this means is that we actually know very little about fathers’ perspectives and whether their experiences are similar to or different from those of mothers.

What do we know from research so far about fathers and mothers and whether they have similar or different experiences? Researchers that have included fathers have found (unsurprisingly) that they are different to mothers. For example, fathers tend to report fewer problems in relation to their psychological well-being than do mothers in families of children with disabilities. Fathers report less stress, depression and anxiety.

Why might fathers of children with disabilities report fewer psychological difficulties than mothers even within the same family? One answer is that across the whole population men/fathers tend to report fewer psychological difficulties than do women/mothers. Although this reminds us that families of children with disabilities are in many ways just like other families, it actually doesn’t explain why this difference is there.

There may be some additional clues in research with families of children with disabilities about why fathers report fewer psychological difficulties than mothers. For example, many mothers give up paid work to care for their child with disability whereas many fathers stay in work. Perhaps fathers have the advantage of more social contact with work colleagues and the benefit of a role outside of the home that gives them an additional sense of worth? In addition, mothers typically (though not always) perform most of the care-giving tasks for their child with disability. Thus, the strain of this work and perhaps the difficulties of dealing with (for example) any significant child behaviour problems, probably falls more onto mothers than fathers.

In the research of the Cerebra Family Research Group at the University of Warwick, we have also looked at families from a systems perspective. This means that we are interested in how the different members of a family affect each other. From this perspective, it is not just the child with disability that might have an impact on other family members, but family members may affect the well-being of the child with disability and impact on each other too. For example, in some research studies of families of children with autism we have found that fathers’ psychological well-being was more closely associated with the mother’s depression than it was with their child with autism’s behaviour problems. In contrast, mothers’ well-being was associated with both the father’s depression and their child’s behaviour problems. Again, this shows that fathers’ experiences can be quite different to those of mothers in families of children with disabilities.

Differences between mothers and fathers are evident, but our knowledge on why exactly that is remains limited. It is clearly very important that fathers get more involved in research. First, the voice of fathers is valid but often missing. Fathers offer an insight into their family life that is equal, but different, to other members of their family. Second, as researchers we are just as interested in the well-being and experiences of fathers as we are in the well-being and experiences of mothers. We want to know how best to support the men too!

Recently, we have launched the Cerebra 1,000 Families Study. We want to hear about the experiences of families raising a child with learning (intellectual) disabilities including children who also have autism. For the reasons outlined in this article, we are very keen to hear from two adults from the same family, ideally a mother and a father. People having an additional parental caregiving role in families (apart from the mother that is) are not always fathers and so grandparents, step-parents and adult are also welcome to participate in our study. Our aim is to collect information from 1,000 families. So far we’ve had a great response so a big thank you to all who have taken part.

We need to hear from fathers too and from more families! If you have already taken part and you have a partner or any other family member who helps you take care of your child please do encourage them to take part in the study. You can find the survey online or alternatively request a paper copy. Follow us on Twitter and become our friend on Facebook.

Get involved in making this the largest UK study ever of families raising a child with a learning disability so that there is a better understanding of families like yours.”

Find out more about the project here