I remember sifting through the stalls at the elementary school fair trying to find the right Father’s Day gift to bring home to my dad with my $2 allowance. I wanted to make sure he felt appreciated and this was the only way I knew how. It’s unclear when it happened, but somewhere in the past few decades, my gifts shifted from picture frames made of popsicle sticks to quality time.
As a child psychiatrist, I tell my patients and their families that when it comes to holidays, beyond the more traditional focus on cards or gifts is an opportunity to dig deeper into relationships and feelings. In fact, for most families who have the precious luxury of coming together for holidays, that time can be a much-needed excuse to break from the day-to-day patterns that families can fall into. Between after-school soccer practices, late nights in the office, old routines, and just plain awkwardness, it often takes an excuse for a family to try something new and different.
Here are three ways that families — of any age — can use this Father’s Day time together to focus on their feelings, an underrated gift that people often crave but don’t know how to give or receive.
Dads can actively check in about how their kids are feeling.
This typically doesn’t happen unless it’s done intentionally. While some younger kids like to talk about their feelings, most won’t do so if it’s unsolicited. In fact, most kids — and adults — don’t even know how they are feeling unless they are prompted to start describing it out loud. If younger kids are sitting down with the family for a meal or an activity, it’s a great time to see if they are generally in a funk, or feeling insecure or worried rather than carefree, light and supported both at home and in school.
For older kids and adults, this is a good time to get a finger on the pulse of how everyone is doing. No matter the age, kids still want to know that they have their dad’s support, love and empathy — period. Simply asking questions and listening to each other can strengthen bonds within family units. It’s never too late, even if it begins at age 60.
Dads can model talking about their own feelings.
Kids are sponges when it comes to their parents. They soak in nearly everything they see and hear their parents do; the difference is what they do with it later. They carry those memories into adulthood and it often influences the way they act for the rest of their lives. It’s hardly fair to expect a kid to express themselves fully when they have never seen what that kind of expression looks like.
A day where attention is focused on a family member is a ripe opportunity for that person to be a role model for the rest of the family — at the very least for that day. Fathers can share how they are feeling, from whether they’ve been in good spirits lately to how they’ve coped with loss, failures or depression in the past. Younger kids are especially likely to emulate the behaviors of their caregivers; modeling this now can reveal surprising results later on.
Kids — and spouses! — can check in with dads about how they are feeling in their dad role.
Checking in with parents isn’t always intuitive. But, it can go a long way. Father’s Day is one of the best times to actively think about the importance of that relationship between a parent and a child. Spouses (and dads themselves) can encourage younger kids to reflect on what they value most in their relationship with their dad, as well as what they would want to see improve.
Older kids and adults can see if their dads feel appreciated, supported, respected and loved, and whether any of those things have shifted over the years. It’s also a good time to see if there are ways in which to improve communication so that their relationships grow stronger.
Focusing on feelings, again, can feel awkward on any given day if it’s not already part of a family’s dynamic, but a day centered around being a father is as good an excuse as any to try it. It will only become easier — and hopefully, more fulfilling.
Neha Chaudhary, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is also co-founder of Brainstorm, Stanford’s lab for brain health innovation and entrepreneurship. Follow her on Twitter.