In a week when the issue of teenage pregnancy has been back in the media spotlight there has been no mention of the support needed for young parents. Mike White, who runs a service for young parents in Wiltshire, explains why supporting teenage fathers in particular can pay huge dividends in the long run.
Sowing the seeds
Early experience of the Family Nurse Partnership, a joint Department of Health/Department for Children Schools and Families project which offers a structured programme to at-risk, first-time young parents from early pregnancy until the child is two, has shown that it increases the involvement of fathers.
It is quite clear that the FNP offers an important way forward. But although the programme includes fathers-to-be it does not offer them a programme that is specifically theirs. There are some people who recognise the value of engaging with this group of young men. One study quoted a teenage pregnancy worker who said that: “If you can engage young fathers-to-be before their baby is born, you can sow the seeds, whereas coming in later is much harder.”
My own experience of running a course for young dads-to-be in Swindon and Wiltshire for the last five years provides evidence that such an intervention leads to a range of positive outcomes. Because we also run courses for young mums-to-be we have easy access to partners, so they do not constitute a hard-to-reach group. That doesn’t mean that they are all eager to be reached. Although over half of the young men felt relieved when they learnt that they could go on a young dads-to-be course, nearly half of them said that they weren’t sure it would be helpful. However, after they had been on the course over 80% of them said they were more confident about becoming a dad, they all felt that they had learnt a lot, and they all said they felt better about themselves. Over half reported that their partners felt better about them. Furthermore a third said that both sets of expectant grandparents felt better about them as well.
But the benefits don’t stop there. Apart from the obvious practical issues relating to housing, finance, employment, education and training that can be tackled as a result of the relationship that develops between tutor and young father, contact becomes the means of developing longer-term therapeutic relationships with both partners, which becomes the fundamental benefit of this intervention. One young dad has confided that he had been subjected to sexual abuse when he was much younger, and was anxious that this might affect his ability to relate appropriately to his young son. Another expressed considerable anger about his ability to be clear about the identity of his biological father, and has recognised the need to seek counselling because of the impact of his feelings on his familial relationships. Several talk about the difficulties they experience in sustaining their relationships. Partners have talked about the concerns they have about their partner’s anger and inappropriate behaviour. Such disclosures mean that individual and couple work becomes possible, and referrals can be made to other agencies when necessary.
Of the group of young men I am currently working with, over half left school either early or with no significant qualifications, and 60% are NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Bearing in mind that, at the time these young men were starting secondary school the average boy was well behind the average girl in speaking and listening, literacy and numeracy skills a simple course preparing them for fatherhood gives many of them the first experience of a positive educational experience. It’s therefore no surprise that they feel better about themselves as a result. As one of them said, the course “makes you think about how you could improve yourself and your relationship with (your) partner, parents etc”. The course becomes a way of re-engaging this group of young people in accredited learning programmes.
In addition to the disadvantages arising from low educational achievement many of these young men are further disadvantaged as a result of faulty relationships with their own parents, particularly, but not exclusively, their fathers. One teenage father said that “the relationship I’ve had with my father has affected the way I interact with other people (so) I find it difficult to bond with, and sometimes, appreciate my children”. Three-quarters of them say their fathers have left them and over half of them say they never speak to their fathers.
Their experiences of childhood mean many enter fatherhood with a fierce desire to do a better job than their fathers before them. But they are dogged by educational and emotional disadvantage, which makes their task of being a father and partner all the more difficult, and on-going support all the more important.
However there is not much of it about. Pockets of work are taking place with young dads-to-be. The FNP programme may help to engage more of them. The simple information-giving course of the kind I run, alongside courses for young mums-to-be and young mums, offers another way forward. I don’t believe it matters at this stage which approach workers use, so long as the young men are offered something.
Mike White is director of U-Too. His blog is here.