How to set up a support group for fathers

There is no magic formula for a successful parent support group but
if you get it right the positive outcomes are endless, writes
Nathalie Towner. It’s important to be clear who the group is for.
Francis McFaul, project worker for voluntary organisation
Quarriers, has set up a support group for fathers of disabled
children in Dumfries and Galloway. Through working with parents of
disabled children, he saw how fathers can feel excluded from making
decisions about their child. Usually the main breadwinner, fathers
are often out at work when appointments with social services or the
NHS take place. “The group was set up to improve the relationship
between father and child,” he says. “But as a result of the
meetings we’ve seen lots of other lovely consequences such as
better understanding between the father and mother.”

First steps
Once McFaul had agreement from his manager and funding he recruited
a sessional worker to help set up and run the group. They wrote to
local fathers, stepfathers and male carers with disabled children
outlining plans for a group. McFaul booked a hotel and invited the
20 men who had expressed an interest to meet, talk and discuss how
a group could develop.

Promote it
It is worth advertising the group any way possible to
ensure you are reaching everyone you can. “I’ve been on the radio,
placed ads in the local paper, and put posters in shops, health
centres and libraries,” says McFaul. “We’ve even done roadshows in
hotels so dads can come in and talk to us.”

The meetings
It is important to make clear that service users will
have ownership over meetings. “It was out of respect to them that
we asked them what they wanted,” says McFaul. “They are not used to
the social care system and their views are not usually heard.” In
the early days it is worth sending letters and e-mails saying it is
good to see fathers and that their comments are appreciated.

Develop the group
Groups may evolve differently. Some parents might be
more interested in planning social events, others better at
exchanging information. McFaul also advocates an informal approach
so people do not feel like a case file. “The dads are now taking
control of the group and coming to me with suggestions for what we
can do when we next meet,” says McFaul. However he says it is still
important that he and his colleague are present to act as a point
of consolidation and give the meetings consistency.

What to do
As activities depend on what parents are keen on, this can vary
enormously. McFaul’s group ran pottery evenings, made DVDs of their
experiences, invited speakers, ran social events for families and
even met other fathers’ groups. McFaul says it is important to try
new ideas even if they do go wrong. “We tried an intense social
work night where we wanted to get them to talk,” he said. “This
didn’t work but we’ve learned from this and moved on and vary what
we do all the time.”

Keep momentum
Be persistent and do not panic when numbers are low. Eventually a
core group will develop and others will dip in and
out. The most important thing is to create a safe zone where
parents can grow in confidence. As one father said: “Sometimes dads
need permission to be angry or to not feel guilty. I know I’ve
become a lot more peaceful since I have been coming to this group”.

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