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Involving fathers ‘key’ to tackling children's health crisis, claim experts

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Fathers are being left out of involvement in their children’s healthcare, with potentially devastating consequences, researchers said today at an international nursing conference in London.

They argued that nursing staff could play a significant role in encouraging fathers to engage more with their children on a range of healthcare issues, especially sexual health.

“Nursing staff have the ability to spark this change by defining a new role for contemporary fathers”

Tom Laws

The academics highlighted growing concerns that child health was heading for a crisis, with mental health problems, sexual health problems and obesity among young people all on the increase.

Increasing the involvement of fathers in their children’s health could make a significant difference – and reflect society’s move towards more equal balance of parental responsibilities, they argued.

Dr Tom Laws, a lecturer in adult nursing at Keele University in Staffordshire, said opportunities for men to participate in their children’s health were severely limited by barriers in healthcare organisations.

Children’s healthcare was still geared towards mothers and female family members, despite societal changes, he told delegates at the Royal College of Nursing’s International Centenary Conference.

“Fathers are playing a more hands-on role in family life than ever before, yet children’s healthcare is still built to work specifically with mothers,” he said.

“At the moment, children’s health problems are escalating, and involving fathers could make a big difference,” said Dr Laws.

“Nursing staff can play a big role in bringing fathers into the conversation”

Clare Bennett

He argued that nursing staff had the “ability to spark this change” by defining a new role for contemporary fathers, encouraging their involvement, and equipping them with the skills they needed to support their children’s health.

Meanwhile, Dr Clare Bennett, a nurse academic from Worcester University, identified sexual health issues as a particular area that fathers could help to address.

Having studied fathers of pre-pubescent children, she found they were very much involved in their children’s daily lives but struggled to discuss relationships and reproduction with them.

Dr Bennett argued that by being open about such issues, fathers could help their children make more informed decisions about sex and relationships during adolescence, and to avoid exploitation.

University of Worcester

Involving fathers is ‘key’ to tackling child health crisis

Clare Bennett

“Many fathers worry that by discussing sexual health issues with their children they risk taking away their child’s innocence,” she said.

“Yet in reality, by being open and honest with their children, fathers can protect them now and support them as they grow older in making more informed and safer decisions,” said Dr Bennett, a senior lecturer in the university’s Institute of Health and Society.

“We’ve found that fathers need to be given permission to discuss these types of issues,” she said. “Nursing staff can play a big role in bringing fathers into the conversation and encouraging them to explore these matters with confidence.”

She added: “We need to go beyond accepted norms which give prominence to mothers and their role in children’s health – nurses need to question this practice at every opportunity, and develop new ways to involve fathers in their children’s care wherever appropriate.”

The RCN International Centenary Conference is taking place at London’s QEII Centre from 22-23 November.

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