Disengagement can be defined as the action or process of withdrawing from involvement in an activity, situation or group. Disengagement can occur in a multitude of contexts and different relationship types, but we will keep the focus here on the relationship between you and your children. A father can become disengaged for a number of reasons, and sometimes with some justifiable reasoning. Unfortunately the impact that this can and most likely will have on your children is significant and can have a life-long impact.
Emotional disengagement can take place between a father and a child (or children) when he disconnects from the emotionality of the relationship. By doing so, he creates a void between himself and his child where emotions get lost and what comes out of this negative-space is disappointment, frustration and hurt. The emotional disengagement is probably the most common type of disengagement that I witness with the families I engage with. So often the roles within a family are so strongly solidified with the mother generally being the emotional support for a child, and a father being the more hard and cold parent, regularly strong, hard-working and supportive, but emotionally disconnected from his children. Sadly, by falling into this role, we can demonstrate a false reality that can lead children to believe that men are not emotional, they don’t express emotion and dismiss, simplify and downplay emotions.
It is a very common trend for fathers to be the very busy parent who works long hours. Who travels a significant amount during a year and is physically not very present in their child's life. Understandably, this is a necessary evil in order to provide your family with the lifestyle that they have, and the dedication to maintaining this lifestyle is commendable. However, by being relatively absent from your child’s life, you now run a significant risk of finding yourself faced with the void that was mentioned previously. A space of disconnect between you and your child, a space that can seem to fuel frustration and tension in the home. Just because a father is not physically present, it does not mean that the disengagement will occur. In fact there are many families where the father is physically present in the home on a daily basis, yet the physical disengagement still occurs as the effort to connect with his children is not present. Instead, watching TV, or doing things around the house alone seem more important than some quality time with his child. Similarly, there are many families where a father is not physically present (work commitments, divorce etc), yet thanks to his committed efforts to maintain a strong connection with his child, he is able to avoid becoming disengaged.
Social Disengagement can be another trap that seems to catch so many fathers. It is the disconnect from the extended social engagements that your child is involved in. This can include extramural commitments, playdates, parties and other social gatherings. Some families seem to have an unspoken (or spoken) rule that mom’s will attend the parties and take the kids to various other events. Sometimes this is due to work commitments, other times this is due to an avoidance of engaging with other parents and children, or preventing the dust from settling on your golf clubs. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that we completely sacrifice our own lives in order to attend all that our children do. In fact it is very important for your children to see that you do have your own hobbies and interests, however, when your hobbies and interests take priority over your role as a father, we then begin to enter a space of disengagement. Unfortunately, disengagement breeds more disengagement if it is not recognised and addressed.
General disengagement by a father is likely to begin with one of the above mentioned types of disengagement. Over time the more isolated disengagement can begin to creep into other areas of your life and relationships until the disconnect that exists is so significant that it seems almost impossible to be able to salvage the relationships. A potential consequence of this is that there may be a conscious or subconscious need to overcompensate in various aspects of our lives. This could include material items, an over-focus on sports or other hobbies / activities, or even an over-indulgence with food, drink and other negative social behaviours. As we begin to feel isolated, dismissed or disconnected from those that we should be closest to, we begin to lose some of our identity and so we attempt to reestablish our identity in other spaces and with other people.
How and Why of Disengagement
When we consider our own lives, we will come to realise and accept that we will all, at some point or another, disengage from one or many relationships for varying reasons. Human beings are extremely complicated and interconnected beings. None of us live in isolation, and so our actions and engagements will impact those around us, just as those around us will impact us. Similarly, the events that unfold around us (past, present and future) will all impact us to some degree. All of these small and large factors carry the potential to lead us to disengage with those around us. Shifting our focus specifically to the relationships that exist between yourself and your children, there are many potential factors that could lead to disengagement, but there seem to be some common themes which present themselves regularly.
Personal Factors - these could include our own insecurities and triggers which, when unresolved, we carry with us every day and will impact how we engage with those around us and how we manage ourselves and situations. Often this is the most significant, yet most denied factor.
Relational Factors - A breakdown in relationships can occur for various reasons, and the impact can be a disengagement and disconnect that hold the individuals in a void and prevents the restoration of a positive relationship. An important consideration here is the roles and responsibilities that we assume, accept and live daily. If the roles are not balanced to some degree, we can become disengaged by default. For example, if it is mom’s role to do homework and manage the school engagements, a father may automatically begin to feel disconnected from this aspect of his child’s life which can further develop into a greater disconnect over time if nothing is done to intervene.
Developmental Factors - As children grow they move through different developmental stages and with each new stage comes new challenges, attitudes, behaviours and so on. Most often the change from one stage to another happens progressively and so it may not be noticeable at first. If a parent is unaware of a change, they can interpret new behaviours and attitudes in a negative light and react to them as opposed to respond and adapt to them. In doing so, some disconnect may present itself and where this is not rectified, disengagement can begin.
External Factors - Other factors such as financial stress, work stress, travel, politics and so on can have a significant impact on any or all members of a family. These factors may trigger other anxieties or insecurities in us which can ultimately lead to us becoming less present and more disconnected.
My Role as a Dad
It is critical that as a father you take a proactive stance regarding the relationships that you have with your children. You are the responsible adult, and it is up to you to be able to recognise and intervene when things seem to change or get difficult. When you are unsure about what you should or could do, it is up to you to ask for assistance. I emphasise the importance of you taking ownership of your role and relationships because at the end of the day, no one is going to make the relationship happen. No one is going to make the relationship strong and meaningful other than yourselves. We cannot expect our children to come to us, to fix what we feel is broken and to take full responsibility when we are the ones who are supposed to be teaching and supporting them while demonstrating an unconditional positive regard. If you want to have the close relationship with your children, then make it happen, and take action.