Easing the Transition: The Needs of Teen Dads

Sal Hanaif is all too familiar with the frightened looks on many of his program participants’ faces, and the swagger that they use to compensate. As director of the teen fathers program at the Greater Bridgeport Area Prevention Program, he has seen countless young men come in to his weekly discussion groups trying to make sense of a life-altering new role. Not all of them respond heroically.

“One of the guys said that when he found out he was going to be a father, he was going to leave the state,” Hanaif says. “He was flipped out, then his boys brought him in.”

A supportive environment and a heavy dose of reality helped that young man cope and eventually thrive despite difficult circumstances. Hanaif, like other youth workers who serve teen dads, says that successful counseling for this population is a matter of helping them overcome their fears and lack of role models, and developing solid goals. We asked them to name teen fathers’ greatest needs and their approaches to meeting them:

A Place to Be, and Become, Themselves

Vincente Escovedo is a case manager for Southwest Key Programs’ Responsible Fatherhood initiative. A onetime teen father himself, Escovedo grew up in a violent neighborhood where “manliness” meant being physically dominant and sexually promiscuous, and he says his clients exhibit that same “false machismo.” He says that most confused, scared young fathers need a break from that pressure.

In one of his classes, the young men made tortillas from scratch. “We kneaded the dough and talked about play, how it’s okay to act like a kid every now and again, especially with your own kids. And we talk about traditions, how when we learn something and carry that on, that’s our legacy. It gets them thinking, ‘What am I going to leave for my kids?’ Tortillas are something you learned and you can pass it to your kids now.”

Encouragement to Stay in School

John Mock counsels teen fathers for the Janesville, WI public school system. He says that most new fathers-to-be react to the news by planning to drop out and find a job, an understandable impulse that nevertheless won’t help their child in the long run.

“Work is important, it’s good to have an income, but we want them to get in line with bigger picture stuff, like finishing up school,” says Mock. “They need to be more focused about what the future looks like,” and a high school diploma is an important step towards continued employment and advancement.

“Most 16-year-old men haven’t been taught to do a job interview, they don’t know how to tie a tie or even own a belt,” agrees Hanaif, from the Greater Bridgeport Area Prevention Program. “Dropping out of school with no resume, no ability to talk about himself, he doesn’t get the job. Now he’s missed 3 or 4 months of school. So he’s going to do neighborhood stuff, like selling drugs. Our most important thing is finishing high school, or going to a two-year college or trade school.”

Positive Examples of Fatherhood

Often the biggest challenge to helping teen dads is their inexperience around fatherhood itself. “Many teen fathers are fatherless themselves,” says Mock. “We have to show them how a father behaves and treats their child. They usually haven’t learned that at home.” He connects his young men with local fatherhood programs and mentoring organizations so they can find older men they respect and can emulate.

Escovedo, from Southwest Key Programs, says that counselors should be exemplary themselves. “You have to show them what a real man does,” says Escovedo. “First, a man respects himself. Sleeping around means there’s a void somewhere. Teenagers also think no one understands or cares about them. So they have to understand that they are important to somebody. I try to show them that I’m a man, and I respect them, I care about them. They see, this person shows up every week to class. He dresses nice, he smells nice. It helps them realize they can be that way too.”


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