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The Power of Play: Father Involvement in Social and Emotional Development in Children


Fathers have a specific and important role in their families. As stated in The Family: A Proclamation to the World: “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families” (¶ 7).

Because of their specific role, fathers often parent their children differently than mothers. Mothers may take on the role of nurturer and bond with their children through tender care in safe, organized environments. Fathers bond with their children through rough and fun physical play.5, 7

Play is one of the ways fathers can provide for and protect their children, as they form what is called an activation relationship with their children and help them to develop social and emotional skills.1, 7-8

The Activation Relationship

Activation relationships are most often formed through physical play. Other forms of play include games, make-believe, making art, and playing with toys or building blocks. During play, fathers encourage their children to push themselves out of their comfort zones, take risks, and explore their environments. Children are also encouraged to think for themselves and build confidence in their own abilities.

Fathers who activate their children help them to open up to the world around them, use their imagination, make friends, and have fun.1, 7-8

Benefits of the Activation Relationship

As fathers focus on being actively involved with their children, they encourage the development and use of social and emotional skills during their early and middle childhood years. Some of these skills include:

  • Being able to solve problems
  • Playing with others and making friends
  • Being self-aware
  • Taking responsibility
  • Empathizing with others
  • Managing emotions
  • Having healthy self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Being positive4, 11

These skills are learned and developed as children watch and interact with their father. They mimic his behaviors and social skills and discover over time what is appropriate and what is not. They see the way he interacts with them and with others, how he deals with his own emotions and experiences, and how he makes friends and they try to do it themselves.

Through his example of appropriate social and emotional behavior, a father can help his children:

  • Learn how to make and keep healthy relationships with others. This reduces the number of peer problems in school. By spending more time with their children and playing with them, fathers also reduce the amount of time children spend unsupervised with problematic peers.2, 4
  • Become ready to engage in civic activities. Through their father’s example, children learn empathy and other social skills as well as creativity and explorative skills. These skills combined with an ability to make friends help children to be better involved and engaged in their community. Children with involved fathers who teach these skills are also more likely to be involved, responsible members of their community.4
  • Practice better ways to deal with feelings and experiences. With the help of their father, children can learn to process their emotions in a healthy way. Through parental encouragement, children adopt anxiety-coping skills and are less likely to develop social anxiety. Social anxiety can trigger difficulties in childhood, including depression and low self-esteem.1, 6

Forming an activation relationship also helps protect children against the development of internalizing and externalizing disorders. Internalization and externalization are two different ways that children, as well as adults, understand the world around them.

Children who internalize deal with their surroundings and feelings by turning inward. Some examples of internalizing behavior include:

  • Withdrawing physically or emotionally
  • Worrying
  • Crying
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Children who externalize turn outward to process their experiences. Some examples of externalizing behavior include:

  • Breaking or destroying objects
  • Running away
  • Hitting others
  • Fidgeting or daydreaming
  • Yelling1,10

Those struggling with internalizing and externalizing behaviors may also struggle in school and in making healthy relationships with others. They may also take destructive risks and suffer from other emotional difficulties.1

By developing an activation relationship, fathers help protect against the development of internalizing and externalizing disorders. With lots of encouragement and by lovingly pushing children to grow and adapt outside of their comfort zone within a play setting, fathers can help their children learn manage their emotions.1-2, 8

The Importance of the Father-Child Relationship

Just as fathers cannot replace mothers, mothers cannot replace fathers. The way that fathers bond with their children, teach and guide them, is unique and important. Fathers specifically may be the only parent who can provide the many benefits from an activation relationship for their small children. For example, one study found when mothers pushed and challenged their small children in ways similar to fathers actually increased their child’s level of social anxiety.5

This may be because of the conflicting natures of the nurturing role and the activation relationship. Where one relationship focuses on safety and tender care within comfort zones, the other aims to push limits outside of comfort zones. Young children may become confused and feel less safe when parents try to take on both roles simultaneously and may experience an increase in anxiety.5

Ways to Encourage Social and Emotional Development in Children

Here are some ways you as a father, mother, or other parental figure, can help the children in your life develop social and emotional skills.

  • Play with your children. Make time for and encourage father-child play. Teach your children how to interact with others, to be brave and creative. Allow them the opportunity to have fun and explore the world around them. Help them make their own decisions, push themselves, and feel confident in their own abilities and talents.
  • Practice co-parenting. Set an example of how to make healthy relationships with others by having a healthy relationship with your spouse. Children will form relationships based on the framework they set.2
  • Talk to your children. Help them understand and process their emotions. By being emotionally available to their children, fathers and mothers may additionally encourage social interaction and empathy in their children.
  • Start early. Being involved with your children as early as infancy can help them to develop healthy behaviors. Playing with them and supporting them at such a tender age will help them make healthy attachments and learn positive behaviors.2-3,9


Fathers often take on the role of providing play and other activities in their families, different from mothers. In this role, fathers specifically can develop a unique activation relationship with their children. Through unstructured physical play, fathers encourage their children to push their limits, use their own independence to explore their environment, and develop self-confidence in their own talents and abilities.

This type of relationship, when developed solely between father and child, may encourage significant decreases in externalizing and internalizing behaviors in the child. It may also encourage significant increases in the child’s emotional well-being, social skills and behaviors, ability to make and maintain healthy relationships, and overall readiness to interact with his or her world.

Fathers are not simply second mothers. Through play and other activities, they may provide certain stimulation and care for their children that only they can provide and should be included in the lives of their children.

Written by Sarah Hill and edited by Professors Julie Haupt and Stephen F. Duncan, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. July 9, 2019.


  1. Gaumon, S., & Paquette, D. (2013). The father–child activation relationship and internalising disorders at preschool age. Journal Early Child Development and Care: Unique Contributions of Mothering and Fathering to Children's Development, 183(3–4), 447–463.
  2. Jia, R., Kotila, L. E., & Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J. (2012). Transactional relations between father involvement and preschoolers’ socioemotional adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(6), 848–857.
  3. Keizer, R., Lucassen, N., Jaddoe, V., & Tiemeier, H. (2014). A prospective study on father involvement and toddlers' behavioral and emotional problems: are sons and daughters differentially affected? Fathering, 12(1), 38-52.
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  5. Lamb, M., Pleck, J., Charnov, E., & Levine, J. (1987). A biopsychosocial perspective on paternal care and involvement. In J. B. Lancaster, J. Altman, A. Rossi, & L. R. Sherrod (Eds.), Parenting across the lifespan: Biopsychosocial Perspectives (pp. 11–142). New York, NY: Hawthorne.
  6. Majdandžić, M., Möller, E. L., de Vente, W., Bögels, S. M., & van den Boom, D. C. (2014). Fathers’ challenging parenting behavior prevents social anxiety development in their 4-year-old children: A longitudinal observational study. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42(2), 301-310.
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  8. Paquette, D., & Bigras, M. (2010). The risky situation: A procedure for assessing the father– child activation relationship. Early Child Development and Care, 180(1–2), 33–50.
  9. Ramchandani, P. G., Domoney, J., Sethna, V., Psychogiou, L., Vlachos, H., & Murray, L. (2012). Do early father-infant interactions predict the onset of externalising behaviours in young children? Findings from a longitudinal cohort study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(1), 56-64.
  10. Splett, J. W., Garzona, M., Gibson, N., Wojtalewicz, D., Raborn, A., & Reinke, W. M. (2018). Teacher recognition, concern, and referral of children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior problems. School Mental Health: A Multidisciplinary Research and Practice Journal.
  11. Young, M. D., Lubans, D. R., Barnes, A. T., Eather, N., Pollock, E. R., & Morgan, P. J. (2019). Impact of a father–daughter physical activity program on girls’ social–emotional well-being: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 87(3), 294–307.