The Impact of Absent Fathers on the Mental Health of Black Boys

Studies show that sons in fatherless households have the highest odds of being incarcerated, have higher levels of behavioral problems and are more likely to be suspended from school.

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Thabiti Boone grew up in a neighborhood where fathers didn’t exist, he says. The few who were physically present weren’t there spiritually or emotionally.

“I never saw dads in the park playing with their sons,” Boone recalls.

In his own life, Boone, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., says that his father was present but not there. A star high school basketball player, Boone says his father came to only one of his games.

“I don’t remember my father hugging me. We never heard him say he was proud of us,” Boone says of himself and his brother. “The emotional pain of what I deserve and didn’t get, I have to carry it for the rest of my life.”

Author and spoken-word artist Daniel Beaty also carried the pain of his father’s absence, due to incarceration. He described the lingering emotions in his poem “Knock, Knock”:

… 25 years later I write these words for the little boy
in me who still awaits his papa’s knock …
Papa, come home, because there are things that I
don’t know and I thought maybe you could teach me:
how to shave, how to dribble a ball, how to talk to a lady, how to walk like a man …
25 years later a little boy cries and so I write these words
and try to heal and try to father myself and I dream up a father
who says the words that my father did not …

Even President Barack Obama has talked about the “hole” in his heart left by the absence of his father. In February 2014, Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper. The initiative works to expand opportunities for boys and young men of color in underserved communities with a focus on education, reading, job training and mentoring.

“I believe the continuing struggles of so many boys and young men—the fact that too many of them are falling by the wayside, dropping out, unemployed, involved in negative behavior, going to jail, being profiled—this is a moral issue for our country,” said Obama at the time of the announcement.

Indeed. Studies have shown that youths in father-absent households have the highest odds of being incarcerated and higher levels of behavioral problems in schools and are more likely to be suspended from school. Research by Princeton University sociology professor Sara McLanahan notes that a father’s absence increases anti-social behavior such as drug use and reduces a child’s chances of employment. And in his report “Growing Up Without Father: The Effects on African American Boys” (pdf), Cory Ellis found that father-absence was the strongest indicator of delinquency, even more so than low socioeconomic status or peer pressure. There is also evidence that fatherless children have lower self-esteem, a greater risk for mental illness and suicide, and increased risk of depression.

National organizations such as 100 Black Men of America, Concerned Black Men and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America work to address some of the issues that fatherless boys may encounter through mentoring and enrichment programs. There are also much-needed programs for black boys to promote achievement. There’s the national Campaign for Black Male Achievement, which grew out of work with the Open Society Foundation. In New York, there’s the New York City Young Men’s Initiative. And in California, Oakland’s African American Male Achievement Office has gotten rave reviews for its focus on restorative justice and emphasis on black history.

The Mental Stress of Being Fatherless

But who’s taking care of the hearts of boys hurt by the absence of their fathers?

Although there are numerous organizations addressing the social implications of growing up without a father, how can the community address the psychological impact of fatherlessness?

Leon Caldwell, senior research director at ThinkShift, a Washington, D.C.-based social-innovation collaborative of the DeBruce Foundation, acknowledges that there may be a lack of mental-health practitioners in this space, but points out that after-school programs—those found at the Boys & Girls Club of America or mentoring organizations like Mentoring USA—create the space and time to assess a young person’s mental health and well-being.

“During your interaction with a youth, you can ask, how are you feeling? How are your grades? How are you doing in school? They will tell you if they are frustrated or agitated,” says Caldwell, who has designed and evaluated programming for organizations that focus on African-American boys. “You have to cultivate trust.”

In Clemmons, N.C., right outside Winston-Salem, Cynthia Porter is looking for a mentor for her 14-year-old son, Jalen.

“He’s never had his dad in his life,” says Porter, 43. “His father does not call. He doesn’t see him.”