Family systems theory

The Healthy Male Plus Paternal ‘Talking to Dads’ resource is built around established theories and frameworks that can guide health professionals’ communication with fathers.

Fathers (and others who are parents but do not give birth themselves) can be marginalised when accessing healthcare services for fertility and reproduction. Having them feel welcome and involved can provide substantial benefits to them, their partners and their children.

Family Systems Theory considers a family as a group of individuals with unique interactions between members (e.g., interactions between father and mother differ from those between siblings, or between parent and child). The whole family system is influenced by external factors, as a consequence of impacts on individuals (e.g., mum getting a promotion at work, a child’s conflict with a peer) and the repercussions resulting from interactions between family members.

Family Systems Theory demonstrates how responses of fathers to interactions with healthcare systems and health professionals can affect other individuals within the family system, and the family as a whole.

Thus, Family Systems Theory provides a rationale for improving communication with fathers as a means of benefiting their partners and children as individuals, and the entire family. Family Systems Theory also provides guidance about how health professionals can communicate effectively with fathers so that they feel engaged during healthcare visits.

Recommendation for language and communication with fathers:

  • Choose words and messages that focus on building a strong, interdependent family unit (like ‘teamwork’ rather than ‘support’ or ‘help’)
  • Engage and communicate with all parents as a matter of common practice, normalising this as a specific goal of the organisation. Reinforce this regularly with all parents so it becomes the norm for them
  • Communicate that fathers and non-birthing parents perform more than just a support role for the mother or birthing parent — they are important to the development of their child and know important information about the child. Encourage parents to discuss ‘who will do what’ when it comes to caring for their new baby, and plan together how they will parent and ‘troubleshoot’ challenges that arise
  • Acknowledge that each person within a family system can feel vulnerable and that the whole family can benefit from support during a period of change. Share information relating to fertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and parenting with both parents to help them to build a deeper, shared understanding of these important life events
  • Acknowledge that a father’s health and well-being are important to the whole family. Encourage fathers to seek support if they need it, so they can be effective in their roles as critical members of the team.

How can you find out more? 

We have some excellent resources available should you want to learn more about this project: 

  • Find the Plus Paternal webpage here
  • Download the Case for Change report here
  • Check out the Talking to Dads Language Guide here
  • Access the eLearning course here
  • Download the resource kit here
  • Plus Paternal: Conversations webinars: Healthy Male hosted a series of free webinars to explore ways to systematically improve men’s engagement and support as they seek to, or become fathers. The webinars featured panellists from a range of disciplines, with opportunities for the audience to raise questions.


plus paternal: talking to dads


A/Prof Tim Moss
A/Prof Tim Moss

Associate Professor Tim Moss has PhD in physiology and more than 20 years’ experience as a biomedical research scientist. Tim stepped away from his successful academic career at the end of 2019, to apply his skills in turning complicated scientific and medical knowledge into information that all people can use to improve their health and wellbeing. Tim has written for and Scientific American’s Observations blog, which is far more interesting than his authorship of over 150 academic publications. He has studied science communication at the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science in New York, and at the Department of Biological Engineering Communication Lab at MIT in Boston.

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